Aatish Taseer Delves Into Ayodhya, Sanskrit in New Book

New Delhi
Aatish Taseer Delves Into Ayodhya, Sanskrit in New Book

A new book by writer Aatish Taseer has Sanskrit as the central metaphor and touches several issues like Ayodhya, 1984 riots and the Emergency.

The Way Things Were is a family saga set in Delhi amid the commotion of the last 40 years of Indian history.

Skanda's father Toby, the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu who is a master of Sanskrit, has died, estranged from Toby’s mother and from the India he loved. Skanda is tasked with fulfilling Toby's final wish and returning his ashes to his birthplace.

It is a journey that takes him from Manhattan to Delhi, and deep into the story of his family: in particular, to a night three decades earlier, when an act of shocking violence forced his parents' fragile marriage apart.

Set at flashpoints in 1975, 1984, 1992 and the present day, the novel shows how personal stories are shaped by ancient history and volatile politics; how the life of a country and the life of an individual are irrevocably entwined.

Taseer, who lives between London and Delhi, describes his book as a novel about a love and history.

The author of Stranger to History: a Son's Journey through Islamic Lands (2009), The Temple-Goers (2010), shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and Noon (2011) says his choosing to write about topical issues like political violence, corruption and riots through the stories of Toby and Skanda was "unavoidable".

"In the India I was writing about these things loomed very large. If I was to edit them out - or pretend they did not intrude on the lives of my characters - I would be falsifying my material. There's a line in the novel: 'And - I don't know! - people always say our literature is crammed full of big events. Of riots, and partitions, and emergencies," Taseer told PTI.

"Some must ask: is this really the stuff of everyday life? Surely some people must just be living quiet lives with quiet problems, unaffected by these cataclysms? My answer is no… And the difference, I feel, between places that work and those that are in turmoil is that, in the former, people don't have to think about politics; in the latter, they can't help but think about them," he says.

The title of the book comes from the Sanskrit word for history 'itihasa', whose literal translation is "the way things indeed were."

Taseer says he had an early draft of the book from 2010, which he abandoned.

"In 2011 I sat down to try to work at it again, but it took almost seven months for the writing to get going. Then I was completely absorbed by it. And it's true - I won't deny it - my passion for Sanskrit and classical India, still so new at the time, fed into the novel; it became part of its intensity," he says.

Though he lays a lot of stress on Sanskrit he terms the government's decision to replace German with Sanskrit as third language in kendriya vidyalayas as "bad optics and bad planning".

"You don't just shove in Sanskrit where you see an opening. If you want Sanskrit to have a higher place in the lives of young people, you plan it carefully. And your motives should be clean. It shouldn't be part of cultural agenda," he says.

"I'm writing this on the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and I'm frankly appalled by the atmosphere I've seen develop lately. Every time I come back from my travels there is some new episode - akin to the one involving the sadhvi... You cannot allow this kind of ugliness to spread through public sphere," he feels.

He, however, says he has not written the book to send a message.

"People who write books with messages in mind usually end up writing pamphlets. A novel is a creative act; it brings a world into being; that world, of course, has its own truths and lessons. But a novel itself is not a lesson. If it is powerfully conceived, it will bring about transformations of its own," he says.

According to Taseer, we miss almost every aspect of classical India today.

"The ancient Indians had some of the most sophisticated insights about language in pre-modern times; modern India has such trouble with language. The ancients had a tremendous grasp of grammar ('vyakara?a'); you'd be lucky in modern India if someone could tell you the difference between a verb and an adverb.

"The epics are full of information about the natural world, but so few Indians today even know the names of the trees. I could go on and on… But make no mistake: we are in no way the true heirs to our past; we are hardly even aware of it," he regrets.

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