Saturday, November 29, 2014

The History Man

This review of Aatish Taseer's The Way Things Were appeared in today's Mint Lounge.

Given the recent kerfuffle over the HRD ministry’s decision to replace German with Sanskrit in the Kendriya Vidyalayas, the release of Aatish Taseer’s new novel is fortuitously well-timed. The Way Things Were is an exploration of the ways in which India’s past influences its present and the attitudes of those who make history serve their own ends, with Sanskrit being a key symbol of the process.

In an essay written a little over two years ago, Taseer dwelt on what his own study of Sanskrit revealed to him: his wish for a “historical sense” was, to his surprise, answered with linguistic roots. He goes on to unpack this: “In India, where history had heaped confusion upon confusion, where everything was shoddy and haphazard and unplanned, the structure of Sanskrit, with its exquisite planning, was proof that it had not always been that way”.

This is a quest that is, at its heart, personal: “My problem was that I had next to nothing in my bones. Nothing but a handful of English novels, some Indian writing in English, and a few verses of Urdu poetry. That was all. And it was too little; it left the bones weak; I had no way to thread the world together”. Clearly, then, The Way Things Were is another step in Taseer’s continuing writerly attempt to find a weltanschauung he can live with. The problem, however, is that in fictional terms, the novel emerges as far too didactic, with its themes and concerns always on the surface rather than dextrously woven into the narrative. Its moral sense is appealing; its more than occasional ingenuousness isn’t.

The characters who form the twin poles of the novel are Toby, otherwise known as His Highness the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu, and his son Skanda. Toby, a reserved and sometimes pusillanimous Sanskrit scholar, ironically finds himself out of place in a country whose past he has striven so hard to understand, and he finally leaves India for good in 1992. The novel opens in the present, with Skanda – also a student of Sanskrit, now based in Manhattan and working on a translation of Kumarasambhava – being informed that his father is on his deathbed. He leaves for Geneva and then arrives in India, carrying his father’s ashes with him.

The book progresses through an admixture of past and present, detailing Toby and Skanda’s lives, respectively. An abundance of other characters fills the novel’s pages, from Uma, Toby’s first wife and Skanda’s mother, to their extended family of cousins, uncles and aunts, to Maniraja, Uma’s second husband. This profusion of individuals apart, Taseer’s clearly conceived of his novel in epic terms, for it deals with or touches upon several incidents from India’s recent and remote history, from the Hampi invasions to the treatment of the Mughal princes after 1857 to the Emergency to Bhopal to Indira Gandhi’s assassination to Babri Masjid.

This, in a sense, is a key weakness because, apart from episodes such as the treatment of Skanda’s uncle during the 1984 riots, many of the other incidents are treated by way of drawing-room discussions, with Skanda, Toby and their kin making oracular pronouncements on the subject. (As a contrast, take a very different novel, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and see how it gets down to the roots of how people suffered during the Emergency years.) Added to this are frequent authorial interjections on the same lines, as in: “The violence of a civilised society, though men may dress it up as anger or grief, has the quality of a celebration”, or: “They spoke rapturously of India, but dreamed of the West. Of European cities, shops and duty-free goods…in their hearts, they were hungry materialists, who wanted nothing so much from life as a Japanese washing machine or a German toaster.”

Those familiar with Taseer’s earlier work will discover common patterns, from an estranged father to a mother’s next relationship with a pushy business magnate to a protagonist making his way through their disparate worlds. Such true-to-life resemblances continue with other characters based on real people, such as Gayatri Mann, who “lived abroad with her husband, the publisher Zubin Mann…She made documentary films on Bangladesh, on secret India, on the timelessness of Hinduism…In the West, she traded on India; and in India, starved for news of the West, she carried back stories of the latest fashions…”. There’s also the writer Vijaipal Sooprasaat, with his strong views on Hampi, among other things, and whose ideas are sought to be appropriated by those seeking an Indian resurgence.

Though it certainly takes skill to delineate changes in such a vast cast of characters over the years, the key dialectic of The Way Things Were -- understanding the past as a shaping force on the present versus shaping the past in the light of the present – is spelt out time and again, almost essayistically, which is the hallmark of underdeveloped polemical fiction. Take Gayatri Mann’s outburst, for example: “This new order [will use] the epics, the poets, Manu, Ayodhya, whatever – and they will hollow them out of meaning. They will make slogans of them. That is what they want them for, as symbols of their rise, nothing more.” One can appreciate such sentiments without necessarily agreeing with the way that Taseer has worked – or not worked – them into his novel.

“The big relationships are like the big novels, messy, chaotic, imperfect,” says Skanda, towards the end of the book. “They operate by emotional logic.” The Way Things Were is both an emotional and messy novel, but not a very compelling one.