I recently finished reading Aatish Taseer’s latest novel, The Way Things Were (which, full disclosure, was sent to me by the nice folks at Picador). I wanted to read it because it’s about history and national identity, which is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and about a country where I do a bit of work and which I’d like to understand better. It’s a novel about the marriage of Toby, an Anglo-Indian Sanskritist and academic - the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu - and Uma, a young woman from New Delhi’s post-independence elite during Indira Gandhi’s premiership - and about the legacy that marriage has bestowed on their son Skanda, who is a baby academic working on Sanskrit and responsible for taking his father’s body back to India after his death.
It’s a really interesting novel, if slightly clunky in the way it talks about history and the way people see themselves and their places in it though its plot and character antagonisms - though it might be that it reads that way to me because it’s laying out ideas about a topic I’m already fairly well attuned to. It emphasises the importance of having and owning your own history to a people - places, languages (this novel is largely about sanskrit) and stories - but also wants to reveal the dangers that can come from the ways in which people relate to this history and the things they want it to do. And people nearly always want history to do things - that’s probably what many academic historians think is the key difference between them and everyone else who just likes and is interested in history: they want to understand the past, not use it for their own ends to shape the future…
Toby expresses this in a critical conversation with his brother-in-law I.P, describing what his studies have given to him:
It hasn’t really given me anything… It’s like what Wilde says about Christ, comparing him to a work of art: ’He does not really teach one anything: but by being brought into his presence one becomes something."
For Toby, the study of sanskrit and the history of his home before it became India (for all Toby is Anglo-India and educated in England, he regards India as his homeland) make him a better person - a more civilised person - equipped to participate in a civil, reasonable, well-governed society with an appreciation for art and culture. It’s not for anything but making better people. It is perhaps to Toby’s credit that he believes that this relationship with history can and should be available to everyone, if only they can be given the education to access it, and he desperately wants modern India to make that available to all its citizens. I.P. asks him if the attempt is not futile, and Toby argues that it is worth the risk. It’s an important conversation because I.P., the middle ground between Toby and Uma’s Indias - beautiful ancient and brash modern (and the common ground in their relationships as it strains) is the character who may hold the fate of contemporary India in his hands. It is in this conversation that the title of the book is spoken, and it is here that I.P. has to decide whether he wants to continue to fight to bridge the gap or not.
The strength of the book is the way it creates atmosphere. I was going to say, ‘especially in its descriptions of the places of ancient India that the character Toby loves so much,’ but then I thought - actually, that’s probably the atmosphere that struck me because it is the India that most appeals to me:
Uma never forgot that first morning in Kalasuryaketu, of sitting out on the terrace of the Shiv Newas, the sluggish green expanse of the river sprawled out over the bleached land beneath her, the sound of bells carrying up from the scorched ghats. It was a glimpse of an India that the thin but culturally impervious layer of post-colonial life in Delhi had never before allowed her to see. And soon after there would be the sight of Vijayanagara at dawn, the veil of morning mist hanging over the ruined city giving it the aspect of a place still smoking from seige.
Yet actually, I think, Taseer’s descriptions of 1970s New Delhi are equally atmospheric (there’s not a lot of 2000s Delhi described in the book, despite the fact that Skanda spends a whole darn year there) - it’s just not an atmosphere that appeals to me as one I’d want to spend time in. Nor does Toby, for whom it is generally unsatisfying unless he is able to be talking about his studies and sharing his knowledge. But very early on, one character pinpoints the problem with Toby’s obsession with the beauty of the past and with mining its details:
The little Sanskritist, a man so drunk on his safety and security that he would have a renaissance unto himself… You think a man like that could be an agent of genuine renewal…. He’s a performer.
Toby might be able to see and critique other peoples’ use of history, reducing the glory of ancient India to slogan, as he despairingly tells Uma, but he is as guilty as anyone else of wanting history to be for something: to create a particular kind of people and a particular kind of India.
And for me, this is the reason I’m glad I read the novel - because it warns me to be cautious about my own tendencies to historical nostalgia and a prioritisation of ancient remains and memories, and to think criticially about the good things that I think come from learning about them and spending time with them - because those things are never unloaded or unbiased. I’ve not really seen much of the parts of India that Toby loves so much - besides the Taj Mahal - and I’m slightly leery of doing so, because it feels so unlike the India I’ve had the opportunity to see through my work. Going to see the temples and palaces of ancient India feels a bit like going to Cloud Cuckoo Land - or the Raj. For all my enthusiasm for ancient history, memory and ruins, I’m often not sure that I’m not agnostic about their value in challenging and changing that present. It would be easy, for me, to become a Toby. And yet, The Way Things Were is a reminder that determinedly trying to avoid being Toby and veering towards the other extreme, to see a place develop and change and deal with the world today without remembering that history and soul is also not something I want to see happen, and is not, I think a good way to make the future.