Book Review: The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

Picked after skimming various reviews out there, I decided to give this book a try. Although I was not much too familiar with the author before reading this book, I have lately decided to peruse and explore new contemporary writings on Modern India and this is the first book that caught my attention. A rather ambitious novel, the author ends up doing justice to both the content and the language which has a lyrical and poetic quality to it.

A book of epic proportions, it operates at three levels: Juxtaposition of the distant past with the present (Ancient India with the Modern India), bringing alive the much forgotten world of the Sanskrit Language, literature and characters and the magic of this ancient language through the narrator and his father, Toby and the consequence of political to personal lives and how it shapes their sensibilities and destiny. Opening with Skanda, the son of a linguist professor, engrossed “deep into his translation of The Birth of Kumara when his mother calls to say his father is on his deathbed”, the narrator undertakes the journey from Geneva to a modern Delhi to bring his father to his final burial place, the place abandoned by Toby two decades earlier, never to return.

On arriving to a modern New Delhi, the author is immediately plunged into a world of affluent, degenerate, glib and nouveau-rich Lutyens’ Delhi and lays bare an outward veneer of sophistication of this drawing – room set. From there, the readers begin a journey to the present day world of New Delhi and its juxtaposition with Vedic India and culture through the central metaphor of the Sanskrit language and measure the ever failing moral compass of the modern society as against the rich, moral fabric of the Ancient India.

Delhi becomes a microcosm of the entire India which has no understanding of its rich heritage, of the past and is concerned with rewriting of its historical past without any understanding, preferring material over intellect.

Through the personal lives of Toby, the narrator’s father and Uma, the narrator’s mother and Mahesh Maniraja, the symbol of modern India, who in Toby’s “considerable experience of India was utterly unfamiliar” and Uma’s brother. Sweeping through the panorama of wide political events starting from Emergency to the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 to 1992 falling of Babri Masjid, the author demonstrates the lasting effects of these events on the society which is never able to heal the fissures opened by these moments in history. Instead of confronting it, the society as a whole chooses to erase it from the collective memory and takes the road to fanaticism as shown in the approach taken by Maniraja who finances the new projects of “nationalism” and wants to rebuild the entire Hindu civilization out of the debris of the demolished mosque in Ayodhya.

Toby, the Sanskrit linguist, becomes the mouthpiece of the author who mocks this rising bigotry of right-wing Hindutva leaders and coming of so – called Hindu Renaissance by revival of the Sanskrit language and observes that those who do not know the true meaning and heritage of the Sanskrit language becomes the most ardent and fervent voice for its revival. In leaving India, Uma’s brother and Toby depicts the passing of Nehru’s dream of the new India whose corruption is begun by none other than his daughter.

Covering a vast landscape of events and characters, Aatish Taseer is successfully able to finish the ambitious task he sets for himself and in achieving the same; the book becomes a pure relish for anyone interested in understanding the modern day India.

Title: The Way Things Were

Author: Aatish Taseer

Publisher: Pan Macmillan India

Pages: 563

Genre: Indian Fiction

Rating: 5/5

Buy it from: Amazon Flipkart

About the Author

Aatish Taseer has worked as a reporter for Time Magazine and has written for the Sunday Times, the Sunday Telegraph, the Financial Times, Prospect, TAR Magazine and Esquire. He is the author of Stranger to History: a Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands (2009) and a highly acclaimed translation Manto: Selected Stories (2008). His novel, The Temple-Goers (2010) was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa First Novel Award. A second novel, Noon, is now available published by Picador (UK) and Faber & Faber (USA). His work has been translated into over ten languages. He lives between London and Delhi. (Courtesy: Goodreads)

To quote Aatish Taseer

“…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.”

“When you cause pain to those weaker than you, the guilt turns to loathing. Into a most secret and profound loathing, for we can never name it as such. We explain it away in other terms, but we, and we alone, know it to be the most animal of all hatreds: our hatred of weakness.”

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