There is a distinctive strain in Indian fiction that takes as its subject the family group and weaves from it overarching novels that embrace great swathes of India’s history and politics. Neel Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Vikram Seth are among the most notable writers to have turned a state of the family novel into a state of the nation one. Aatish Taseer is another.
Taseer’s approach in The Way Things Were is to adopt the simplest of devices, the story of a marriage and its dissolution as narrated by a son, and use it to show an India that, in its brashness, narrow-mindedness and readiness to be swayed by rightwing ideologues, has lost all touch with its past. It is an India that will look to everywhere but its own history for a role model: “Every time there’s an ascendant power in the world,” says the central character, “India will remake itself in its image.”
The marriage is that between Toby, a half-Indian, half-Scottish scholar of Sanskrit, and Uma, a member of Delhi’s gossiping and bitching “Lutyens elite”. At the opening of the novel Toby has died and his son Skanda has brought the body back to India, the country Toby had left some decades earlier, for cremation and the scattering of the ashes. Toby was a minor prince, the raja of “a tin-pot kingdom, not worth an air-gun salute”, and the return to his ancestral lands is what prompts Skanda to narrate his parents’ story and, with it, the past 50 years of India’s, too.
Skanda, like his father, is a student of Sanskrit and, when the news of Toby’s death arrives, he is in the middle of translating The Birth of Kumara, a 5th-century epic poem by Kalidasa describing the loves of the gods: the novel’s human story mirrors that of the divine. “The true genius of Ancient India was language,” says Toby, and Sanskrit was the most refined of its 20 or more tongues, a literary and liturgical language of infinite subtlety. For Toby, it offers hope that the rarefied sensibilities of those who spoke and wrote it might re-emerge in a modern Indian renaissance. For Skanda, it offers a series of etymological challenges that might help him frame a narrative for his own history.
Taseer constructs his story around a cluster of violent events that give the lie to Toby’s and Skanda’s vision of a still viable poetic tradition: the Emergency of 1975, when Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister, suspended numerous civil liberties; the 1984 riots in response to her assassination, which saw Sikhs burned alive in the streets; and the Hindu destruction of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya in 1992. Each outburst shakes the elite metropolitan world of which Toby, through marriage, is a reluctant part and opens cracks in his scholarly detachment: as he is warned ominously, “in certain places fineness of feeling is indistinguishable from weakness”.
The upheavals also open cracks in Toby and Uma’s marriage, and a series of domestic set pieces — a drunken party where home truths are told, the imprisoning and humiliation of Uma’s refined brother, a beating — widen them until there is nothing to prop up the marriage: “It was the tragedy of their marriage — of all failed marriages perhaps — that so much was known, and nothing could be done.”
As Skanda’s Sanskrit teaches him, everything is interlinked. His mental tic is to trace cognates — words of different languages having the same derivation — so that when he hears the word “night”, for example, he traces it from nakta in Sanskrit, to nox in Latin, nux in Greek, Nacht in German, and naktis in Lithuanian. It is an elegant metaphor for the way that while words have roots, people can lose theirs.
Taseer is fascinated by language to the point that his characters speak in fully formed philosophical paragraphs rather than a naturalistic vernacular. What they say here, though, about India, love, family and the accommodations inherent in every life, is intensely engrossing. What he has done with great intelligence and elegance is to deliver a novel of ideas in the guise of a very human story.
The Way Things Were, by Aatish Taseer, Picador, RRP£16.99, 560 pages