Sunday, September 06, 2015

Book: The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

This novel published last year is certainly one of the best books by an Indian novelist that I have read. When some recent events in the country are part of the narrative, one is naturally curious to see the author's perspective. Important events like the Emergency in 1975, the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, and the demolition of the mosque in 1992,- all these form a backdrop to the story in this novel.

The Way Things Were takes an honest and intelligent look at the political and social aspects of the country through the window of the Toby family. The novel begins with Skanda tasked with returning the body of his father Toby to India. In the process he comes in touch with his family. The history of his family is interwoven with that of the post-independence India. Another important element in the novel is Toby being deeply interested in Sanskrit and his son also carrying the same passion for the language.

I have a habit of noting down the page numbers whenever I come across passages or a quote that I find interesting. In this book there was so much that was interesting that I had to pause every few pages to take in the beauty of a turn of phrase, an observation, an interesting cognate of a Sanskrit word, and so on.

Look at the way the author presents the persona of Toby in just a couple of well chosen details-

"...there was an innocence, a naivety in his face that gave away as someone who could not have grown up in India. Not, at least, in north India, where even the stray dogs had a knowing and watchful look. It was strange: there was never a man who knew more about India and, yet, knew India less, than Toby. He was like one of those men who fall in love with the idea of a woman, while all the time insulating themselves from her reality." - pg 54

As Skanda discovers the story of his parents and other family members, we get to get to see the story of a family that goes through turmoil and change over each succeeding generation. Along with the family story, the author portrays the changes the country has gone through. In the process, a lot of insights are provided on the changing dynamics in terms of gender, class, caste and so on. Taseer is never sparing in his portrayal of the contradictions seen in the conduct of some sections of society. Here is a sample, where the author flashes his critical torchlight on the elite society of Delhi-

"...to both be in India and to stand at a distance from it. The members of this class, who were already set apart from the rest of the country by the loss of language, by privilege, of course, and by what had come to seem almost like racial differences, had no desire to shed their distinctiveness. They clung to it, in fact, wanting nothing so much as to remain inviolable and distinct: foreigners in their own country.

And yet - strange as it must seem- they had a corresponding desire to make a great show of their Indianness, to talk of classical dance recitals, of concerts, of textiles, and spirituality. To throw in the odd precious word or phrase of Hindustani, to upstage their social rivals with a little bit of exotica so obscure that no one could be expected to know it. India was their supreme affectation! They wore it to dinner, as it were; and, of course, the ways in which they were truly Indian - their blindness to dirt and poverty, their easy acceptance of cruelty - they concealed very well." - pg 56;

Important historical events in modern India like the Emergency also get a perceptive view in the backdrop of the travails of people caught in the storm. A couple of characters in the novel, called Vijaipaul and Gayatri Mann, prove handy for the author to come up with some strong views on the politics of the time.

On Emergency-

"...all it will do, this Emergency, is allow Indians to see themselves a little more clearly."
"...by shattering the illusion of liberal democracy. It's very bad, you know, when you're such a third-rate place, to parade around high notions of liberalism and democracy, which is, as you know, developed at the height of another civilization's achievement; and which, in a place like India, only mask the reality. Hide the decay. Much better the end come fast."- pg 79;

And, about the demolition of the Babri mosque-

"This new order - they 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, and nothing more. They don't want an intellectual rebirth; that requires hard work and labour; that, if taken all the way, can be a frightening thing. It can force you to confront things about your past that are uncomfortable." - pg 424;

References to Sanskrit language appear throughout the novel. Through the characters of Toby and Skanda, who never fail to find cognates (words of the same origin) to Sanskrit words they come across. For word lovers (I am one too!), the book is a treasure house. Every other page has some interesting reference to some word or the other.

Some examples of the glowing praise the Sanskrit language receives in the book are-

"...in a country where so little was planned, everything haphazard and shoddy, here, at least, was an example of the most exquisite planning."

"If we were to associate the genius of a place with one particular thing- the Russians with literature, say, or the Germans with music, the Dutch and Spanish with painting - we would have to say that the true genius of Ancient India was language. Not so much the use of it as the study of it: their grammars were peerless, easily the most profound meditation on language in pre-modern times." - pg 83;

"My great love was always this language, which I found as a young man. It seemed to me at the time to contain a whole universe of thought and feeling and sensibility. I believed it to be the most beautiful thing in the world.
This I believed must be what the poets of old had meant when they spoke of language as a deathless thing and gave to its most basic unit - the syllable - the work aksara: that which does not decay." - pg 540;

Lastly, more than anything else this novel is about history.  The title itself is a translation of the Sanskrit word iti-ha-asa. The reality is that there does not seem to be much awareness or interest in the study of history in our country. Often, what little knowledge there is of history is also quite skewed.

The following lines from the novel bemoan the same in the form of Gayatri Mann remembering Toby thus-
"..His whole approach to things, to history, to memory, to place, to civilization: it was of another time. He used to think people couldn't do without an idea of their past, without an idea of who and what they were.
That perhaps people can get by with a lot less than we thought. That perhaps this thin overlay of global culture, a few malls, a few movies, a mobile phone or two, is more than enough for most people. Enough to get them through.. - pg 510

Taseer quotes Coatzee to make the point that a historical understanding must, in the end, be an understanding of the past as a shaping force upon the present. - pg 339

Again, the need for history is reiterated by the following quote from V S Naipaul- "Men need history. It helps them to have an idea of who they are. But history, like sanctity, can reside in the heart; it is enough that there is something there" - pg 550

For someone interested in contemporary writings on the recent past in India, a novel like The Way Things Were is definitely a good choice.  The world of Sanskrit language, brought alive through the character of Toby and then his son Skanda, becomes a metaphor for the richness of the ancient culture and serves as a reminder that the things we truly ought to feel proud are often lost in the noise generated by the slogans of the new order.

1 comment:

Arunkumar Patil said...

Srinath I liked your review and points. Feel like reading the book myself to experience it personally.👌👍
I liked the way you record page numbers and substantial preview. Toby seems to be quite an interesting character- probably one has to read the book to get a proper view.