Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer: book review

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer
Reviewed by Divya Dubey

[Published in the Asian Review of Books]

Aatish Taseer, the son of well-known Indian journalist, Tavleen Singh and Late Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan who was killed by his own bodyguards for standing up against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, made his debut as a writer with his memoirs, Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands in 2009 – a
work which prompted VS Naipaul to declare him as ‘a writer to watch’. Since then Taseer has produced three novels in quick succession that reflect various kinds of turmoil in his own life. The Temple Goers, his first, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award in 2010. The second, Noon, was published by Picador (UK) and Faber & Faber (USA).

 Taseer’s latest work, The Way Things Were, released recently, is a story about the parallel lives of Toby, a half-Indian, half-Scottish Sanskritist and his son Skanda, revealed through the voices of an omniscient narrator as well as Skanda’s own, which take the reader into frequent flashbacks as Skanda recounts to Gauri, his new girlfriend in India, his family’s history and the doomed romance of his parents, and how their lives fell apart amidst major events in the country – the Emergency (1975), Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the consequent Sikh killings (1984) and the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya (1992).

Toby’s death is announced at the beginning of the book. Toby, the Raja of Kalasuryaketu, had left India for good after his estrangement from his wife, Uma, Skanda's mother. Now Skanda is an adult Sanskritist himself, busy translating the text of The Birth of Kumara in Manhattan. It is his responsibility to bring his father’s body back to his birthplace and he is also entrusted with the task of immersing his father’s ashes in the holy river Tamasa – something he doesn’t accomplish until much later. It is during this time that he rediscovers his roots. By the end of the book Skanda realizes what his father’s death symbolizes:

‘His father, when he was alive, had, no matter how nominally, embodied the past. But, with that body gone, it was as if he, Skanda, needed the child to come up in him from the depths of a buried past to merge with the adult, like a reflection rising to meet its object […] “Men need history,’ Naipaul tells us, “it helps them to have an idea of who they are. But history, like sanctity, can reside in the heart; it is enough that there is something there.’’

History is significant throughout this book which the blurb describes as ‘a magisterial novel about the pressures of history upon the present moment.’

In the initial flashback pages, after Toby’s talk on adi-kavya at the Indian International Centre on June 26, 1975, the first day of the Emergency in India, a man asks him what the Ramayana means to him. Myth or history?

Toby replies with a smile, ‘Why not stick with the Indic definition? Of Itihasa! Which is a compound, as you know, iti-ha-asa, and when broken down, means, literally, The Way indeed that Things Were. That covers everything: talk, legend, tradition, history…’

Unlike most diaspora writers, Taseer’s novels are not focused on hyphenated identities or the angst of second or third-generation Indo-Brits or Indian-Americans still struggling to comprehend their relationship with the country of their ancestors, torn between disparate cultures.

Aatish Taseer
The most amazing thing about Taseer’s novel is his genuine love of Sanskrit – a language even most Indians living in India look upon as defunct today. Taseer has lived in India, Pakistan, the US and the UK. Yet his knowledge of ‘cognates’ (words with the same origin) is quite deep and has been used as a device that connects father (Toby) and son (Skanda), both of whom share a passion for them. Skanda, for example, is shown pondering over them:

‘A game of cognates – a game his father had taught him – begins on the plane with the flight map. Distance to destination. Destination: gantavya. The place to be gone to. Gerundive of gam, an old Indo-European thread which takes little leaps of meaning as it travels west: turning go to come. In Gothic, qvam; in English, come; in Latin venio for gvemio….’

Taseer uses many such as these exhaustively in the book – to the point that one of the critics has commented that his ‘characters pale before cognates’. The observation is justified considering the protagonist and his family – Toby, Uma, their children Skanda and Rudrani, and later the children’s step-parents Mani and Sylvia – seem somewhat insipid vis-a-vis the ideas they represent. The portrayal of other major characters such as IP (Uma’s brother and a major cause of the rift between husband and wife), Viski (Uma’s brother-in-law), Vijaipal (the author), and Kitten Singh (a former friend turned ‘enemy’) too could have been more forceful.

In a recent interview with Newslaundry Taseer mentioned he believes in two kinds of people: those who are of the intellect and those who are not. His preoccupation with his intellectual and philosophical quests and ruminations is reflected in almost all the characters in this novel, including some who, given their background, should have been two-dimensional. A few of them have been identified as caricatures of real-life ‘drawing-room’ people from Lutyens’ Delhi – the elite from Tavleen Singh’s circles.

It is interesting that this novel appeared soon after Smriti Irani, the minister of Human Resource Development in India, announced the decision to re-introduce Sanskrit as a subject at school-level (replacing German) – a move that invited much flak from the media and the country’s citizens. Taseer himself spoke of it as an act of piety rather than an intellectual exercise.
The role of language and its relationship with the past then has been clearly defined. As Toby says in the book:

‘…if we were to associate the genius of a place with one particular thing – the Russians with literature, say, or the Germans with music, the Dutch and Spanish with painting – we would have to say that the true genius of Ancient India was language […] It changed my entire relationship with what remained of old India in India…’

 A discerning reader with some interest in history and etymology will enjoy this book very much indeed.

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