Lifestyle Books and Art 19 Nov 2017 Book review: King Le ...

Book review: King Lear revisited ...in a business clan

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | KARISHMA ATTARI
Published Nov 19, 2017, 2:52 am IST
Updated Nov 19, 2017, 2:52 am IST
There are other versions of the story of this mythological pre-Roman Celtic King Leir of Britain in which good actually trumps evil.
We That Are Young by Preti Taneja Pages 545, Rs 599, Penguin Random House 2017.
 We That Are Young by Preti Taneja Pages 545, Rs 599, Penguin Random House 2017.

It is curious that Preti Taneja’s debut novel, We That Are Young, which is an adaptation of King Lear, opens with a quote from Indian poet Kabir rather than Shakespeare. It is also telling, because while the spine remains loyal to the severe Jacobean plotline of tragic nihilation, its body is corpulent, practically bursting with the ethos of contemporary Indian culture, in which spirituality is somehow entwined with common corruption. “What is this untellable tale about?” goes the first line of the poem. This question is echoed and seemingly answered in the very first line of the opening chapter as Jivan, a bastard son returning home, thinks to himself, “It’s about land, it’s about money.” A theme that is reiterated across the novel, not only in so many words by Gargi, the first-born daughter of tycoon Devraj Singh, but by the actions of all who cross paths with them.

So, We That Are Young is about an inheritance tussle involving land and money, if we are to agree with its six hypnotically gripping narrators who take us from farmhouses in Delhi and palaces in Kashmir, to luxury hotels and slums in Amritsar. There’s Devraj Singh or Bapuji, the man who is synonymous with the (always written in capitals) Company, his first born Gargi, his second daughter Radha, youngest child Sita, nephew Jeet, and Jeet’s illegitimate half-brother Jivan. Their struggle plays itself out in a richly documented public spectacle as a family that had hitherto maintained closed ranks implodes upon itself, bringing down an erstwhile impregnable business empire.

 

Unable to give up the power he had willingly abdicated in a three-way split between his daughters and loyals, patriarch Devraj styles himself anew as a type of suffering saint bordering as old Lear did, on madness. Soon he is riding a public wave of anti-corruption sentiment, and making sensational allegations against his erstwhile family, even as they begin a series of snake-like maneuvers that destroy their old relations like slow-eating poison.

Taneja, however, is telling another story as well, and that is where Kabir’s poem about the five senses resonates, in its allusions to how the individual soul causes anarchy when it loses its way and fails its natural duty. Just what that duty consists of, however, is even harder to grasp, because the author drapes both her convictions and her characters, much as Shakespeare and Kabir did, with ambiguities.

 

The three sisters and their cousins have distinct voices, motivations, and are laid out for the reader’s consumption, as celebrities often appear today: startlingly exposed in the style of magazine spreads. Taneja’s skill at both  — revelation and display — make the novel a page-turner that retains its literary quality and satisfies curiosity on many levels. Her scenes are complex and layered, they show a character caught in a moment of time with the immediacy of a polaroid photograph, and yet tell of a world of personal pain and history that simmers underneath the surface.

 

In a characteristic scene, Radha, whose drug and alcohol fueled partying with her husband Bubu somehow corresponds with her role as PR maven at the Company, comes over to the luxury hotel poolside in a holy city. She finds the men engaged in playing cards. “The men look up to greet her cocktail dress and legs, her Louboutins; Yes, say the trees, you are pretty…… The world is full of glimmering colours and lights. She takes off her heels and begins to trace the steps of the Draupadi dance, slowly beginning to twirl, then faster and faster until she cannot stand anymore. Her dress has no straps and no pleated skirt, her black sequins are sparkling, catching the pool light, making her feel like a comet: Oh my God! She shouts. Awesome. I’m awesome!”

 

We see Taneja’s sisters, in technicolor brilliance, in all their made-up finery and yet feel them at a visceral, naked level through their voiced emotions. In this and other ways, Taneja comes very close to the spirit of the work she borrows her theme from. Take how Lear’s ramblings about “rich” clothes that cover lies are threaded through in the way Taneja’s characters appear, and feel. When Radha is stripped down by her father’s disapproval, she finds her designer dress is no longer a disguise to hide behind, and she is stripped of her borrowed shawl. Instead, “…she stands there in her bandages, half mummified, half bronze.” From Sita, the innocent, we hear very little, she ghosts through the novel present more by absence.

 

Where Taneja does not mirror Shakespeare however, is in the way her story slowly builds up in pitch to the unendurable to tell of things that the three daughters have borne, thus showing the origins of the rot that permeates the novel. We see the concrete ways that the Devraj sisters – princesses all – are trapped and trampled under wave after wave of patriarchy. Their enslavement to the family and forced impotence in the Company comes under many names and titles: tradition, culture, family values, but is abuse of an unmistakably damning nature in Taneja’s hands. What’s more, Devraj, despite being the first to suffer in the present world of the story, is the least sympathetic character. “Report,” he hounds his growing children, with all the urgency of a fascist dictator. Small wonder then, the constant notes of suspicion that run through the novel. “He divided us for his own pleasure,” Gargi recounts, “like meat torn from bone.”

 

Constructed in six sections, Taneja’s plotline moves inexorably forward, even as it ebbs and flows over certain events, towards a final desolate end, and remains “full of sound and fury” throughout. There are other versions of the story of this mythological pre-Roman Celtic King Leir of Britain in which good actually trumps evil. Taneja chooses the moral abyss of Shakespeare’s Lear, the visceral snap of an unjust finale for the evil and innocent alike, “signifying nothing” in the end. It is to her credit how finely she has transplanted this seed in new soil, exposing us to such a flowering of the “evil” daughters that both sympathy and shock collide in the reader’s mind to create a raw and wholly original sense of awe.

 

Karishma Attari is author of I See You and Don’t Look Down. She runs the workshop series Shakespeare for Dummies. On twitter @Karishmawrites.

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