The Twice-Born — Life and Death on the Ganges review: Against the flow

The Twice­Born — Life and Death on the Ganges Aatish Taseer HarperCollins ₹599  

“For a long time,” Aatish Taseer writes, “I had a recurring dream of the ancient Indian city of Benares, superimposed on to the geography of New York”.

This duality is an excellent place to begin. Here is Taseer, son of a prominent Indian journalist and a Pakistani politician, educated abroad, and who at the beginning of his book, The Twice-Born, has returned home; the conflicting pull of two opposing forces is the very essence of his biography.

In India, Taseer thinks he should “do something by way of travelling and learning”. He decides to learn Sanskrit, and in the way things happen in what is now scornfully described as “Lutyens Delhi”, his mother sends him to a friend, Martand Singh — scion of an erstwhile royal family, and an authority on Indian textiles — who suggests he go to Benares to learn the ancient Indian language. So far, excellent.

While Taseer in Delhi and New York — where he now lives with his husband — is a man who is sure of himself and his place in the world; in Benares, he does not find a footing. There he seems to merely stumble from one temple to another, talk to one Brahmin after another, unable to describe the unapologetic audacity of life in the ancient city or chart the progress of his linguistic pursuit.

The duality is lost, and what remains is the casual intention of doing something by way of travelling and learning.

Inevitably, the book then becomes a bit of everything that yields nothing. It strings together stories about a series of people Taseer meets — Brahmins essentially, who are struggling to come to terms with their fading glory and quoting from Whatsapp messages.

But their insights are so shallow that at a certain point, I had to put the book down and wonder what it really was about — there is nothing of Sanskrit in it, and very little of Benares. Fortuitously, that question was answered a few pages later when he is introduced by yet another random acquaintance as “writing a book on the conflict of tradition and modernity”. If this is the premise, the only tradition Taseer assumes is Brahminism, and the only modernity he encounters is jobless economic growth.

The Twice Born neither has the depth of scholarship of Diana Eck’s Banaras: The City of Light nor does it capture the effervescence of the chaotic city like Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.

Taseer’s prose is promising, which is why it’s a pity that he’s good at only writing about himself.

The Twice-Born — Life and Death on the Ganges; Aatish Taseer, HarperCollins, ₹599.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 3:14:55 PM |

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