peteg's blog - noise - books - 2015 12 11 AatishTaseer TheWayThingsWere

Aatish Taseer: The Way Things Were.

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Kindle. Read perhaps a bit faster than warranted. I liked his review of a book about the Partition that convinced me not to read it, and perhaps heard about him as a translator of Saadat Hasan Manto. Surely his fiction might be worth a look-see.

Briefly, this is an extension of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, commencing with the Emergency and proceeding more-or-less to Modi's recent elevation, trying for the quasi synchronous realism but not the magic. He adopts Ishiguro's increasingly-stale two-track temporal structure, but never achieves the graceful slipperiness of the master, and most recently, Murray Bail. It gets away from him badly at times. Similarly he speaks for his generation in explaining its parents to its parents, as Ishiguro has, and the father's ashes are, so clunkily, the remains of the day.

Of course Taseer is in strong company when criticizing his own country. He is never as funny or as vicious as Renton despite having (probably?) more provocation on the English colonialism front. The skewering of philistine businessmen flails about in caricature, and unpacking the Sikh apartness would have been more valuable than the generic rants about deracination. There is no comprehension that, while India's ancient understandings of language may not have been practically useful for much of the twentieth century, modern analyses of computation have revived the genre. Too much arts, not enough science, I fear. Sure, everyday aesthetics has always been a long way down the list. I didn't get a strong feeling for his attitude towards Modi; here he is a Hindu nationalist who doesn't understand history or cultural roots, but in public Taseer has lauded Modi for making noises about sanitation.

Taseer places his erudition and upbringing (in the drawing rooms of Delhi) front and centre; Alfred Hickling unpacks the latter at length. The Sanskrit games are not idle, but some are annoyingly opaque, which makes me think he is talking to his buddies in the diminished cultural elites. His characters are often fragments of himself, and there are too many secondaries that serve little purpose; it could have been fifty pages shorter and a lot deeper. His main character in the present-tense track is occluded; Skanda's inner life is unrealised, and we never get to see his sister as an adult. Why did Uma stop talking to Ishi? The section that resonated most with me was well away from the dead scenes of Delhi society past, when Toby (the father) uses his son (Skanda) to explain his life philosophy:

He had once said – and she clung to it as the intellectual basis for their separation, ‘I don’t know why people feel that if this is the only life, then it follows that one must be hedonistic, or live hard. I should think that if this is the only life, if really and truly there is this and nothing else, then one can relax, squander one’s life with impunity, spend it reading, sitting in a chair, or learning languages. Wait it out, you know. Treat it like a throwaway thing. One-use-only.’

‘Toby, that makes no sense.’

‘Do you remember when we were with the kids once, at that aquarium in Baltimore?’


‘And we bought Skandu that little plastic stick, which, if you cracked it, would glow in the dark...’

‘Yes, he loved it.’

‘He did. But do you remember what he asked us?’


‘He asked us how long it would glow for. Whether it would glow ad infinitum, or whether – and this was nice – it could be turned off, to glow again on another day...’

‘Toby, what has this to do with anything?’

‘It has everything to do with everything. Because – do you remember? – once we told him that that was it, that once he’d cracked the thing, it would glow till it ran out, and never glow again, he was instantly contemptuous of it. He threw it aside. We tried to explain to him that he should cherish it in the moment, enjoy the glow while it lasted, but it was no use: he was no longer interested.’

‘Toby, are you saying that that is your attitude to life?’

‘In a sense, yes,’ he said, and grinned.

And another, Toby hooking up with his second wife Sylvia:

He put the light on; it fell aslant over Sylvia’s bare back, where his eye fixed on a mole partially enveloped in skin. Again disappointment returned, deep and unreachable. He decided to finish the chapter he was reading. She stirred a little. He watched her with some mixture of curiosity and dismay. He was at the end of Swann in Love: ‘And with the old, intermittent caddishness which reappeared in him when he was no longer unhappy and his moral standards dropped accordingly, he exclaimed to himself: “To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!”’

Malathion gas... the serpent's egg has already been hatched! Taseer is not a careful scholar, as witnessed by the corrections to his articles in the New York Times. Detail may be beneath him. His article How English Ruined Indian Literature is larded with manifest conceptual error. And really, is his point that who controls the past controls the future? (cf Asian Dub Foundation in obvious debt to George Orwell.)