DECEMBER 27, 2018
PRETI TANEJA’S DEBUT NOVEL, We That Are Young, takes its title from the closing lines of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “[W]e that are young, shall never see so much, nor live so long.” In the First Folio edition (1623) of Lear these words are spoken by the Duke of Albany, and in another version, by Edgar. Either way, they have a point — the end of Lear is a bloodbath. The king and his three daughters, among others, are dead. The surviving characters either slope off to die or abdicate, unmitigated in their mourning. There is little consolation in Edgar’s/Albany’s lesson that one should “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” On one level, what we feel is the burden of grief, but it also alludes to the crux of the play, that is, what one “ought to say.” Lear’s youngest daughter Cordelia has her fate fixed the moment she refuses to marry and to join her lying, greedy sisters in a declaration of filial devotion. In saying what she feels, Cordelia forgoes her share of her father’s kingdom. Her famous rejection of her father’s entreaties — the “nothing” she utters that leads to nothing — sets up an archetypal, timeless (though loosely based in Pre-Roman British history) battle between what is unsaid and what is sayable between generations. It is therefore no surprise that Taneja loosely bases her exploration of truth and subjectivity on the Lear plot, using a similar cast of central characters, transported here to modern-day India.
In the place of King Lear we have Devraj Bapuji, a man of enormous wealth and power, descended from deposed royalty, whose business extends to every imaginable enterprise from hotels to fine shawls to concrete. His daughters, Gargi, Radha, and Sita, each temperamentally resemble their Shakespearean counterparts Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia in gradations of shrewish to saintly. Edgar, rightful heir of the Earl of Gloucester, and Edmund, Gloucester’s bastard son, enact both loyalty and treachery in Taneja’s book under the names Jeet and Jivan. And yet a foreknowledge of Lear and its cast will only take readers so far, and indeed it is no requisite to understanding Taneja’s revisionist project. Nor does one need to understand, firsthand, the underlying cultural, social, and economic shifts from Colonial India to Partition to the 21st century in order to marvel at how singularly and expertly Taneja brings an old story back to life.
Devraj heads a sprawling kingdom of products, factories, and services through his eponymous Company, reminiscent of the great industrialists of India, like the 19th-century patriarch of the Tata group who founded Mumbai’s famous Taj hotel, whose conglomerates rose during colonial times and became monopolies after Independence in 1947. Devraj’s authority over his family and business relies on a network of acquiescence, which can hardly be called loyalty or even love, with the exception of his youngest daughter, Sita, and a few trusted advisors. Sita tells him the truth, without fail, and it is to her that he clings most desperately, in spite of her being a feminist ecowarrior whose ethics run entirely counter to his own. By the time the novel properly begins, however, Sita has vanished, and therefore no longer holding chaos at bay. Gradually we see, through the eyes of the next generation and through his own unreliable perspective, that Devraj can be villainous and unfeeling, capricious, and worst perhaps of all, in need of constant adoration. For example, since his daughters don’t seem quite up to it, being merely women, Devraj regularly throws lavish parties for his hundred most promising future businessmen on his Delhi estate, The Farm. Meanwhile his eldest daughter, Gargi, takes over for her father as director of the Company and her younger, more fashionable sister, Radha, is in charge of public relations. Jivan, newly returned from the United States, takes the reins as his brother, Jeet, also absconds under a shroud of false accusations to be reborn as Rudra, the sage among the poor in an Amritsar slum. From there, human nature unravels toward its most shocking and unnatural consequences.
What is so painfully accurate throughout Taneja’s book is the abyss between India’s excessively, unimaginably wealthy and the dehumanization of the country’s most impoverished. This systematic violence will come as no surprise to anyone who has visited India, or indeed watched the British-made self-regarding, simplistic film Slumdog Millionaire, which is alluded to several times in the novel. Rich characters feed on grotesque images — real and imagined — of the poor from behind their tinted car windows; their voyeurism unsteadily hinges on both fascination and disgust, founded on their shared mortality. Taneja’s critique of capitalism, and by extension its relationship to rising ethno-religious-nationalism, turns the Company itself into a microcosm of Indian society; the managers form a nexus of corruption, privilege, and most of all total disinterest in the human suffering of the workers beneath them. The lies that the wealthy tell themselves in this novel ring chillingly true, as do the lengths to which those characters will go to separate themselves from mortal shame. Taneja has skilfully and knowledgably drawn her network of literary references (not just to Lear but also to Hindu scripture, Dante, the Sufi poet Kabir, and, beautifully, to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway) over the political tremors of modern India: the border disputes over Kashmir; the dissolution of royal princely states; the failure of the Green Revolution and farmer suicides from seed slavery; the rise of an Indian middle class whose aspirations depend on technological progress; religious fanaticism threatening political secularism; gender violence and intergenerational trauma post-Partition. Jivan’s mysterious refrain, which begins the book, “it’s not about land, it’s about money,” illustrates how far the specter of global capitalism shifts the next generation’s ambitions, and also makes clear their ambivalence to nationhood, its very soil an emblem of patria and resistance to foreign rule, and the livelihood of many of its population.
