Aatish Taseer’s brilliantly poetic new novel The Way Things Were explores the cultural schizophrenia of modern India, and the difficulty of building honestly on the past. NPR called Taseer “a writer at the peak of his skill,” and we are pleased to share an excerpt from his new book.
The Creation of Poetry lecture was, half out of principle, half out of habit, always the first Toby gave on landing in India. He delivered it that June afternoon in Delhi at the India International Centre.
‘In his rage,’ Toby said, ‘Valmiki curses the hunter from Nishada. “Adharmo ’yam iti,” the twice-born sage says. “This is unjust. Since, Nishada, you have, at the height of your passion, killed one of this pair of kraunchas”—curlews!—“you shall not now live for very long.”
‘The curse of an angry sage,’ Toby continued, ‘is nothing we have not seen before in Epic. But what happens next is unprecedented: it is what makes this among the grandest openings to any work of literature. Because, within moments of uttering his curse, Valmiki regrets his terrible words. The question,’ Toby breathed, ‘is why? Why does the author of the Ramayana regret cursing the man from Nishada who, in killing the male of this pair of birds, has shattered his reverie and caused him such grief?’
The lecture came usually to Toby without mental effort; with such ease, in fact, that he feared he sounded mechanical. But that afternoon, despite the familiar subject and audience of friends, he was unable to concentrate. His gaze kept finding its way back to her. And she seemed to notice. Her large liquid eyes seemed to return his look; there was a trace of movement in her lips.
‘We are not told,’ Toby said, trying hard to focus his thoughts, ‘Not told why he regrets his curse. But in what follows we are given an important clue. For, in the next instance, Valmiki utters what we consider to be the first verse of Indian poetry. “Fixed in metrical quarters,” the sage says, “each with a like number of syllables, and fit for the accompaniment of stringed and percussion instruments, the utterance that I produced in this access of śoka, grief, shall be called śloka, poetry, and nothing besides.”’
Toby looked long at the audience, and, coming now to the end of his lecture, said, ‘He regrets his curse, I feel, because he knows that his grief at the killing of the bird—grief, he feels interestingly, not for the dying bird, but for its mate, the hen, whose song turns to a piteous lament—has set free his inspiration. It is the dirty secret of his art. Known among poets as the ādi-kavi—the first poet, a Sanskritic Cædmon, if you will—he is the first to recognize, twenty centuries ago, that, however much poets wish not to cause pain, there is no poetry without pain, no poetry without pity. And from here on, in the Indian imagination, śoka—sorrow or grief—comes to be fused, both conceptually and phonemically, with śloka, poetry! It is this, and nothing besides, that we consider to be the birth of poetry.’
• • •
In India, the use of English could, at times, come to feel like a performance in itself. People came to listen to it as people might come to listen to music in other places. In a country so accustomed to high languages, to benedictions and mantras, whose sound itself was beneficial, it was no great matter that not all of what Toby said was understood. It was a ritual. And once completed, the IIC intellectuals, with their yellowing beards and bad teeth, were keen, after a bit of late-afternoon English, to get on with the other elements of the ritual: the vote of thanks, the bouquet of gladioli, the tea and the samosas.
A few stayed behind to ask Toby questions. ‘But, Raja saab,’ one old man in a Himachali cap said, ‘you have said nothing about 1857?’
‘Should I have?’ Toby asked.
The man gave him a wink and a smile. An elderly lady, breathless from her walk up to the stage, said pointedly, ‘So, Mr Ketu, you have learnt Sanskrit then.’ This was not a question. And she seemed not at all uncomfortable by the silence it produced. An old bureaucrat, in beige and brown, cut in, with a burst of raucous laughter, ‘Well, Raja saab, the return of the native, eh?’
From out of this fusty crowd, Toby felt a hand, soft, dark and jewelled, clutch his. He knew immediately whose hand it was. But he caught only a glimpse of her. She was beautiful. Her eyes bigger, mistier and yet more melancholy than they had seemed from the stage. She had long black hair and was dressed in a green chiffon sari, with a single emerald edged with diamonds around her neck.
She said, ‘I hope I’ll see you later tonight at Bapa’s.’ Then—adding, ‘That was amazing, by the way’—she pressed his hand and withdrew quickly.
He was so overcome he had not been able to reply, and, when finally he was able to get away and go out to look for her, he was detained by an unusual man, a man who stood out at first glance.
