S Prasannarajan in Open the Magazine (Photos: Raul Irani):
The word for history in Sanskrit is itihasa, the way things were. When, half way through Aatish Taseer’s new novel, Toby, Sanskrit scholar and classicist, gives us a little grammatic- al explanation of the word, it sounds as if the reader is being reminded of the historical as well as the civilisational backdrop against which the existential drama of the characters is being played out. Sanskrit—let’s ignore Smriti Irani for a while—here is language as ancestral intimacy, bonding and a memory of time, and in a novel that so effortlessly passes through the crooked alleys of Indian politics, it bridges the cracked present and the abandoned past. It is not that such authorial intervention is needed to sense the Indian ideal on which this novel, itihasa indeed in its structural expansiveness, is built. You may have to go back to his last two novels to realise how deep is Taseer’s entrapment in the idea of being Indian. In The Temple-Goers, this is what a writer who could have been Naipaul (and such a writer appears in The Way Things Were too) says about India: ‘In fact, it could be said that there is almost no other country, certainly not one so vast, where the countrymen are as acquainted with the distant reaches of the land through their pilgrimages as they are in India; perhaps no country where poor people travel more. They think nothing of jumping on a bus or train, for two or three days, to journey to Tirupathi in the south or Jagannath in the east. And this way, the religion itself is like a form of patriotism.’ The narrator of The Temple-Goers, daringly called Aatish Taseer, is in a constant struggle not to be an outsider in such a place caught between the temptations of modernity and the tensions of tradition, though his ways of being an Indian are more sophisti- cated. It is a journey of the classical mind. In his second novel, Noon, stretching from a Delhi where the stirrings of a national transformation are already discernible to a Karachi of morbid moralism, a personal quest becomes an interrupted meditation on cultural as well as political identity. The quest becomes bigger and more ambitious in his new novel; it becomes a passage to the deepest recesses of India of the mind.
It begins with a homecoming, a son’s return to India with his father’s body. It is a time when Modi is the conversation, and certain parts of Delhi, of Sunday brunches and lazy reminiscences, are kind of history- proof. For Skanda, a Sanskrit scholar, this journey is a foray into a world that shaped his own cultural sensibility— a world where, in another time, his parents were the leading protagonists in a drama in which the personal was played out on a political stage, beginning with the Emergency and ending with Ayodhya. What follows in a dual narrative is a family epic set in the upper class drawing rooms of Lutyens’ Delhi that, in its evolutionary spasms, turns into a dramatisation of the idea of India itself—its sophistication and its crassness, its perfections and its pathologies. And it is Sanskrit, an aesthetic shared by father and son, that magnifies the overwhelming sense of being Indian that runs through this novel.