Aatish Taseer’s new book The Way Things Were is not so much about a family but about a nation and a language. It’s a paean to Sanskrit, written from the perspective of a passionate and ultimately disillusioned Sanskritist. It’s a parable about modern India, owned in two different ways by two very different people. It is also at another level, simply, a lightly-veiled account of the rightwing-leftwing politics of today characterised on the one hand by an effete, failed modern-liberal outlook and on the other by a resurgent, strong and strident right. It’s an important book because it reclaims ancient and modern history for today’s Indian at a time when wil dly opposing versions lay claim to his attention.
Skanda is on his way from Manhattan to India with his father Toby’s ashes. Journeying back to the country of his childhood is a journey into his family’s story, but it is also really India’s story — its transformation from the frugal 1970s to the acquisitive 1980s to the brash 1990s. Of a people burdened by the yokes of the Emergency of 1975, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992 — memories that shadow their coming of age in the bright and shiny new India. Of Skanda’s mother Uma who represents materialism and practicality — in many ways the quintessential Indian characteristics; and his Sanskrit scholar father Toby who represents everything that is idealistic and ineffective, who ultimately fails because he believes in reflection more than action.
One of the most delightful features of the book is how it is steeped in Sanskrit — every second sentence wandering away into the cognates of everyday words like amavasya , which does not mean ‘moonless’ but a dwelling together (‘ ama ’ together + ‘ vas ’ to dwell); in other words the moon, lost in a night of togetherness with the sun, fails to appear in the sky. Or itihasa , history, a compound of iti - ha - asa ‘the way indeed that things were’. Or babhru with the same origins as brown. It goes on and on, a rich litany of the language, almost indeed running away with the book, but it is a charming conceit and Taseer draws you into his little word game by the sheer force of his erudition. You get goose bumps, for instance, when Skanda talks about the eighth century playwright Bhavabhuti’s Uttararamacharita , whose opening act shows Ram, Sita and Lakshman looking at their own story in the form of pictures on a gallery wall, and describes it as possibly the world’s earliest example of meta-fiction.
This is a book of ideas, and the three generations of Skanda’s family are merely vehicles to argue its many sides. It reminded me a bit of a Woody Allen movie, where people talk and intellectualise endlessly in a way that’s neither natural nor normal, but intensely enjoyable all the same because Taseer’s are the drawing room debates of today’s India. The book talks about our cultural schizophrenia, about how our deracinated pseudo-intellectuals have failed us, of a past we cannot ignore but which we would like to recall selectively so that it says the things we want it to say. It’s a book about reclaiming language and learning from the trash cans of history into which the Macaulays threw them, but at the same time about recognising that it requires courage, wisdom and unimaginable breadth of mind to identify and bring about a real renaissance. False renaissances like false gods are easy to worship and give facile and quick rewards. As the book says ‘… they say they want a Hindu renaissance, they have no idea what a Hindu renaissance would entail…’
Uma’s character is a deeply insightful look into an Indian archetype — her father, the charmingly etched Brigadier, describes her as “a pragmatist… what is right in her eyes — what is moral, even — is simply what is, not what it should be”. A person such as Uma does not have the patience to understand fine feelings; she is apt to confuse it for weakness. So she finally leaves Toby, her quiet, classicist, ineffective husband (the satvic ‘brahmin’) for the aggressive and crude but far more successful and dynamic Maniraja (the tamasic ‘bania’).
Taseer indulges in these rather obvious stereotypes, types who are almost single-dimensional personifications of his ideas, but you are inclined to forgive him because you realise that it is the idea that is engaging you, the politics of the book, much more than the characters or the story. And Taseer transmits these ideas wonderfully. Toby, shocked by the Babri Masjid demolition, asks his son in horror “Who are these people, Skanda? Not Hindus, surely. Can you imagine? No culture in the world less anxious about place and time than ours.”