The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

the way things wereThe past is a foreign country…

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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.

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Noon by Aatish Taseer

Noon

Compelling storytelling

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This book is more a collection of short stories than a novel, showing as it does distinct episodes in the life of Rehan Tabassum set several years apart. Written sometimes in the first-person and sometimes in the third, we see Rehan first as a young man on his way to meet his father who abandoned his mother when Rehan was too young to remember him. The following four chapters focus on incidents in Rehan’s life from when he was a child until the present when he is a young man.

Rehan’s life, as a young man with an Indian mother, an absent father in Pakistan and a western education, seems to mirror the author’s own life and the book comes over as autobiographical in style. The various stories provide glimpses into the divisions in society in both India and Pakistan, the contrasts between the wealth and power of the new industrialists and the simultaneous fading of the old privileged classes, the casual corruption and cruelty that seem to be part of everyday life and the rise of the more militant form of Islamism. Without in any way dwelling on terrorism, the author makes reference to it and highlights the growing hatred of western values and the colonial legacy, embodied often by the use of the English language amongst the elite.

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

The tone of the book was quite pessimistic about the societies of both India and Pakistan. The role of women came across as very minor and subordinate – both of Rehan’s father figures had left wives for younger women and after Rehan’s childhood years the women were barely mentioned. The scenes of mild torture casually employed by the police, the continuing class and caste divides, the contrasts of extreme poverty and extreme wealth, the street riots – I was left wanting to see some of the positives that surely must exist to counterbalance these negative images.

Overall, however, I found the author to be a very effective and compelling storyteller. While I didn’t feel the book held quite together as a novel, I found each chapter to be a fully formed story in its own right. There were many cultural and religious references in the book that I didn’t get and the author didn’t explain (why should he?) but I didn’t find this marred my understanding or enjoyment of the book. I will certainly look out for more from this author in the future.

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link