In his latest offering The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges, Aatish Taseer wears the robes of a traveller and tries to delve deeper into himself, Varanasi and India. Like in his other works, his privileged background comes forth. He uses connections from this background to make an entry into the Brahminical and Sanskritised world of Varanasi, and these connections lead to conversations with select individuals initially, and then to a few more individuals and as corollary conversations. They form the book, and the conversations are recent. In the initial pages, he talks about the build up to the general elections during 2014, and in the later pages, of the disillusionment, a couple of years later, faced by many who helped elect the government — a crucial timeline, given the subject Taseer tackles.
Two of Taseer’s fiction works that I have read were about himself and about Delhi. Here he talks about himself but he moves out of Delhi, to Varanasi. He has got the pulse of the city correct. Having moved to the town about a year ago, I absolutely agree with his ‘all the while a deep undertone of Benaras time – languid, sluggish, miring – rose up from below’, and what he quotes from Alice Boner: "My notions of time are confused". Not only does the town never fail to surprise you, but it also works on you in both ways. You hate it for some reasons but are in love with it for others.
Taseer has a complicated relationship with his homeland. He states, "I wish I had a more direct relationship with my country." Karan Mahajan writes in his review of The Way Things Were in the Los Angeles Review of Books, "Taseer writes out of a compulsive need to understand his own fragmentary and complicated history." However, for someone who writes about India’s history and languages, the manner in which he refers to the India beyond Delhi is baffling at times. "Madhya Pradesh is a vast landlocked state, full of dark forests, silver rivers, and a large aboriginal population. No state feels older, none more primordial." While for Uttar Pradesh, he writes, ‘The train stopped along the way at medieval Muslim towns set on the banks of sluggish rivers." In these lines, he sounds the way he described himself during his previous trip to Varanasi, ‘a western traveller, a modern-day hippie in search of secret India’. And then there are some lines that are downright avoidable, ‘I have never spent a night in a human habitation that had undergone so little change since the advent of agriculture’. Taseer is unwilling to get out of his comfort zone. He appears to be aware to this unwillingness but does not want to let go of the comfort that comes with being an ‘outsider’, of the convenience that distance enables.
One of the lines from The Way Things Were stayed with me for long. "If we were to associate the genius of a place with one particular thing – the Russians with literature, say, or the Germans music, the Dutch and Spanish with painting – we would have to say the true genius of ancient India was language." Sanskrit for Taseer is a vehicle to connect with his country, to get beneath its skin, to understand its history. He loves the language. In this book, too, he succinctly points out that we underestimate the power of a language. He does mention Tulsidas freeing the Ramayana from the hold of Brahmins but shies away from labelling Sanskit as elitist. I recall P Sainath, the journalist, during a conference, responding to a query on whether Sanskrit can be revived, state that "we then need to bring in a lot else that was Brahminical and made Sanskrit what it was – this will be unacceptable in today’s times." While one of the focus areas of his conversations are the Brahmins and their role and perspectives during the past and present, he gives a feel that he was hoping them to be more connected with and relevant in the India of today.
The book is not just about Taseer, Varanasi and Sanskrit, it is about much more. It is a book about the changes taking place across the social and political landscape of the country, about the questions a young democracy, located within an ancient civilisation, faces. He succinctly examines questions of caste when narrating stories about how lower caste people have to wash their own plates. At a time when it is not uncommon to come across urban youth who claim that caste has ceased to exist, Taseer points out, "I realised the extent to which English-speaking India was a caste unto itself, more isolated and unassimilable that any of Hindu India." He also takes a look at the country's past; we have a past we love talking about but understand increasingly less – it is somewhere between a dilemma and a mystery for many of us today. Taseer brings this out when he writes, "a present that dishonours the memory of the past" or "relationship between old and new had been severed". He also examines questions of our identity and future.
The book, like good books often do, did get me to make connections. But the language gets dense as the book progresses, and it holds less attention as the pages flip. Perhaps Taseer was not as clear as he was when he began the book and took refuge in what Parul Sehgal refers to as ‘cryptic aphorisms’ in her review of his Noon for the New York Times. Like his other books, this is well researched, but here, after a point, it was difficult to ascertain what he was driving at.
As I read the book, debates on Sabrimala and changing the names of places were all over print media and social media. More and more people agreed that we are too complicated a society to fit into the simple boxes created by the West. This is one of the threads in Taseer’s book as well. I just wish he had taken the fiction route.
Updated Date: Dec 02, 2018 10:44 AM