The Way Things Were: Aatish Taseer bares the heart of Lutyens' Delhi

Editor's Note:  Aatish Taseer will be the featured guest of the inaugral Firstpost Salon, a series of conversations with India's best minds and biggest names. We will be live streaming "The rise and fall of the Lutyens' elite" on Friday, January 16th, from 5 to 7 pm. Do tune in for what will be a lively discussion about one of the more incendiary topics in Indian politics. And don't forget to send us (@firstpostin) your questions for Aatish on Twitter or on Facebook so we can include them in our conversation.

Elections 2014 changed many things about this country, or at least came with the promise of many changes. Perhaps none is as significant as the rise of a man who is not just a true outsider to Delhi, but is proud of it. For the first time in decades, the Lutyens elite find themselves left out in the cold, outside the charmed circle of power and privilege.

The fall from grace is a particularly uncomfortable experience for a class that has -- since Jawaharlal Nehru, the original Macaulayputra, was anointed as the heir of free India -- been defined by its hold on the nation's levers of power and imagination. They have been marked too by their carefully preserved distance from their own culture and people.

 The Way Things Were: Aatish Taseer bares the heart of Lutyens Delhi

Getty Images

It’s still too early to tell whether the waning power of those who live in roads named after kings and emperors is permanent or will change India’s sense of itself but it’s clear that something has changed dramatically from the way things were.

The Way Things Were, not coincidentally, is the title of Aatish Taseer’s new novel which has been described as many things – an intimate portrait of a marriage, a panoramic vision of India’s half-century, an interrogation into how Indians view India. It is also perhaps the first and most incisive insider look at a certain kind of privileged life.

In an earlier essay for Open magazine, Taseer admits ““I grew up in late 20th century India, in a deracinated household.” He writes that “a cultural and linguistic break had occurred, and between my grandparents’ and my parents’ generation, there lay an imporous layer of English education that prevented both my father in Pakistan, and my mother, in India, from being able to reach their roots.”

That also makes him an Indian writer who confesses that the literary past of India is closed to him.

And the past, because it is a closed book, “imporous” to millions of Indians, turns into a sort of Rorschach test in which we see what we want to see. Some discern ancient airplanes, plastic surgery and advanced genetics. Others simply dismiss it. When Toby, the ex-royal and Sanskrit scholar in The Way Things Were is asked about how people of his class regarded his interest in classical India he replies “With dismissal, at best. Or suspicion.” There is a fear that an interest in history is really shorthand for finding a slogan for the next rathayatra - code for figuring out what temple lies beneath which mosque.

Taseer shows how the dismissal and suspicion also stem from fear. The Lutyens elite knows that the deracinated by definition have no roots and always stand on very shaky ground. One character in the book describes the Nehru-Gandhis as “the closest thing we have to our own homemade foreigners: Scotch whisky bottled in India.” Another tells the filmmaker Louis Malle, “Poverty?I don’t know why people keep going on about poverty. Everyone I know in India has a car." As Taseer wryly observes, "And everyone she knew did.”

It is this willful alienation that has finally come home to roost.

In the run-up to election 2014, Rajdeep Sardesai wrote that both Modi and Arvind Kejriwal claimed a common enemy: “The Lutyens elite of Delhi which has ruled the country for much of the last sixty years. Both are looking to position themselves as the outsiders who are not members of any cosy club of privilege.”

In his book, Taseer maps the growing power of the anger of the outsider at that sneering cosy establishment of “ethnistas, deracinees and Oxbridge Lefties” who shaped the course of India, not just politically but culturally. The man who symbolizes that anger in the book is Maniraja who calls himself a “political Hindu” and dreams about setting up the Indian Holocaust Museum in Somnath.

In most English language writing in India, our natural sympathy would be for Toby, a man of fine taste, deep classical knowledge, who gives lectures on The Creation of Poetry, a man who can be relied on for scintillating conversation at a Lutyens bungalow party. Maniraja, on the other hand, is the standard bearer of the “bania century”, who pronounces the ‘c’ in ‘scintillating’ and is so crudely chauvinistic, he gets thrown out of a Lutyens dinner party. That’s why when Toby’s ex-wife, Uma, finds herself drawn to Maniraja, she is startled and unnerved by the potency of that desire which feels more taboo than anything she has done, as she wonders if she might actually feel alive around him, if he could in fact be “the one to usher in an era of change into this deadest of dead centuries”, a possibility of real renaissance while Toby carried the flag for what was just a drawing room renaissance.

Her choice is in effect, literally, a kick in the nuts of the Lutyens elite. As Taseer's book unfolds, winding through the bloody 1984 riots, the Babri Masjid demolition and to the present day, it also becomes clear that her choice is not without its unhappy consequences, much as that made by a nation.

The Ways Things Were could only be written by someone who understands what it is like “inside the bungalow.” Taseer could have opted for a tone of wistful nostalgia reserved for descriptions of those lovely Lutyens bungalows to describe the gatekeepers of power in Delhi but he chooses instead to stick a fork -- old heirloom silver, of course -- into its privileged hide.

The cast of characters of The Way Things Were.

Toby – The former Raja of Kalasuryaketu, also a Sanskrit scholar

Uma Fatehkotia – An air hostess who marries Toby after a whirlwind courtship but eventually leaves him.

Isha Fatehkotia – Uma’s sister

Mahesh Maniraja – A wealthy industrialist who identifies as a “political Hindu” and funds research into Indian history e.g. the historical basis of the Ramayana.

Skanda Mahodaya – Toby and Uma’s son, also a Sanskrit scholar who returns to India after his father’s death with his ashes.

Gauri – A young woman Skanda meets at a party, and to whom he tells the story of his parents.

Updated Date: Jan 14, 2015 15:01:09 IST