Wednesday, 31 January 2018

We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

We that are the youngest, the fastest, the democracy, the economy, the future technology of the world, the global Super Power coming soon to a cinema near you, we, hum panch, that are the five cousins of the five great rivers, everybody our brother-sister-lover, we that are divine: the echo of the ancient heroes of the old times, we that fight, we that love, we that are hungry, so, so hungry, we that are young.

Preti Taneja’s debut is a monumental novel that brings King Lear to modern India – specifically, India in the midst of the anti-corruption movement of 2011/12.

Here, Lear has become Devraj, known as Bapuji (honoured father), ageing CEO of a towering, all-encompassing Indian corporation, source of wealth and possibly also of corruption.

Like the play, it unfolds over five ‘acts’. But while we view Lear primarily through the lens of Lear himself, in this novel, each ‘act’ is written from the point of view of one of the five members of the younger generation - Jirvan, the illegitimate son of Devraj’s closest advisor (Edgar); Gargi, the eldest daughter (Goneril); Radha, the second daughter (Reagan); Jeet, legitimate son and Jirvan’s half-brother (Edmund/Tom O’Bedlam) and Sita, the youngest daughter (Cordelia). So when Devraj, like Lear, rails against the monsters his children have become, we know he is railing against natures he spent years nurturing, while they are struggling to hold together what he has smashed apart.

The book delivers the key events of the play beat by beat, but it manages to do so in such a way that even the most iconic moments remain shocking. And if you know the play tolerably well, you can match even the minor characters one-for-one. At first I thought that the exception was The Fool. Then I realised that his place had been taken by Nanu, Davraj’s mother – the one person who can speak truth to him, who speaks gnomically in riddles drawn from holy texts.

The text is rich with the black humour and startling imagery, such as Gargi’s portrait of her father:

“In his white singlet and saffron underpants, like a hard boiled egg cut in half she had thought, he stood among the rails of shirts and suits... while telling Gargi (as if his mouth was full of acid and nails) that he had heard all about that moment, almost two weeks aso, when ... she had sat on the pool deck with that boy, Ranjit’s returnee.”

Taneja drops regularly into Hindi and no translation or glossary is offered. You don’t need to know the translations, but if you take the time to Google the meanings, it will add to the richness of your experience.

This is a darkly comic study of a monstrously dysfunctional family that is also so, so much more. Directors of Shakespeare’s plays can suggest settings in time and place the give context to the drama. But in transporting the story to India and fleshing out the location through the rich medium of the novel, Taneja has at once breathed entirely new life into a classic text, held a mirror held up to the faults and frailties of modern India, and created a powerful metaphor for greed, cruelty and corruption everywhere.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here by Sarayu Srivatsa; The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Avoid If You Dislike: Long tomes; elements not translated into English; Shakespeare

Perfect Accompaniment: Aloo paranthe (flat bread stuffed with spiced potato) and a glass of whisky

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available on Amazon

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