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Seeing things as they are

DC | ROHINI NAIR
Published Jan 4, 2015, 4:18 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 2:58 am IST
Everyone in my book has something to do with history — they’re trying to run away from it
Author Aatish Taseer
 Author Aatish Taseer

It would seem that Aatish Taseer’s most recent novel, The Way Things Were, is a lot like Sanskrit — the language that’s at the heart of it. It requires a little effort to persist with, initially, but the payoff is rewarding indeed. Presenting the book, his fourth, at a literary festival in Mumbai, Aatish has been caught up in a discussion about the relevance of Sanskrit (this is just days after the Union HRD ministry has announced the decision to replace German with Sanskrit at all Kendriya Vidyalaya schools).

This isn’t the first time a book of Aatish’s has come out at a juncture where it seems prescient. Noon, his previous work, described a father’s violent death in its prologue. The book was at the typesetters when news broke that Aatish’s father, the Pakistani politician Salman Taseer had been assassinated, because of his opposition to the country’s blasphemy law. The Way Things Were, with a message about how Sanskrit and what it represents can be hijacked by those with an agenda, also seems to have had a timely launch.

 

“I didn’t plan that!” says Aatish, of the prescience of Noon and The Way Things Were. “I just think of myself as deeply engaged. As much as I am — being a writer in English — privileged, I don’t ever feel shut out of the Indian conversation. And so while it’s freakish that the book came out in the week that this (controversy) happened, the fact that it (the story) matters is not.”

Of all the books he has written, Aatish has said that The Way Things Were is the one he had the “least misgivings about”. He describes the novel as “a gift”: “Everyone has this one book that they must write and I knew I hadn’t been able to. But there was this material with which I knew I was bringing certain kinds of things and people into English literature in India that hadn’t been (before). People here do care about cultural and historical memory. Modernity, the pain it causes, is not felt by just a handful of people. When I was able to find a way to tie all the material together, I knew I was on my way.”

The Way Things Were is a translation of the Sanskrit word itihasa. And this itihasa operates at three levels in Aatish’s book: There is history that is deeply personal (that of the main characters), the history of modern India (from 1975 to the Babri Masjid demolition) — the backdrop against which their lives unfold, and the ancient history of a civilisation, which impacts the characters’ present in a way they couldn’t have imagined.

“I was not thinking about these different types of histories consciously,” says Aatish. “Everyone in this book has something to do with history — they’re trying to run away from it or they’re obsessed with it or they’re trying to change it. And it seemed so natural that the title of the book should be The Way Things Were, the idea of itihasa in that big, encapsulating way. It’s not just a conventional, Western idea of history, but more like our idea of it, which includes talk, legend.”

While The Way Things Were deals with some pretty big ideas, it is the people in it who’re most compelling. There’s Toby, a Sankritist who lives in the “world of ideas” and his “worldly” wife Uma, their son Skanda, who’s trying to make sense of his family’s story, and several others. The way they are described leads one to wonder if they are based on people Aatish knows. “All writers have models,” says Aatish. “But once the model becomes part of a fictional environment, they are transformed by the process. They become lesser or grander; they cease to be the model.”

So, what comes next? Not another work of fiction, perhaps. Aatish explains that he seeks a change from the solitariness of writing fiction by doing a different kind of journalistic writing. He admits, however, that he already has an idea for his next book. And what prescient themes will this one deal with? “I don’t think in themes, because that’s tricky territory. I think of characters and situations it’s specificity you’re looking for,” Aatish replies. “If there’s any rule in writing, it’s: Don’t deal in abstractions.”

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