· Title of the Book: The Way Things Were
· Author: Atish Taseer
· Hardcover: 563 pages
· Publisher: Picador India; First edition (4 December 2014)
· Language: English
· Price: INR 699/-
Aatish Taseer’s latest novel, The Way Things Were, is about a strange beast called History. ‘What constitutes history?’ has been a subject of constant discussion in our country since the British left the Indian shores in 1947. Everybody, from the hoi polloi to the intellectuals and the politicians, looks at history through the prism of their particular ideologies and beliefs, especially the politicians, both left and right manipulate it to suit their ideological necessities.
In Mark Twain words, ‘the very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.’ But, one of the main characters of this novel, Toby, would never agree with Twain. For him, the word Itihasa which means The Way Things Were is self-explanatory, and mythology and legends are also a part of them.
The question ‘what exactly history is and how it impacts our present and future’ is a major theme in this novel. The book is also about Sanskrit and the genesis of languages across the world. Similar sounding words from different languages with similar meanings but no direct cultural connection indicate that several languages have a common mother. The book tries to convey the message that languages are a shared legacy of human beings. It also tries to assimilate different definitions of Indian culture. Concerns regarding the rise of right-wing politics run through the entire novel.
The book opens in Manhattan, New York, with Skanda, a Sanskrit Scholar, who is busy translating the text of Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava from Sanskrit into English when he receives the news of his father’s death. His mother, Uma, who is separated from his father, Toby, insists that he should take his father’s body to his birthplace in India for the final rites and then he should immerse his father’s ashes in the holy river, Tamasa, as per Hindu traditions.
Skanda’s trip to India gets him a beautiful girlfriend called Gauri. His journey brings him ‘deep within three generations of his family, whose fractures frailties and toxic legacies Skanda has always sought to elude.’ The important part of family history that matters most to Skanda is the story of his parents’ doomed marriage. As the story of Toby, the Sanskrit Scholar from a royal family, and Uma, the former air-hostess is recounted, we hear the reverberations of the major events of the post-Independence India. It includes the Emergency of 1975, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the subsequent anti-Sikh pogroms in 1984 and the demolition of the Babari mosque at Ayodhya in 1992.
The exceptional quality of prose has always been the hallmark of Aatish Taseer’s writings. From his memoir-cum- travelogue Stranger to History to his translation of Manto and then his novels, he plays with language beautifully. His understanding of South Asian history is very deep and that comes out well in his narratives. A close reading of his books reveals that there are similarities among the protagonists of all his novels as each of them is in part influenced by the life of the author. And this fact, somehow, makes the characters predictable. Complex, multidimensional characters connect better with the readers but that doesn't happen with this novel. Both Skanda and Toby are believable and likeable characters but the readers may not be able to make an emotional investment in them. For example, when Toby and Uma separate, the reader feels no pang of separation.
The major socio-political events like the 1984 riots or the Babari Mosque demolition were supposed to play significant roles in defining the tone and feel of this novel and draw the readers deep in to it. But it doesn't happen since the reader only hears the echoes of these incidents as a bystander who has no stake in it.
Despite these shortcomings it is a novel worth reading.