Book Notes: The Way Things Were

Just finished “The Way Things Were,” by Aatish Taseer. It’s the story of an upper-class Indian living in New York who gets word his father, a scholar of Sanskrit and minor raja, has just died. He must bring his father’s ashes back to India, where he finds himself grappling with his, his family’s, and his country’s intertwined histories.

If that strikes you as thin gruel for a narrative, you’re right. The book is grievously afflicted by Litfic Fear of Plot. It’s more an extended collection of interlocking character sketches than anything. The last 200 pages or so dribble out, and the end contains no real resolution, redemption or climax.

Despite this, I enjoyed much of TWTW. The writing is gorgeous. Taseer can craft a great sentence, and is skilled at deploying little moments of insight. The central theme of the novel is “What does mean to be Indian?” and while there’s no answer (that would smack far too much of plot), there’s a lot of interesting discussion along the way. Taseer talks at length of the connections between languages, literature and life, a subject I love to see.

TWTW might be tough for those without a background of Indian history since the early 1970s. If you’ve never heard of the Emergency, the 1982 Blue Star troubles, or the early 90s reforms & the Ayodhya demolition, much of the book will read as gibberish. Taseer’s practice of throwing untranslated Hindi into his dialogue probably won’t help. But if you have an interest in Indian culture, where it’s been and where it’s going, the book has many valuable insights.

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