Structurally, what is perhaps most frustrating to the modern reader of King Lear is most satisfying in Taneja’s reimagining. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, only Lear himself seems to have any interiority, with the exception maybe of Edgar, whose thoughts are deeply encoded by his guise of madness as Tom o’ Bedlam. In the original, Lear’s elder daughters are monstrous without any explanation. In the play’s first act, the incensed king famously invokes a personified Nature to curse Goneril with both barrenness and the hope that she might one day have “a thankless child” who is, like her, “sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” And all because Goneril has sent away his retinue of followers. Watching Lear turn on his daughters, one by one, as well as his confidants, absorbs us in his disproportionate rage until his inevitable fall and the death of the blameless Cordelia. Taneja’s novel, however, gives readers a craved-for reality underneath these accessories to the king’s tragedy. The stories of Gargi and Radha, each of whom have their own expansive chapters, are a blend of narrative subjectivity that convincingly and movingly breathe life into these monstrous females. We hear about their secret desires, their disappointing marriages, their appetites for food and sex and power, their anxieties over their bodies, their traumas and their deep love of family. These women finally become human as they struggle against gendered expectations, and we find ourselves, albeit unwisely, rooting for them. The mystery of Queen Lear’s absence in Shakespeare is resolved, too, by Taneja’s story. Indeed, the lost matriarch may herself be the key to this post-Freudian version of Renaissance tragedy. And where we had truth bluntly spoken by the Fool, we are given instead Devraj’s elderly mother, Nanu the Maharani of Napurthala, floating in a cloud of fine silks and cruelty over the storm-blasted heath. She claps and sings, peeling oranges, quoting Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s version of Kabir: “Me shogun, / Me bigwig. / Me the chief’s son. / I make the rules here. It’s a load of crap … they’re all / Headed for Deathville.”
In the novel, only Devraj speaks in the first person and his voice, interspersed throughout in short cryptic sections, dramatizes his descent into madness through cruelty, inconsistency, and contradiction. We observe his senility denature his mental and physical being as he was into what he will become. He is fated to chaos: “Now I am getting confused. Confusion: the bastard half brother of chaos. Chaos: the torture instrument of forgetting.” And yet, the chaos of the storm on the heath (here, the slum) tortures Devraj when recalling his own youth and his daughters’ childhoods. But it is also clear elsewhere from his erroneous and opportunistic self-historicizing how his tenuous grip on reality matches the slogans of rampant, exploitative greed. Yet it is, ultimately, Jeet in the guise of Rudra who magnificently articulates how the corrupted ideals of new nationhood, of youth and the promise of freedom, the so-called collective post-imperial “we” will consume and destroy itself in the end.
We that believe in India Shining — he whispers it into his shawl. We that believe we are better than all others. We that are youngest, the fastest, the democracy, the economy, the future technology of the world, the global Super Power coming soon to a cinema near you, we, hum panch, that are the five cousins of the five great rivers, everybody our brother-sister-lover, we that are divine: the echo of the ancient heroes of the old times, we that fight, we that love, we that are hungry, so, so hungry, we that are young! We that are jigging on the brink of ruin; we that are washed in the filth of corruption, chal, so what? Aise hi hota hai: we that are a force all that is natural — slow — death — to Muslims, gays, chi-chi women in their skin-tights, hai! We that sit picnicking on the edge of our crumbling civilisation, we that party with shots and more shots, more shots as the world burns beneath us, as the dogs bark, as the cockroaches crow, as the old eat their young and the young whip their elders all wearing the birth marks of respect, we that present only the shadows of our selves behind our painted smiles […] All of it is ours, we that are India and no longer slaves: we that are young!
Taneja’s novel is brave and compulsively readable. Her scholarly background in literature and her work as a human rights reporter and filmmaker combine a deep ethics with a keen understanding of human nature, both its dignity and depravity. The absolute mastery of her narrative style and the precision of her language is unforgettable; Shakespeare’s dominance over an imperialist educational system is rightly answered back by its inheritors. Indeed, it would otherwise be impossible to be beguiled by each of the novel’s voices, each telling their own version of the truth, often only admitting it quietly to themselves. We That Are Young’s restaging of the core conundrums of Shakespeare’s tragedy in the light of global capitalism, in an era of competing superpowers, where truth and loyalty, too, comes at a price, will haunt readers for many generations to come.