The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

the way things wereThe past is a foreign country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Skanda’s father dies, it falls to Skanda to accompany his body back to India for the funeral rites. Though at first reluctant to go, once there, Skanda decides to stay on for a while, living in his parents long-empty flat in Delhi. The death of his father and the experience of meeting up with many of the people he knew in childhood leads him to remember and re-assess the recent history of his family, from the period of the Emergency in the mid-70s until the present day. Like his father, Skanda is a Sanskrit scholar, with a penchant for finding linguistic cognates – seeking out the shared roots of words across languages ancient and modern.

And yet – strange as it must seem – they had a corresponding desire to make a great show of their Indianness, to talk of classical dance recitals, of concerts, of textiles, and spirituality. To throw in the odd precious word or phrase of Hindustani, to upstage their social rivals with a little bit of exotica so obscure that no one could be expected to know it. India was their supreme affectation! They wore it to dinner, as it were; and, of course, the ways in which they were truly Indian – their blindness to dirt and poverty, their easy acceptance of cruelty – they concealed very well.

And this book is about roots, or about what happens to a person, and by extension a society, when it becomes culturally detached from its roots. Skanda’s family comes from the rich English-speaking society of Lutyen’s Delhi, those who became such an integral part of colonial India that decades after Independence they still educate their children in English and look to Dickens and Shakespeare as their cultural classics. But through Skanda and his father Toby, Taseer suggests that this disconnect with Indian culture and heritage pre-dates Empire, that already India had forgotten or distorted its history and that this has fed into the divides within modern society. The fascination that Toby and Skanda have with Sanskrit and the ancient writings of India are openly symbolic of what seems like a cry for India to look past the turmoil of the last couple of centuries and to reclaim her pride in her own heritage as one of the great and influential cultures of the early world. The point is made that Skanda pursues his research into Sanskrit, not in India, where it is looked on as a kind of curiosity, but in America. (As someone who has banged on a good deal about the loss of national culture and heritage in my own country, I found this whole aspect of the book eerily familiar, especially the tendency, which I share, of blaming external sources, namely the British Empire, for the loss, when in fact it tends to be as much the aspirations of the educated of the society itself that allow this to happen.)

Rashtrapati Bhavan formerly known as Viceroy's House, New Delhi
Rashtrapati Bhavan formerly known as Viceroy’s House, New Delhi

But the book isn’t just about India’s past. It also looks at the politics of the present from the time of Mrs Gandhi to today. When reading Mistry’s A Fine Balance, I complained that the book concentrated so much on the poverty and misery of the underclasses that it failed to offer any answers or hope for the future. Taseer’s novel is in no way overly optimistic, but because it concentrates on a class that wields power and influence, the message is much more that India must and can choose its own future, not by rejection of its past, recent and ancient, but by understanding it and building on it. Taseer shows the rise of the new industrial class and, while they’re not necessarily shown in the most attractive light, they are a vivid contrast to the rather effete upperclass shown as clinging to the habits and values of the colonial period.

Here the murk has sunk deepest. Tonight, the British city, with its low domes and bungalows, is like a submerged necropolis. The rickshaws glide along its streets, with that stealthy sense of purpose with which single-beam submersibles in documentary films explore the ocean floor; the yellow streetlights, buried in the canopies of trees, have the nested glow, at once inviting and dangerous, of marine wonders behind screens of sharp coral; and, everywhere, the dense cold air, sulphurous and full of particles, closes over old wounds. Even where the scar tissue runs deepest, the line between the British city and the Muslim town to its north, where the escapees of one upheaval came to populate the abandoned places of another, the fog, easy and billowing, brings a feeling of continuity, at once even-handed and insensitive, like the blanketing hush of a first snow, like curfew in Srinagar.

That might all make the book sound unbearably dull, but in amongst all the politics and philosophising are a group of exceptionally well drawn and believable characters, whose story is interesting not just for what it tells us about India, but in itself. Skanda is to a large degree merely there to tell the story of his parents, Toby and Uma. Uma is without exception the most intriguing female character I have come across in Indian fiction and, for me, she is the heart of the book; and is in many ways the personification of this post-colonial class that Taseer is portraying. When I read Taseer’s earlier book, Noon, one of my reservations about it was that the women in the book were almost entirely background figures, so I was particularly pleased to see such a strong female figure front and centre in this one. Very much a flawed human, Uma is nevertheless the product of her society, and she has an independence of character that I found very refreshing. To some degree, she is still defined by the marriages that she makes, but she makes those choices for herself. The difficulties for women in what is still a male-dominated and very unequal society are not minimised, but through Uma we see the glimmerings of change.

Aatish Taseer (Source: bbc.co.uk)
Aatish Taseer
(Source: bbc.co.uk)

It’s always a pleasure when one marks an author as ‘one to watch’, as I did with Taseer after reading Noon, and then finds that promise fulfilled. This huge and ambitious book is full of profound insight, brilliant characterisation and beautiful language. It’s not unflawed – sometimes Taseer’s voice comes through too strongly, making his point rather than leaving the reader to find it, and the device of Skanda telling the story of his family’s past to his new girlfriend is clunky in places. But the quality of the prose and the depth of insight outweigh any weaknesses in the structure and make this an enlightening and deeply thought-provoking read. And though Taseer avoids giving any easy answers, I came away from the book with a sense of optimism; a feeling that perhaps the intellectual direction of India might be moving somewhat away from contemplation of its failures towards consideration of how to achieve a better, and inherently Indian, future. An exceptional book from an author who is emerging as a major voice in literature.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
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44 thoughts on “The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

  1. Oh, FictionFan, this really does sound like an excellent book! There is a lot of truth to the disconnect that can happen when people are torn from their cultural roots, and it sounds as though this story explores that really effectively. Not sure how quickly I’ll get to this, but it goes on the list!

