JULY 18, 2015
THE INDIAN AUTHOR Aatish Taseer writes out of a compulsive need to understand his own fragmentary and complicated history. His mother is the renowned Indian journalist Tavleen Singh; his father, Salmaan Taseer, was an advisor to Benazir Bhutto and was serving as the governor of Punjab in Pakistan when he was assassinated in 2011. The two never married. They separated shortly after Taseer was born in 1980, and, though Taseer took his father’s last name, he grew up with his mother in Delhi.
Taseer has described his sense of alienation and shame about this cross-border parentage movingly in his first book, the memoir-travelogue Stranger to History (2009), which seeks to fix him in a historical milieu. Trying to reconcile with and understand his father, Taseer travels through Turkey, Syria, Saudia Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan, wondering how Islam fits with the modern era. His findings are Naipaulian and bleak. “Because the faith was such a negative force,” he says about the teachings at a major mosque in Syria,
because it didn’t matter what kind of Muslim you were, just that you were Muslim, because there was never any plan to offer real solutions, only to harness grievance, and because its sense of outrage had much more to do with the loss of political power than divine injunction, it could even find room, as certain decayed ideologies can, for men like my father, who was ready to participate in its grievances but who were also professed disbelievers.
He ends the book increasingly alienated from his father, who, though he drinks alcohol and eats pork, is a staunch defender of Islam as well as a gleeful denier of the true extent of the Holocaust.
Two years after the book came out, his father was exiting a restaurant in Islamabad when he was shot by his 26-year-old bodyguard. Salmaan had been in the news for his support of Asia Bibi —a Christian woman condemned to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws for drinking from her village well and allegedly insulting the Prophet. Clerics had turned against Salmaan for his defiance; crowds burned his effigy in the streets. After his death, these fundamentalists held up Taseer’s book as evidence that Salmaan was a bad Muslim, and thus a bad Pakistani. The killer was “showered with rose petals,” as Taseer wrote, while those who sided with the late governor were killed or driven from the country.
Taseer did not wilt away into guilty reticence but instead wrote a new and measured introduction to a reissue of his book, and pressed on with his writing career, producing the novels The Temple-Goers (2010) and Noon (2011), both of which grappled with his past, if a little less successfully: they lacked the energy of the first book. One felt Taseer was recycling.
The Way Things Were, his latest novel, recycles to a degree as well. There is the Sikh mother; an absent father; the rich family in India. But in this novel, Taseer has found a voice that liberates his talent and that raises his personal concerns to a universal level.
The Way Things Were is about one of Taseer’s obsessions: the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. In an article for Open Magazine, he describes coming to it as a private student at Oxford and being wowed by its connections to other Indo-European languages: “It was like a little molecule of the Indian genius, intact, and saved in amber, for a country from which the memory of genius had departed.” The main character in The Way Things Were, Toby Kalasuryaketu, a suave Sanskritist, expresses a similar sense of awe:
I was an outsider […] with a longing for India. With a need for it almost as intense as the need for self-realization. And Sanskrit — both as a language and as a little bit of old India preserved in amber — answered that need. It gave me a way in.
Taseer has written dynamically of artistic pursuits before — learning Urdu, for example — but never with this much passion. He builds an entire novel of ideas out of a man’s love of Sanskrit and his disillusionment with the country that nurtured the language.
Toby, like Taseer, is a scholar and idealist; unlike Taseer, he is a man of 1970s India — a man the age of Taseer’s father. The story begins with Skanda, the son of Toby and his ex-wife Uma, returning to India with the father’s body in an “air-conditioned coffin bearing a wide-range of stamps.” His duty is to cremate the body, which he does, watching as “flames, overcoming their initial reluctance, coaxed the flesh off his father’s body.” But he cannot get himself to perform the next step: immersing the ashes. Something — some sadness or passivity — is holding him back.
The novel then cuts to the story of Toby and Uma, describing in inky and sometimes riotous terms their meeting in 1975 on an airplane and then at the snooty India International Centre in Delhi where Toby is giving a talk on the “Creation of Poetry” in Sanskrit. These scenes are pretty but a bit broad; the characters don’t seem fully defined. Toby is — half-white? A playboy? A professor? And is Uma, an airhostess, really so jazzed about Sanskrit? When Toby fingers Uma on a plane, one squirms at the bad sex writing.
But this is the sort of novel that gathers intelligence and power through repetition, incantation, and time. As the pages build — and this is a 560-page novel that never feels long — these characters grow into two of the most memorable creations in Indian fiction.
Toby is the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu, which sounds grander than it actually is — Kalasuryaketu, as Uma puts it, is a “[b]loody joke of a tin-pot kingdom,” on the bank of the sluggish river Tamas, a place which, like so many kingdoms, has been reduced to just a fancy ancestral property and some land. Interestingly, Taseer doesn’t make much of the special class status and does not try to show down Toby for being rich and privileged; his sympathies with Toby are complete, and this allows us to be comfortable with him, to root for him.
Toby, after growing up in India and teaching at Oxford, has come back home to translate Sanskrit classics. For him, Sanskrit is the key to understanding India, because “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 allows him to look through the socialist decrepitude of the present to a grand past, and, using that past, to predict a great future: how can such a country not have a renaissance? And he believes himself to be, in his own quiet way, at the forefront. “They might not read it for fifty years,” he thinks of his translations, “but they will buy it, for their children if nothing else, the way they buy them the Encyclopaedia Brittanica and the World Book today.” His predictions will come true in ways he cannot imagine.
