Toronto Star

Chaotic, imperfect India


Is it ironic when the lead character repeatedly asks, “Am I boring you?” And when the author points out that big novels are “messy, chaotic, imperfect”? That’s just more irony, right?

Maybe so, but in the case of Aatish Taseer, it is also true. His third novel, The Way Things Were is messy, chaotic, imperfect. Best known for the 2009 travelogue, Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands( his estranged Pakistani father was assassinat­ed two years later), he has attempted the Great Indian Novel with all the requisite features — multiple generation­s, grand metaphors and history with a capital H.

The clue to his ambition is in the title, a translatio­n of the Sanskrit word for history, itihasa. This allows him to tackle the genre’s big themes: the misuse of history, who represents the nation and, finally, this entity described as the “real India.”

Our guide is Skanda, a New Yorker by choice, who is escorting his father’s body on his own from Geneva to the ancestral home, the former kingdom of Kalasuryak­etu. The late Toby, an eminent Sanskritis­t, had exiled himself in1992, disappoint­ed by the dismantlin­g of a mosque in the name of religion. Skanda, like his father, translates ignored but classic Sanskrit texts. He soon finds himself struggling to explain to a new girlfriend his task and the family history born out of the elopement between his mother Uma and Toby.

The novel alternates between this present quest and the life stories of his parents and their coterie of relatives, friends and lovers, the fashionabl­e people who make up New Delhi’s “deracinate­d” drawing-room set. Taseer describes them as “foreigners in their own country.” In a changing world, have the men become emasculate­d by their status and can the women maintain their roles in it?

Taseer turns his eye to a tumultuous time in Indian politics. Toby returns from a life abroad as a young man in time for Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 1975 declaratio­n of a state emergency and arrest of her opponents. Delhi society perseveres through its own “annus horribilis” in1984: the assassinat­ion of Indira Gandhi followed by the anti-Sikh riots and the Bhopal industrial accident; and then the rising tensions in Kashmir and, finally, the movement to rebuild an ancient temple.

The most vivid section is when Uma’s brother, young and Sikh, is held and badly beaten by the police the week before the prime minister was shot by her Sikh bodyguards. He flees for a safer place, one without “history” — New Zealand and Canada.

Taseer delights in intellectu­al games and meta-references. Sanskrit poems and plays are interlaced throughout, as are their literary devices: dual narratives, poetic allusions and commentari­es on commentari­es. In one instance, he introduces twin characters, quoting the real-life writer V.S. Naipaul (he once called India a dead civilizati­on), while creating a fictional counterpar­t, Vijaipaul, who tours architectu­ral ruins with Toby and theorizes in the same vein.

If Toby sees his country as “a pale emanation of some grander and irrecovera­ble reality,” it is Uma, a former air hostess and Brigadier’s daughter, who argues that contempora­ry India “shouts to the rest of us.” These are the ideas — Modern versus History — that ostensibly lead to the breakup of their marriage. She leaves him and finds security in Maniraja, a member of a newer and wealthier elite, a man who sees the past as a way to boost a vision of a Hindu nation-state.

Both Skanda and his father are outsiders to their times, one against the politicall­ymotivated destructio­n of a mosque; the other averse to a city filled with “collagen lips and blue glass malls.”

The book’s flaws are obvious. In Taseer’s bid to show off all he knows, he wears his erudition heavily, like an old-fashioned Hindu bride bowed down by the family gold on her wedding day. He name-drops like mad, all Rushdie, Dostoevsky and Kalidasa; and yet, for a writer obsessed with the elite’s lack of ties to the “real India”, he ignores much of the country. Underlings barely have a word to say, ordinary people are noted for the oiliness of their hair and ugly women are always fat.

The Way Things Were is truly an imperfect novel but with elements of a pageturner. It frustratin­gly loses its way by being too smart and overstuffe­d for its own good. Piali Roy is a writer living in Toronto.

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Were by Aatish Taseer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $34.50.
The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $34.50.
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