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India Today: Aatish Taseer Interview

Dec. 15, 2014

Aatish Taseer's third novel, The Way Things Were, is his best yet. It is a generational epic but what makes it stand apart are the exuberant, intelligent wordplay sparked by its heroes who are Sanskritists, a wicked portrait of Delhi society and the arc of Indian politics it traverses-from the Emergency to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. One thread is classical, with Kalidasa's Kumarasambhava at its heart; the other is contemporary, about people who engage with the past: some reduce it to slogans, a few study it and then some remain indifferent to it. In an email interview with Senior Editor Charmy Harikrishnan, Taseer speaks about his new novel, what he loves about Sanskrit and what he fears about HRD Minister Smriti Irani's Sanskrit revivalism. Excerpts:


Q. Is this Aatish Taseer's itihasa? Did you want a story of epic proportions, that links past and present, that runs across generations, that linguistically threads East and West?

A. I certainly didn't begin with that scale in mind. I began much smaller: with an image of a young man bringing his father back to an old Indian town to be cremated. It was an image that had come to me from a friend. And for many months it was all I had. I see now that it was what Nabokov described as the 'throb'. It was the seed of my novel, and over time it began to uncoil into The Way Things Were. I did also have at the time a corresponding excitement related to discoveries I was making in my Sanskrit reading which I think bled into my novel.

 
Q. What is Sanskrit to you? When did you begin to love this language?

A. I began some eight years ago as a private student at Oxford. I'm at a pretty good level right now. I can read mahakavya with the help of the commentators, and epics pretty easily. Love? I think it happened twice, once on the level of sound, and then again on the level of structure and grammar. Grammar here should not be understood in the modern sense. The ancient grammars were meditations on language; they were like works of philosophy and linguistics merged into one. Probably no language is as worked-out as Sanskrit; it is full of thought and planning; and when one glimpses the radiance of that thought it is very hard to turn away from it.

Q. How do you look at Sanskrit's problematic past-it was not everybody's language, it was elitist.

A. I don't see it as problematic at all. I see it as ancient India working out-on the level of language-the problem of the One and the Many. India then was no less diverse than it is now; it would always have needed-as later it needed Persian, and now English-a high language. That was the role Sanskrit played; and, as Sheldon Pollock points out, it never had a 'scorched earth' relationship to the languages that operated below it. It was far kinder to its Prakrits than English is to the regional languages of India. And it made possible an intellectual exchange which stretched from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu and Java on the other end. I find it marvellous to think of that empire of ideas and language that it brought into being. An entity as grand as Rome, but without Rome's anxieties; it needed no political authority to hold it together.

Q. How did you react to Smriti Irani replacing German with Sanskrit in schools?

A. Look, there's nothing I'd like more than for Sanskrit to have a place of importance in the lives of young people. But this is not the way to do it. You don't just shove in Sanskrit where you see an opening. If it is to be introduced seriously, it must be done very carefully. One would have to know that Sanskrit was there for the right reasons-to stir the imagination, to rouse the intellect-not to produce more shinyfaced goons yelling 'Bharat mata ki jai'. Also, we would have to think of a new way to teach it. The way it has been taught so far produces aversion rather than wonder. The last thing we need is more Sanskrit teachers becoming figures of fun and ridicule in the school.

Q. Cognates (words with the same origin, like 'video' and Veda having the root in 'vid') are important in this novel. With Sanskrit, did you rediscover a twin in Indo-European languages?

A. That's right. The story of that shared birth-and its continuing resonance in our languages today-is such a beautiful thing. And, you know, it freed me from a lot of colonial angst. I used to be so embarrassed of English and its implications. But the knowledge of that shared birth enlarges one's view of the history of language. And the moment one is able to see in a word like cardiac, say, the shared remnant of the Sanskrit hrdaya, language ceases to be so impenetrable. One sees that its history is not hermetically sealed, not bounded in by walls, but by thin membranes.

Q. Why did you place Kumarasambhava (The Birth of Kumara) at the heart of your book? There is a beautiful line in your book that shatters the preconceptions of those who long for a Hindu renaissance: "They have no idea what a Hindu Renaissance will entail. Their shitty little values about food and sex will be the first thing to go out of the window."

A. Yes! I share my character Theo Mackinson's view that the 'Birth of Kumara' is a celebration of the female principle. And I recognised a kind of closeness between my Uma and Kalidasa's Uma. I also borrowed his structural idea of a dual narrative. I liked the idea of the two narratives bristling next to each other. But yes, when you read the Kumarasambhava, you see that the women in that poem bear no resemblance to what the men in saffron would have the modern Indian woman be today!

Q. Is this book a conversation between the past and the present, an attempt to reclaim the past from 'saffron goons'? There are also good Sanskritists and bad Sanskritists, aren't there?

A. There are. But we should keep in mind that the 'bad Sanskritists' are very rarely Sanskritists at all. It is their jahaalat that makes them want to turn the past into a slogan. It is easier to grasp that way. The alternative is sitting down to hours of labour every day. The saffron goon very rarely has an appetite for that kind of labour. He secretly knows that the language is goon-proof.

Q. While this book revels in the past, it is wary of the distortions, the versions and revisions spread by the Sangh, of its reducing the past to a slogan. Are you?

A. Yes, because the Sangh and their fellow travellers are trying to simplify the past in crude ways, in ways that have more to do with the present than the past. The complexity of the Hindu past is of no interest to them. All they want from the past is a weapon to fight their perceived enemies: Islam, the influence of the West, whatever. They want a slogan, a ringtone; a Ram for a Muhammad, a Gita for a Bible; they don't want the full sophistication of the Hindu past. They wouldn't know what to do with it. And they're doubly pissed off because unlike the Semitic religions, our religions don't offer up cudgels to thugs so easily.

Q. Your book talks about things close to right-wing politics, like the glory of Sanskrit, but cleave from the destruction of Babri Masjid. Do you think India's right-wing politics can get the right balance? What should it do?

A. It should invest in the life of the mind. Only a serious commitment to the intellect can save the Right. It must eschew pamphleteer-intellectuals. Take, for instance, the area of Indology. It already exists in other places and it's a pretty grand thing. The Right should seek to participate in it, not break it apart from ignorance. But one fears very much that this is not the direction the Right is taking; one fears very much that it is glorying in its ignorance. The people who pass as 'RWers' on social media are jingoistic, semi-literate, full of ugly ideas; and they are, by the way, the mirror image of their brothers across the border. The kind of pamphleteer-intellectual they end up supporting has nothing to offer the Indian story save chauvinism, a certain violence of opinion and extreme oversensitivity.

Q. Your book is also a portrait of Delhi.

A. Sometimes a city or landscape can enter the soul of a writer. I think Delhi entered mine. And in this book-because I was recreating the city of my childhood-it worked on me in even more powerful ways.

Q. You have also translated Manto. You are the inheritor of two languages. How is it to hold both Urdu and Sanskrit in your hands?

A. There's this line towards the end of my first book- Stranger to History-where I felt it had renewed my connection to the land that was Pakistan. I remember writing something about needing to embrace the three-tier history of India whole, needing perhaps 'an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu and English'. At the time I had neither Sanskrit nor Urdu. Some eight or nine years later I feel I've been able to compensate in some small way for the inadequacies of my education. Cultural wholeness will never be possible; once that breaks, it never returns in the same way; and one should not fake it. What is lost is lost. But I feel less culturally denuded than I once did. I suppose what I'm saying is that I have been able to make something of a journey back.



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