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FICTION: ECHOES OF THE PAST

December 31, 2017

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An 1851 portrayal of King Lear and his Fool. The characters are reincarnated as Indian business tycoon Devraj Bapuji and his mother, Nanu, in Taneja’s adaptation | Public domain
An 1851 portrayal of King Lear and his Fool. The characters are reincarnated as Indian business tycoon Devraj Bapuji and his mother, Nanu, in Taneja’s adaptation | Public domain

"India is changing.” So says a political analyst as a major political party hands its leadership over to a new generation and news reports talk about the waning influence of family names on voters. It is also a changing India that is at the heart of Preti Taneja’s debut novel, We That Are Young. Set mainly in modern-day north India, the plot and characters echo William Shakespeare’s play King Lear, with Devraj Bapuji — “founder of The Devraj Company, one of India’s most loved tycoons” — as Lear, and Gargi, Radha and Sita, his three daughters. Ranjit Singh — Shakespeare’s Gloucester — is his second-in-command with two sons, Jeet and Jivan (one legitimate, one not) reprising the original Edgar and Edmund.

We That Are Young is divided into five sections, each one written from the point of view of a different character. It opens with the world through Jivan’s eyes as he returns to India from the United States after 15 years. Through him we are introduced to other characters, differences and similarities to the India he remembers, and the inner workings of The Company. It is not by accident that it is constantly referred to as ‘The Company’ — history is never far behind. Yet things are changing. The old must give way to the new, whether willingly or by force, and Jivan’s mantra is, “It’s not about land, it’s about money.”

Through her characters, Taneja tackles issues of gender and class inequality, misogyny, abuse, power and powerlessness, obscene amounts of wealth and abject poverty. Gargi tells Jivan how they are “forced to bribe for everything. To get contracts, we pay. To get paid, we pay.” This sounds all too familiar, for either side of the border, and not just for wealthy industrialists. Class and its trappings are described in excessive detail, perhaps to hammer in the point that those who have, truly do have — a contrast to the ghostly figures that do not. Symbols abound, such as the chiru or Tibetan antelope, killed for its hair that is then woven into the infamous Shahtoosh shawls. Kashmir itself remains a potent symbol; it is the place where Devraj’s wife and father-in-law were “slaughtered in the streets”, and where Devraj’s obsession — construction of The Company’s hotel in Srinagar — lies.

A contemporary retelling of King Lear in an Indian setting is compelling and confounding at the same time

Devraj’s perspective is interspersed within each section as brief chapters: “My story is a simple one, come closer if you can. The language you understand it in is not the one I am speaking. It contains elements of truth, the genius of ancients, and some more modern influences,” he says. Language is a major theme in We That Are Young; bilingual with sometimes un-translated and un-italicised Hindi, and dialogue and description that is uniquely subcontinental. The novel frequently references the Mahabharata and Bollywood, with Slumdog Millionaire featuring inexplicably often. This unlikely combination works well — surprisingly well, in fact. The book is a page-turner even as it has its cumbersome moments.

Cumbersome: it might be easier to read this book without Lear’s shadow. The novel’s relationship to the play poses a few problems (particularly for a reviewer). As the opening paragraph of this review reveals, it is as if reading two things at once, which creates a certain dissonance, like a phone conversation where you hear your voice talking back to you a few seconds after you’ve said something. Then there is the matter of spoilers. Is there anything such as a spoiler in this context? Not really. Even if you only know King Lear through a plot synopsis, you’ll have an idea of what’s going to happen. If you’re familiar with it, well, so long as you know who’s who, you know more or less who will live and who will die. It is, after all, a tragedy.

Where Shakespeare separates the good from the bad quite clearly, Taneja’s characters are nuanced, relatable and familiar: they are both good and bad, human, caught up in infinitely unequal worlds that we see through their eyes. The ‘bad’ are not as monstrous as they may seem to others; all are products of their experiences and the world they inhabit. Yet again, however, it is like reading with bifocals — do I respond to Gargi because she ‘is’ multidimensional, or because she seems so when compared to Goneril? Is Sita likeable or seemingly so because Cordelia was the ‘good’ daughter? And what of the characters that do not match quite so precisely? Lear’s Fool, for example; far less endearing than the Fool is Nanu.

While the play’s plot lends itself to our times (perhaps all times) quite easily, and the fit that Taneja has found in its Indian setting works well, it was not entirely necessary to make it so precise an echo. The language, the plot and the characters have been meticulously crafted so that King Lear remains ever-present, raising questions about whether certain elements or devices are there for any purpose other than because they were there in the play. In doing so, some of the art has been sacrificed for craft, if you’ll pardon the problematic demarcations and definitions.

A great deal of craft has gone into this mirroring. The number of sections runs parallel to the play’s five acts. Taneja has also worked in some of the more improbable scenarios of the play — the blinding, the storm, the disguise — and a closer reading of the two texts side by side is sure to reveal more in common. Maybe one could simply acknowledge the effort and read it without its echo. Yet at times the suspension of disbelief that this calls for, the slightly awkward movements backwards and forward in time, do make it seem like it has been contorted to fit the mould and are acceptable because you know, well, that’s what happens in King Lear.

Whether it is read on its own or with Lear ranting in the background, We That Are Young is a book that has something to say. Its Advance Praise page contains words such as “urgent”, “chilling”, “political”, “piercing”, “important” and “brave” — throw in terms such as “hard-hitting” and “murky underbelly” (hearken back to the symbolism of the chiru) — it is all that and more. Taneja has channelled a great deal of anger in the retelling of this tragedy that leaves us carrying “the weight of this sad time” (King Lear, Act V, Sc. iii) long after the last page has been turned.

The reviewer is a writer, editor and educationist with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction

We That Are Young
By Preti Taneja
Hamish Hamilton, India
ISBN: 978-0670090464
548pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 31st, 2017

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