Preti Taneja, who adapted William Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedy King Lear refuses to see it as the story of a doomed king. She feels he deserved what he got. She makes the lines more distinctive and clear in her debut novel We That Are Young. She refuses to see the elder daughters as Goneril and Regan as manipulative and places the play’s intrinsic violence, politics and patriarchy in the context of Indian business family empires.
Taneja’s book has been praised unanimously and she received much appreciation from the readers who had come to hear her speak at the recently concluded Jaipur Literature Festival. On the sidelines of the festival, the author, human activist and filmmaker spoke to indianexpress.com about King Lear, the reason why it has been so widely adapted and questioned, whose tragedy was it anyway?
In your book We That Are Young, you have re-adapted Shakespeare’s King Lear. In the past, there have been several adaptations of his plays. Do you think his plays are very porous that enables such multiple adaptations?
Yes, I think the material is very porous. When it comes to writing about the situations, politics and the tragedy we live in you will notice that Shakespeare had already done that. He did it for the wealthy point of view. In King Lear, the family is a royal family but he puts his king in this extreme situation of poverty and storm and that allows the king to realise that he had taken no care of the people who matter the most, those who have nothing. If you put our own wealthy people to the same environment, it will help you to see what they learn from it and the sense of responsibility they will derive from it. And I think it is very powerful. It is this that makes the plays written long ago so relevant.
Why did you choose King Lear, among all his other plays? Did being a woman influence that choice?
I love Lear. I think it is the most powerful exploration of patriarchy. Politically speaking the play also talks about the divide and rule policy, that still keeps women fighting over themselves or countries which are locked within the ideas of nationalism. King Lear is a microcosmic representation of a patriarchal society, where a man tests how much his daughters love him. And if they fail to do so, then they are shamed. I was also drawn to the politics of the kingdom. You can use the setting to explore, say, the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, or the wealth poor divide. You can also explore greed and aspirations.
And I really wish I could say yes to your second question. But I had studied it for the 12th Board exam and it was the play I learnt first.
Has your reading of the play changed over the years? How do you view the daughters, since a general and accepted reading of the play often considers his elder daughters, Goneril and Regan, manipulative. Do you feel the same?
I had the most amazing English teacher and she was very good with thwarting the 400 years of criticism that said the daughters were bad and the play is a heroic tragedy. I also think, at first, even though there is a lot of change happening we still need to work on our own family lives. And this is precisely what Lear shows. If your father asks you to do something for him, of course you will do it. Even if he tells you to give him a kiss every weekend. How would you not do that. So when we think about the daughters, why do we think the older two are the bad ones. They are just doing what they have been told. And when you start reading it like that, you notice what Shakespeare was trying to make us understand. Maybe when the third daughter refuses to prove her affection, she is not doing it because he improves. She perhaps is doing that because she finds it outrageous to be made to perform love as a woman. We all show love in different ways and it is not up to the person receiving it to decide the way. You can say that the elder daughters are victims of patriarchy.
How have you changed this dynamic in your novel?
In my book, the elder daughters are not exactly victims of patriarchy. They are trying to break away but each in their own way. The elder daughter, in my novel, really wants to take on the company but she wants to do it in a way that does not upset her dad. She wants to do it from the inside. But she is stuck because the world around her treats her like she is stupid. The more you get shut down like that, the more you become like someone you don’t not want to be.
In your novel there are commentaries on feminism, patriarchy. Have you been accused of being propagandist?
I think if I had to write non-fiction, I would have. But I think fiction allows us to provide points of empathy for the readers. I am a very political person. I believe in justice and I think it is my responsibility to do the things that will further that in my own way. So, when I am writing there are moments when I think this might put readers off. But then I feel it is more about the readers. I have had some male readers say “this is too political.” I think it is more about them than my book. Who is going to sit and dictate what you will put in your work? It is a novel for god’s sake and there can be dancing bears in it if I want to. Or, like Shakespeare, make a king a beggar.
Also, I think Lear deserved what he suffered from. This might be brutal but it was he himself who had set those into motion. Men generally feel that what happens to them is awful and they do not deserve it. Imagine if the play was called Queen Lear then the whole tragedy would be a fairytale. It would be relegated to a story about her mother and her children.
Where do you see yourself among the other Indian writers writing in English?
Well, I am not that, am I? I feel this novel is a new kind of fiction and it comes out being a second-generation immigrant in the UK. The question of why it is happening now is extraordinary to me because clearly young Asian British women have been writing literary novels since they were able to write. I am not the only person who can write this. The fact that I have been published is a separate issue.
Was the dominant patriarchal set-up in India the reason why you set the novel here?
The reason I set it here was because my parents are from here. And I think when you first start writing you begin with the most early part of your imagination. My mother and I spoke Hindi till she passed away.