India past and present: Aatish Taseer on his novel The Way Things Were
The Way Things Were is about many things, but it is first and foremost the story of a family. Can you give us a brief introduction to those characters?
The novel opens with Skanda bringing back the body of his father, Toby, to be cremated in a temple town in India. Toby hasn’t set foot in India, the country he loved, in over two decades. He loved, especially, its classical past; he was a professor of Sanskrit – but that love was a dangerous thing. It blinded him to the reality of the modern country. The Way Things Were is, in one respect, the story of his disenchantment. Toby is naïve – without a doubt, the supreme casualty of the novel – and yet one fears for any place (or any person) that would break the heart of a dreamer as ardent as him. India breaks his heart, but so does Uma, the woman he falls in love with at the beginning of the novel. She’s an air hostess when we meet her and hungry for experience, hungry for the world. There’s something incredibly vital about her. She is compromised, unknowable to the end, but full of a ‘talent for life’ – she’s my favourite character.
The dissolution of Toby and Uma’s marriage is the central mechanism of the novel. And Toby’s grief – for India, for Uma – is transmitted to his son; it is why the past weighs so heavily on Skanda; it is why (if he is to have his own life) he must set himself free of it. This is why he remains in Delhi after cremating his father. ‘His father, when he was alive, had, no matter how nominally, embodied the past. But, with that body gone, it was as if he, Skanda, needed the child to come up in him from the depths of a buried past to merge with the adult, like a reflection rising to meet its object. It did not have to happen in any forced or deliberate way – it did not have to be a hard and tangible thing – but he had needed the past in some way to wash over him. He had needed it to be near, as much as he had once needed to escape it.’
I don’t want to say too much about the man Uma leaves Toby for – let him remain a surprise, but I suppose what Sartre says of Bel-Ami is a little true of Maniraja too: ‘His rise testifies to the decline of a whole society.’
Connaught Place, Delhi, in 2006 © Ville Miettinen / flickr.com
Political change is a constant in the novel. How are the events of the seventies still relevant today and do you think anything has actually changed?
Well, in India, at least, the seventies represented a great moment of disenchantment with the idea of India, which, until then, had been a very innocent, very hopeful thing. In 1975, Mrs Gandhi declared a state of emergency, silencing the press and jailing the opposition. Mrs Gandhi was Nehru’s daughter, the man who had won us our freedom from the British. In the novel, this is how Deep Fatehkotia reacts to the news: ‘The Brigadier’s wife adored Nehru; she had, in solidarity with his freedom movement, and despite the disapproval of her father, worn khadi blouses under her silk saris; she had, in support of that movement, given her own pocket money to the future prime minister for his autograph. That the daughter of that beautiful man, who to her mind represented all that was good and hopeful in her youth, should now suspend the freedoms he had fought so hard for was as disillusioning a thing as she had ever known.’
So, the seventies definitely represented a loss of innocence in India. Things in the neighbourhood weren’t great either. The Iranian Revolution, the attack on the Grand Mosque in mecca, Soviet tanks in Kabul and Bhutto’s head in a hangman’s noose. And a lot of what happened – the rise of political Islam, the criminality that entered the Indian political system – has remained with us. The seventies were the crucible for the time we find ourselves in now, full of events whose beginnings did not know their ends…
And what about relationships between the different religions?
Bad, very bad. The novel deals with a period full of religious violence. There is the 1984 violence against the Sikhs, which follows Mrs Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguard. And then, just as that goes quiet, there is the Hindu-Muslim confrontation over the Mosque in Ayodhya, which, in 1992, was demolished and led to riots. In thinking of that time, I am reminded of those lines from Naipaul, written in the late eighties, incidentally: ‘To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one's group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. India was now full of this rage. There had been a general awakening.’
I suppose my novel tries in some way to dramatize the truth of these lines.
The Sikh Harmandir Sahib, also known as The Golden Temple, was stormed by the Indian Army in June 1984 © Arian Zwegers / flickr.com
The way in which Sanskrit fits into the history of India is a point of contention in the novel; what are your thoughts about it?
Yes! Sanskrit, as my agent pointed out, plays the role of a chorus. A thread that joins East with West, past with present. The line of contention that you speak of exists between those who are willing to let the past speak to them as it will and those who wish to appropriate it to fit the political needs of the present. Toby’s ‘historical sense’ – to use Coetzee’s formulation – is built upon an understanding of the past as ‘a shaping force’ on the present; Maniraja, on the other hand, will have the past remade in the image of the present. These two ways of thinking of history, so central to The Way Things Were, represent a terrific political and cultural anxiety, which is playing out in real time in India at the moment.
Why did you want to write this novel?
Because a powerful image – one, I suspected was laden with a story – took hold of me. It was the image of Skanda bringing Toby back to be cremated in India. I knew, from the little experience I’d had, that if I stayed with this image it would offer up its story. And this is the most one can hope for: that an image sprung with the tension of containing a story bigger than itself takes hold of you. Soon other elements of my narrative became apparent: the reasons for Toby’s disenchantment with India, the weight of the past on Skanda, the nature of Uma’s compromise… I began to see why the image had held such power for me.
A number of readers have suggested that you’re drawing on the conventions of a nineteenth century novel, yet also subverting them. Do you feel this to be true, and if yes, was it a conscious choice?
No, but it’s impossible to write a novel that doesn’t respond to the texture of one’s time. I tried very hard to write it straight: a big family novel, with an omniscient narrator, set between 1975 and 1992 in Delhi. It didn’t work. My material just wouldn’t move. It was only when I hit upon the framing narrative in the present, and the tension between past and present, that my material suddenly came alive. This, I suppose, subverts the conventions of the nineteenth century novel, but one doesn’t set out to do it; it happens because it feels right.
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Published 12 February 2015