    • Hurrah! I hope you enjoy it whenever you get to it! I particulalry liked that he didn’t stick with the easy answer that the disconnect was all down to Empire, but looked much deeper into the causes – a book that left me mulling over it, and that I will most certainly read again…

    • Thanks, Raven! I love Indian fiction too – even when I struggle with a book, like A Fine Balance, I admire the writing, and the subject matter – end of Empire and all that stuff – fascinates me. Hope you enjoy it!

    • I’d love to hear what you make of it – I felt it was aimed more at an Indian audience than an external one, perhaps, but it’s quite hard to judge that from outside. The society he portrayed felt totally authentic to me, but I’d love to know whether it feels that way to you…

  2. What a wonder! Huge book? How big? That’s always worrisome. It’s usual that the ambitious books are the big ones. Ambitious authors may or may not be scary.

    He should get rid of the snake around his neck, I think.

    • 560 huge pages! But when a book is good I’m happy for it to be long. I was actually sad when it finished. Yes, indeed – and when he started banging on about Sanskrit I was more than scared – trembling, in fact! But he won me over…

      I agree that’s an odd fashion statement, but he is rather lovely, don’t you think? Intelligent, a great writer and yummy… he may have to be added to my little list… (below the Professor, though, obviously).

      • *laughs* Sanskrit would be neatio, I’m thinking. Now, how long did it take you to finish it…. *figures three weeks* Oh! Got Dune today, and started reading. You’re not Lady Jessica! You would have told that thing with the torture box what’s what! I think I might have killed her, too.

        No, I don’t think I do think he’s lovely. If you add him, I’ll be forced to get a squirrel and a gold chain. What three aspects get Rafa onto the list?

        • 15 days apparently (according to Goodreads). Which is a long time for a fiction novel for me. Yay! What do you think so far? Lady Jessica gets better though, and so does Paul. But the Rev Mothers are creepy…

          OK, you win!!! I won’t add him – so no squirrel – promise!!! Though at least the squirrel would hide the medallion… Bet you’re expecting me to mention biceps, but you’ll be surprised (and perhaps a little nauseated) to know that it’s his adorable little smile, the sweet way he say ‘Thag you very buch’ in his post-match interviews, and the fact that he never, ever, ever, admits defeat until the last ball is played…

          • 15 days?! I’m amazed! Wowawee. It’s good…lot of names to keep track of. The Mother things are creepy. Lady Jessica seems too sweet. Who’s Paul’s dad?

            *big smile* I win! Actually, they’re great reasons to like him. He’s a good athlete. Now Darby…

            • Duke Leto Atreides. Yes, it’s quite complicated trying to work out how they all tie in. I was surprised at how much I remembered when I started reading – I suspect I must have read it a few times back in the day. But it gets clearer and more fun when they get to Arrakis…

              So do I! No Professorial squirrel! *sighs with relief* Ah, now with Darby, it’s his wet shirt! His kisscurl! His deep smouldering eyes! His exceptionally beautiful trousers… *drifts off into a happy daydream*

            • I told you – Lady J is cool! And in the film she was palyed by one of the most gorgeous women in the history of the universe.

              No, you can’t grow a rat either! I bet he is – and a great swordsman too. (And a fabulous dancer!)

            • Oh, let me go and see…didn’t know there was a film. *watches the trailer* Isn’t it funny how they did movie trailers then? You know, I couldn’t spot Lady J. Is the movie good?

              Bet Darby had a squirrel at one point!

            • She’s in the trailer but unfortunately she’s bald by that stage which diminishes her beauty a shade. The 1984 movie that is. If memory serves me right it got kinda slated by the critics, but I think it was fairly good fun. Weird cast – Sting was in it as, I think, Feyd-Rautha. But lovely Kyle MacLachlan was Paul Muad’dib.

              Never!!! It would have clashed horribly with his kiss-curl!

            • D’you know, I don’t know why. I can’t remember if she goes bald in the books or if that was just something they did in the film… You know, dearest Prof, sometimes you make me feel so young…and then other times you say things like “Sting…I know the name!” and suddenly poor FF feels about 193… *hobbles off to the old folks’ home*

              You still can’t grow one… *threatening look*

            • *laughs* Just googled him, and now I know why the name is familiar. I just saw him on TV playing with Bruce Springsteen. And I know who he is. *smiles proudly*

              *clips fingers* Rats.

  3. I just have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this review. Yours are always well-written but this one is especially excellent. I liked your parallels with Scotland’s heritage as well. And it is so important to realize that we have to go forward not by ignoring or rewriting history (even the bad bits), but by accepting it for what it is and going forward from here. Thank you for sharing!

    • Thanks, Sarah – much appreciated! 😀 Yes, so much Indian literature I’ve read takes the period of colonialism as a kind of historical cut-off point – it was intriguing to see Taseer go so much further back, and to suggest that the process of forgetting their history pre-dated Empire…

  4. I remember your review of “Noon”, and I decided to look out for it, but it slipped off the edge, somehow. Now I”ll have to look out for both of them.

  5. I love the quotes you’ve pulled, but I’m drowning in that submersible. How can I ever read as many books as you and LF? Someone, please, implant a “book chip” into my brain that just downloads all of the books I’d like to read, along with the experience of reading them.

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