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Adi, Anta and a City

A novel steeped in India’s past and illuminating about its present

Updated: November 29, 2014 4:47:05 am
Taseer’s strength is that it is also steeped in ancient India and Sanskrit, with Kalidasa a great favourite, though Bhavabhuti also features. Taseer’s strength is that it is also steeped in ancient India and Sanskrit, with Kalidasa a great favourite, though Bhavabhuti also features.

Book: The Way Things Were

Author: Aatish Taseer

Publisher: Pan Macmillan

Pages: 565 pages

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By Bibek Debroy

This isn’t Aatish Taseer’s first foray into fiction, and his two earlier novels have received critical acclaim.“Skanda is deep into his translation of The Birth of Kumara when his mother calls to say his father is on his deathbed.” That’s the opening sentence of the novel, The Way Things Were, the title a translation of itihasa. Skanda’s father, Toby, is the Raja of Kalasuryaketu, but lives abroad, divorced from his mother, Uma. Both parents have remarried. Skanda is entrusted with the task of bringing his father’s dead body back to Kalasuryaketu, cremating him, and immersing the ashes in the river Tamasa. This journey leads to Skanda, a student of Sanskrit, visiting India and revisiting his family’s history, straddling the turning points of the Emergency (1975), the Sikh killings (1984), Gulmarg (1984-89, this is a cusp for the family, not the country) and the mosque (1992). This is a take on modern India’s history, engrossing and disturbing. The end (“anta”) leads to the ashes being immersed in the Tamasa.

“‘According to the kamasastra,’ he (Skanda) says, turning away again to face the unqualified darkness, liquid and still, ‘Death is the tenth and last stage of love.’” That’s the last sentence.

The novel isn’t just a take on some aspects of modern India’s history, it is also a story of Skanda rediscovering his roots and his family, with quite a bit (not all) of this search based in Delhi. It is a story of coming together and drifting apart, love and hate, the fancies and foibles that face a privileged segment of society, laced with satire and humour and a breathtaking command over language. But had the book been just that, it would just have been another good novel. Taseer’s strength is that it is also steeped in ancient India and Sanskrit, with Kalidasa a great favourite, though Bhavabhuti also features. Within Kalidasa, the favourite is clearly Kumarasambhavam and this explains the names given to some of the protagonists. (After all, Skanda is translating this work.) Through the words of Toby and Skanda, one also has a view about some extreme takes on India’s history. Since this novel is steeped in Sanskrit, this is both a plus and a minus. It’s an unusual USP, but probably also means that one has to have some familiarity with Sanskrit and its tradition to appreciate the book completely.

There is one aspect where the author may have overdone it a bit. Toby was proficient in Sanskrit and indeed taught Skanda the language, though Skanda now studies it under a professor at Columbia. As a Sanskrit scholar and linguist, Toby loved cognates, the way words change across languages.

Skanda loves this game of cognates. In all probability, so does Taseer, and so does anyone who knows multiple languages. That cognate game is sometimes forced. It is fine as long as it is restricted to Skanda’s contemplations. But when it is imposed on his girlfriend, it doesn’t ring true.

But this is a very minor issue. “The lounge of the private terminal in Delhi. A place of beige leather sofas and cappuccinos, set deep in that world where a seeping modernity has yet to close over the land, and where in the empty spaces that lie between the elevated roads and the coloured glass buildings there are still, like insects taking shelter under the veined roof of a leaf, the encampments of families who built them.” Even if you ignore the Sanskrit, this is a sample of why you should read this book. Unless you fail to identify with India, past and present, you will enjoy it.

Bibek Debroy is an economist and translator

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