Saturday, 23 July 2016

Book review: The Way Things Were


The Way Things Were
Aatish Taseer
Pan Macmillan India 2015









Aatish Taseer takes us on a epic journey through time.  He combines certain key historical events that have shaped our nation with the lives of his characters.  The other background is Sanskrit, the language that we hold dear as part of our heritage.  The title itself is a translation of itihasa: history, or literally, the way things were.

Taseer presents a tale of a modern day king, an elite, who even though is half-foreign, eulogises Sanskrit.  He dreams of a time when India returns to its once 'pure state', when all around him his co-elites have moved on; away from the old culture, towards Macaulayism and western capitalism.  He even goes on a futile trip to save the Babri demolition.  

However, he belongs to an elite class himself, something that Taseer points out was the status of Sanskrit itself; it was a language spoken by the elite (read Brahmins).  Through Toby, the king of Kalasuryaketu, and his son to whom he teaches the nuances of the language, one gets to learn about the original meanings of several Sanskrit words.  

The tumultuous relationship between Toby and his wife, Uma, and the lavish lifestyles and frivolous pastimes of the families (typified by them playing, quite literally, Trivial Pursuit during a moment of crisis), is juxtaposed against the events of national significance; such as the Emergency, Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi's assassination, the anti-Sikh riots, and the Babri demolition.  

Taseer simply states the facts of the events through the eyes of his characters who experience their consequences first hand, without taking sides.  The conclusion is that it is whimsical to believe that India would ever reach the 'pure state', considering the fact that the views and actions of the right-wing activists is entirely different and a lot less puritanical than what India actually was before the invasions, or even during the Vedic period.  

In other words, itihasa - the way things were - was different.  This is something that Toby, and through him we, learn in the end.  

Taseer plays with the concept of kaala: at once both Time and Death.  The story begins with Toby's death and proceeds forwards and backwards through time, until his ashes are immersed in the Taamasa - the 'dark' river that flows through Kalasuryaketu.  

The names of the principal characters are derivatives of those of the members of the First Family of the Hindu pantheon.  Toby's real name is one of the many names of the Lord of Kaala, Shiva Himself; his wife Uma is of course, Parvathi; and his son Skanda is named after Subramanya.  Skanda is even working on the translation of the The Birth (of Subramanya or Karthik). 

Overall, it is an engaging, if somewhat bizarre mix of language, culture, class, relationships and yes, itihasa.  Taseer's shimmering use of the English language makes it a worthwhile read, and he is in the same league as some of the other users of Asian origin.

And the added attraction of the copy that I read was that it came with the author's signature:

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Image source: http://covers.booktopia.com.au/big/9781447272717/the-way-things-were.jpg