Aatish Taseer's new novel: Sanskrit, history and our 'embarrassment with Indian things'

by Aatish Taseer

Editor's Note: On the surface The Way Things Were, the new novel by Aatish Taseer is about four decades of Indian history from the Emergency to the rise of Narendra Modi. But the history is really a panoramic backdrop for a debate about the idea of India and the engagement of Indians, from the Lutyens elite to Hindutvawadis, with their own history. In this excerpt Toby, an ex-royal and a Sanskrit scholar introduces his new girlfriend Uma, an air hostess, to the acerbic writer Vijaipal and an evening of drinks by the river turns into an impassioned discussion about what Indian means to Indians.

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.

(Toby) left them to get (Uma) a drink and to recover his equanimity, to revel in the passive pleasure of listening to someone, for whom your feelings are new and strong, make conversation with someone who is a stranger to them, but not to you. He poured the drink slowly, as conversation began behind him, with the shy discomfort of musicians warming up, every note seeming at first to sound false. By the time he’d returned with Uma’s drink, he had almost to fear for his own inclusion.
‘Toby, Mishi was just . . .’
‘Uma,’ he said, handing her her drink.
‘Uma?’
‘It’s true. It’s my real name.’

 Aatish Taseers new novel: Sanskrit, history and our embarrassment with Indian things

The cover of Aatish Taseer's new novel.

‘Is it really? And they called you Mishi? I’m afraid Toby is right . . .’ He stopped himself. ‘These names! Where do they come from? From an embarrassment with Indian things, no doubt, an embarrassment even at the sound of Sanskrit?’
‘It’s funny you ask,’ Toby said, suddenly at his ease. ‘People have a strange relationship with these things. No one would seriously give their child a name like Mishi or Toby, never as their real name – they would only ever give them a Sanskrit name – but as—’
‘I know what you mean. In the place where I grew up, a terrible place, not worth mentioning, I used to know some people, so culturally denuded, that their names had become Neel and Diamantine. You, Toby must know—’
‘Nala and Damayanti?’ he said, laughing, and glanced at Uma, who had drawn up her feet and was leaning back against a bolster.
‘Exactly! People would have you believe that none of it was important; they would have you believe these are trifles: but, of course, it is important: important how India is thought of in India, no? How, for instance, Toby, is your interest in classical India regarded among your class of person?’
‘With dismissal, at best. Or suspicion.’
Toby felt her gaze on him, a questioning gaze. He felt her form her earliest impressions of him.
‘Right! Suspicion that you might have some right-wing political agenda, that your interest is but a cover for a hatred of Muslims or some such.’
‘Yes. But for so many it is. And I’ve always regarded the men in saffron as the true enemies of the Indian past . . .’
‘Because . . . ?’
‘Because,’ and now he looked at Uma, to make sure she was interested in their conversation. ‘Because . . .’ he repeated abstractedly, then the words came: ‘they would see it reduced – all the glory of ancient India – to slogan.’
‘To slogan, yes! Slogans and pamphlets. Very nice, very nice thing to say. And then, of course, in that form it has no meaning. It is no longer an intellectual thing, no longer interesting.’
‘No,’ he said, trying not to look, but afraid they were boring her, ‘in that form it is worthless.’
Silence.
He interpreted it as brought on by them having lost her, but it was broken – to his great joy! – by a question of some intensity from her. A question that made him feel that the thing he loved most in life might one day get along with the thing he was beginning to like more and more.
‘How did it begin for you?’ she said. And, though Vijaipal had asked him something similar a moment before, it felt so fresh and heartfelt coming from her that he was almost flattered by it.
‘You know,’ he began, addressing her, then thinking better of it, turned to Vijaipal, whose drink he could see was empty, ‘I think it was Latin and Greek in school.’
‘In England?’
‘In England.’
‘Oh, I see, I see. The regard one place has for its things producing in you a similar regard – a need, even – for your own things. I understand that very well. I’ve known such a need myself.’
‘It’s true. Because, you know, here, the Sanskrit teacher is invariably a figure of fun.’
‘A kind of holy fool, no doubt! Caste-marked and full of outdated ideas. Probably everyone in the school had a kind of contempt for a man like that. Not attractive and interesting-seeming, not like the English teacher, say?’
‘That’s it. But once I was able to connect the Sanskritic world with the classical world at large, it came to seem like the greatest discovery of my life.’
‘How so?’ Uma asked.
Again he felt a flush. ‘Well, I think more than anything, in a country where so little was planned, everything haphazard and shoddy, here, at least, was an example of the most exquisite planning. Proof that things had not always been as shitty as they are today. Because, Vijay,’ he said, turning to the writer, ‘if we were to associate the genius of a place with one particular thing – the Russians with literature, say, or the Germans with music, the Dutch and Spanish with painting – we would have to say that the true genius of Ancient India was language. Not so much the use of it as the study of it: their grammars were peerless, easily the most profound meditation on language in pre-modern times. And once I discovered them I could never again think of India as merely the shabby place I saw around me. It changed my entire relationship with what remained of old India in India . . .’
‘To the past?’ Vijaipal said.
‘To the past, yes. But also my idea of East and West.’
‘Those distinctions would have broken down. Of course! It would have come to seem like a shared past.’
‘It is a shared past,’ Toby said. ‘Where these languages are concerned – the Indo-European ones, at least – it is most definitely a shared past. And while, in Europe, this is only a point of curiosity – a confirmation of the Biblical idea of the Tower of Babel, say – in India, it was like permission to respect oneself anew.’
Suddenly he became aware of her presence. Uma, who had been sitting across from him, got up, as if drawn to him by his intensity, and came to sit next to him.
Vijaipal glanced at her, then laughed. ‘Like discovering, while mired in deep poverty, that you are, in fact, the first cousin of the King.’
‘It’s true, Mr Vijaipal!’ Uma said.
‘Vijay, surely!’
‘Vijay. Because we grew up with so little. We had nothing. And the worst part was that we made the people below us, who did have something, believe that what they had was worthless. We forced them, if they were to enter our ranks, to surrender their culture.’
‘Such a bad business, isn’t it? Confusion heaped upon confusion. The more I travel in the colonial world, the more it feels like a general condition.’
For some time now Laban had been waiting. Seeing an opening, he said softly, ‘Khana.’
Dinner had been laid out for them in a partially enclosed veranda overlooking the river on three sides. They discussed the trip ahead, how long they would wait in Kalasuryaketu, how long the drive would be, where they would stop, where they would stay.
At one point Uma said, ‘What makes it so important, Hampi? Why do you people keep going back?’
Her question produced an awkwardness among the two men, as though they both acknowledged their reasons as being very different and wanted, out of courtesy, to give the other way.
‘My reason is simple, Uma,’ Toby said. ‘I find it beautiful. But hear Vijaipal out.’
‘I’ll tell you, Uma, I’ll tell you. In my work it is not so important to have historical information as it is to have a historical sense. To be able in some way to give the past shape. And you will see how a place like Vijayanagara, with its unique history, will do that for you automatically.’
He said this and looked out at the Tamasā, where through the gaps in the muslin curtains it was possible now to see the lit shapes of long boats on its dark surface.

Updated Date: Jan 14, 2015 11:22:40 IST