Aatish Taseer is at it again. Rooting in the past, referencing our shared history, seeking answers to painful questions of love, loss, alienation. In The Way Things Were, (Pan Macmillan) we meet Skanda, Sanskrit student, son of a Sanskrit scholar, collector of cognates, conveyor of his father`s dead body to its final resting place by the river Tamasa in Madhya Pradesh, in the process coming to terms with the fraught relationship he has with his mother.
This work is a paean to Sanskrit `that great ancient language that has now been co-opted by all the worst people, people who revere it away with foolish pieties,` but at times it seems the characters mostly wait around to sermonise endlessly on well, on the way things were and are. It paints the drawing room set of Delhi, the people who as a character says, prefer to take the long road back to India via the West, in a noticeably more gentle fashion than Taseer`s mother Tavleen Singh did in her Durbar.
It also veers off into dense territory on and off. To counterbalance that, there are prescient statements like: Every time there is an ascendant power in the world, India will remake herself in its image. The manner in which Indians set foreigners on a pedestal only to pull them off once they overstay their welcome is neatly defined. There is a thought- provoking passage about prejudice, the way it seems to be `speaking from the heart, saying out loud what others secretly believe.` The flesh and bones of a riot are laid bare, how it seeks, demands an audience.
Uma, Skanda`s mother is the dominating character of the book; it is a complex and capricious portrait skilfully drawn. Her boyfriend the boorish Maniraja, in the vanguard of the new order `that will use the epics, Manu, Ayodhya and …. hollow them out of meaning, ….make slogans of them` is drawn with an equally skilled pen.
The figures in the book are easily recognisable political/social/business figures, and you have to wonder: is it artistic license or does Taseer not care that he may never eat lunch in that town again?
In the final analysis, it is an elegant book. Despite the faintest hint of patronisation masquerading as empathy for the sharply defined `lesser` lot. Despite the faint trace of the author showing off his knowledge of Sanskrit. Despite Skanda`s romantic interest Gauri coming off as rather one-dimensional, more a medium for Skanda to clarify his thought process.
Somewhere in there, a character praises the essential Hindu character: a Hindu without vengeance and without apology. And the reader sighs wistfully.
Sheila Kumar worked for the Times Group and now writes for many newspapers and magazines on matters concerning just about everything under the sun. She has had her short stories published in as many as six anthologies.Sheila’s first book, a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin (Rupa Publications) was released to very good reviews.