Toby was in a hurry, but there was something arresting and assertive in how he had stopped him in his tracks and introduced himself in the corporate way, energetically shaking his hand while at the same time presenting his card. Toby at the time recalled thinking, This is someone completely new. The ring of Hessonite on his fingers, the little moustache, the slightly unhealthy pallor of skin, had all suggested one kind of person. But his careful, accented way of speaking, his beautiful clothes and shoes, and . . . and, well, his intensity, the fire in his eyes, singled him out, as someone who, in Toby’s considerable experience of India, was utterly unfamiliar.
And he seemed ready to assault Toby with his question: ‘The Ramayana, Professor Ketu, or should I say, Raja saab: what is it to you? Myth or history?’
Had Toby, in a hurry to find the woman in the green chiffon sari, answered this man’s sincere question with a fudge, an intellectual swipe? Perhaps. He had said, with a smile, ‘Why not stick with the Indic definition? Of Itihāsa! Which is a compound, as you know, iti-ha-āsa, and when broken down, means, literally, The Way indeed that Things Were. That covers everything: talk, legend, tradition, history . . .’
‘That’s very glib, Raja saab,’ the man said. ‘But that doesn’t answer my question, does it? Do you regard it as history, in the sense of it having all really happened, of Ram having really existed, or would you say it was myth?’
‘These things, especially in an Indian context, are not so easy to classify. And I’m not sure it’s so important . . .’
‘Oh, it is important! If tomorrow you told a Muslim Muhammad did not exist, he would consider it important.’
‘What I was going to say was I’m not sure if it’s important for these things to meet a Western standard of what is historical or not. Which is maybe too limited for the Indian context. People, after all, have all kinds of ways of thinking about their past, and the important thing is to discover how they saw themselves, rather than how we see them today.’
It was an academic’s answer, and Toby’s interrogator sensed its safety.
‘Let me ask it more simply, Raja saab: do you, as a professor, believe that such a man as Ram ever existed, the way Jesus—’
‘Jesus is not a historical—’
‘OK, fine. Muhammad, Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare . . . I don’t care. Do you believe that there was ever a king in India called Ram?’
‘There may well have been one. But no—by the standards you are applying, he is not historical. But neither, as you mentioned, is Jesus nor the Buddha—’
And here there was a crack in his interrogator’s composure. His eyes swelled round and white in his head; his lips trembled.
‘Buddha, Ram not historical? Shit Muhammad historical?’
Anger came now to Toby too.
‘What do you want me to say? Mr . . . Mr . . .’ He glanced at the card in his palm. ‘Why don’t you just come out with it?’
‘You people, you have a full agenda. In league with those Islamic shits—’
‘You stop that. Don’t you dare use that kind of language—’
‘I suppose you’ll be saying next that there was no destruction of temples. Vijayanagara not destroyed. Vedic culture not Indian culture; the Aryans came from elsewhere. That’s what you want to say, no? India zero, a big fat anda? No?’
‘Vijayanagara,’ Toby said, interrupting firmly, ‘where, incidentally, I’m headed myself in a few days, was destroyed. And we know that because the Muslim historians, who you despise so much, have recorded it. As for the Aryan migration, which, if it occurred, occurred thirty-five centuries ago, you should ask yourself why it bothers you so much? What is this obsession in India with origins? This need to have people spring from the ground. Thirty-five centuries is a long time. Longer than the histories of Greece and Rome. Why is it in India alone that the mere suggestion that the Aryans might have come from elsewhere causes such discomfort? Can you tell me that, Mr—?’
Before he could look at the card, the man replied, ‘Yes, I can, Raja saab. I’m not . . .’ He hesitated; his lips were dry, a fragment of spittle clung to them, ‘I’m not afraid to take things head on. I can tell you just why. It’s because you . . .’ Here, again, he paused and—as if wanting, now at this bitter end of the conversation to make amends—took the trouble to correct himself. ‘They, the white man and the Muslim,’ he said, taking Toby by the hand with his two hands—not now the corporate shake—‘made us believe we have nothing of our own!’ Then, making to go, he added, ‘Raja saab, please: if I have said anything untoward, forgive me. And if I can be of any assistance to you at all, during your stay in India—these are delicate times!—do not hesitate to be in touch.’
With this, he swung round and vanished ahead of the small crowd of people leaving the IIC. Toby, seeing his card face down in his palm, turned it over. Mahesh Maniraja, CMD Mani Group. It was a name he would have cause to remember.
Aatish Taseer is the author of two novels, The Temple-Goers and Noon, and a translation. He has worked as a reporter for Time magazine, and has written for The Sunday Times, the Financial Times, and Esquire. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he lives in London and Delhi.
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