Uma, the daughter of rich Sikhs, has a different view of India — it’s just a place where she lives and where she would like to have a good time, or, failing that, escape. Toby, at first, seems like a means to that escape, but it quickly becomes clear that he, with his grand ideas and lofty schemes to build a Sanskrit library, is out of touch with the present. This is never clearer as when policemen burst into the old palace at Kalasuryaketu during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and harass him: Toby just stands back while Uma, understanding her husband’s ineffectuality, goes to the bathroom and retches.
These scenes have an aching power that Taseer amplifies with his exquisite, booming prose. On a casual stop on the way to the palace in Kalasuryaketu, he arrests life in a single sentence:
In a thatched hut, where a sleepy boy in a frayed vest cleared away steel plates, still smeared with the hard remains of rice and dal, blue flames crept cautiously out of a mud stove and licked at the base of a heavily dented aluminium kettle.
Getting under the ruckus in the palace, Taseer writes: “[Uma] had never seen [Toby] out of his element, never seen him as anything but the most stylish man she had ever met; and now, before her eyes, he became a kind of clown.” This is, for all its romanticism, an extremely clear-eyed book; it is as if Taseer has taken Naipaul and titrated him with Proust (Naipaul is often an outsized influence on Taseer; I was glad to see this toned down, even though a Naipaul stand-in struts around the novel, furnishing some excellent scenes).
The novel then becomes the story of a couple struggling to stay together as historical and social forces press in on them and eventually rip them apart. Toby and Uma and their extended families grapple with the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the anti-Sikh riots, and finally the breaking of the Babri mosque in 1992. What makes the pairing of history and family life so moving, as opposed to schematic, is that these are people who care deeply about the idea of India, who have taken it to heart in a way few others can. Partly, this is a symptom of wealth. They have the time to sit around in their drawing rooms and fulminate. But it is also the symptom of a generation that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s — true “Midnight’s Children” — and experienced each shock as an existential threat to the Indian project.
Toby is perturbed by the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, which seeks to “weaponize” Sanskrit in order to deny or overrule India’s Muslim heritage. “Their real enemy is their past,” he tells his son. “They act as if they want to preserve it; but they want to destroy it, to remake it completely.” Uma meanwhile sees wealth gaudily permeate the social scene so that she has to, as a single mother, debate sending her son to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle themed party in London. Taseer flawlessly handles the changes in the social scene over 20 years, so that I, who grew up in Delhi, had an utter sense of being there. When Taseer mentions how “[i]n those days, most houses had a single air-conditioned bedroom” which “during parties, became a smoking room,” I was there. When he talks about drawing rooms with their “Jaisalmer stone around the fireplaces, art deco pelmets,” and “faintly yellow” switches I could picture them exactly. Taseer has conducted a deep archeology of a particular social set in India and imbued it with great significance, and — surprisingly, for a class that could be played for St-Aubyn-like laughs — pathos.
Taseer is particularly good at showing how this semi-royal class, so well established, reacted to the entry of businessmen and the nouveau riche in its midst. “I remember thinking that I had never met a man like that in my house before,” Skanda says about one businessman in an unguarded moment. In another unnerving scene, Uma’s relatives, rich hotel owners, make fun of a businessman’s English. The icing on the cake of the novel comes when Uma, having left Toby, finally shacks up with a boorish tycoon. Taseer has great fun plotting the dynamics of such a couple — her wanting him for his money and his earthiness, he for her classiness — with each party degrading the other. Toby meanwhile ends up with a dull and sweet Swiss German girl who respects his Sanskrit but doesn’t excite him. Is he, Toby wonders, “[s]omeone drawn perhaps to those people who held him in contempt, who wounded him, who showed a philistine’s disregard for the things he loved most”? It is one of the pleasures of this novel that, while it makes clear that Toby and Uma couldn’t have worked out, it also demonstrates how sad it is for them to come apart: the mystery of any meaningful but doomed relationship.
Taseer, in the past, has written powerfully about India and Pakistan, of partition and of history, but he has never written so well about individuals and with such range. Within these pages and characters, he does every voice: bitchy, violent, caterwauling, chatty, tragic, oracular. A businessman is seen “with his slow gliding step, his silvery hair, his air of distraction, which even as a child, had seemed to Skanda like the caricature of a businessman’s busyness.” The Indian society woman who throws the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle party for her son at The Claridges is, surprisingly, “a woman to whom life had given so much that it produced in her a gratitude akin to nobility.” One character is dismissed by the narrator with the simple, scathing line: “Anyone might have told her that she would not survive the Internet.” The women in particular are outstandingly delineated. At a party, Skanda pauses to consider them:
This generation, he thinks, this last little trace of colonial education in India, they are not so bad after all […] These women, who, drunk and angry and bitter about life, could nonetheless, from the depths of some quieter India, where afternoons were longer, and reading deeper, throw a little Henry James your way on a cold December night, as easily as someone passing over a bowl of peanuts.
These characters were in my mind for months after I first read the book on a Delhi rooftop.
Another thing was on my mind too. In book after book, Taseer makes the same statement, in different ways. In Noon, the narrator laments: “The gaps in my life were too many, the threads too few.” In The Way Things Were, a character reads aloud from Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa: “And then I thought that his life had been too varied, full of unconnected or disparate parts, and he hadn’t worked out a way to present himself.” Having read this book, I can only say that, using Sanskrit as his bulwark, Taseer has found a way to make a whole of himself and his past. He has written the best Indian novel of the last decade.