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Book Review: Aatish Tasee’r ‘The Way Things Were’

By Faiza Farid

The Way Things Were
Aatish Taseer
Picador, 2014

Political histories and fiction are always a great combination – a literary treat for the readers. Aatish Taseer’s latest novel, The Way Things Were, is an amalgamation of Indian political history populated with characters that provide the novel the poignancy that stays with the reader. Culture with its tangible and intangible phases is deep and shades an individual. Crucially, when culture is distorted or is lost in the past, it comes to haunt the present and, thus, the distortion remains sufficiently involved in the daily rituals and chores. The imperialistic idea (based on the colonial experience of India) of false and artificial supremacy – of language, of culture, of class – is the essence on which Taseer’s novel is constructed.

‘The Way Things Were’,  the English phrase for the Sanskrit word ,‘Ithasa’,  runs deeply through the book with a literal extraction of elements from the past. This is not to exploit the present or future but to transform the current situation in the domain of culture. The novel carries a subtle tone, a poetic finesse that is immensely engaging.

The Way Things Were is a story that involves three phases of sub-continental India, indulging in the lost love for a language and delineating its cultural and ancestral significance. The phases that the novel takes on include the Indian Emergency (1975), anti-Sikh Riots (1984), and the demolition of the Babri Masjid (1992). The story beautifully connects the characters of Lutyens’ elite-Delhi and the Indian politics with the thread of Sanskrit running through the narrative.  Toby, a Sanskritist, is the Raja of Kalasuryaketu, who believes in the cultural revival of classical India but is dismayed when situations turn the other way around. Uma, Toby’s first wife belonging to Delhi’s elite, is a woman eager to learn but leaves Toby when his naivety becomes a monotonous strangle for her. Maniraja, quite the example of ‘rising India’, is a businessman ready to restore India to its glory through sheer nationalism, which could and does suffocate the existence of other groups in a society functioning on the traces of homogeneity. Skanda, the son of Toby and Uma, a Sanskritist like his father, is a character dealing with the past and the present. The story begins with Skanda returning to India to cremate his father’s ashes, which is when the narrative starts unfolding with past and present running side by side.

Taseer narrates the story of an India whose elite is a Western-inspired palette, a country which is  forever in the shadow of becoming a global power, and an India, along with the world, which,  because of political upheaval, is left to turn not to anything else but religion, conservatism, and hard-line policies. As Taseer writes:

Two dates less than a decade apart, he thinks  – 1975 and 1984 – and  what a gulf lies between them! Mullahs in Tehran, Soviet tanks in Kabul. Bhutto’s head in a hangman’s noose. The return of religion, of conservatism. Of Reagan and Thatcher. How keenly my father must have felt it when an English friend of his in 1981, soon after John Lennon was killed, said – and truly, it could not have been said earlier – the Sixties are over.

In the novel, the colonial experience undergirds the facts that contribute to the disturbing face of our society, which tries to emulate the West. And so when it comes to the sub-continent, the legacies of the British Raj left a society in which the gaps between languages have further widened and paved the way for a void in culture. Sanskrit is used both as a language and as a reminder to India of its past – that aims not to inspire the jingoistic sections of society but to become a mentor for evolution.

The novel itself, having a poetic flow, is an exploration of personal, and cultural longings of the past that continues to mar and morph the realities furnished along the lines that are neither easy to define nor alluring enough to adhere to. There are a few books that encompass the nuances so strongly that leave the reader in awe. The Way Things Were takes its reader from and to personal choices, unravels the backgrounds that represent the vulnerability of being. The novel makes frequent mention of cognates that in their own presence tell a short story of Sanskrit, of language, of love, and nature of connectedness. To get past the past and to engage in a good read, the book’s narrative evidently constructs ideas which look at the past with different perspectives, striving to ameliorate the present.

Aatish Taseer’s The Way Things Were is a literary delight that reminds of Fitzgerald and Proust and Rushdie with the occasional entry of V.S Naipaul. A story that stays with the reader.

Faiza Farid is an International Relations graduate from Kinnaird, Lahore, Pakistan. And an ardent reader.

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Read the latest issues of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Disability: Art and Culture’, edited by Shilpaa Anand, MANUU, Hyderabad & Nandini Ghosh, IDS Kolkata.

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