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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Way Things Were

Aatish Taseer

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To purchase The Way Things Were

Title: The Way Things Were
Author: Aatish Taseer
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 565 pages
Availability: The Way Things Were - US
The Way Things Were - UK
The Way Things Were - Canada
The Way Things Were - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid novel of modern India, questions of language and history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 27/2/2015 Michael Prodger
The Guardian . 27/3/2015 Alfred Hickling
The Hindu . 7/12/2014 Vaishna Roy
Independent on Sunday . 15/3/2015 Amanda Hopkinson
The Spectator . 21/3/2015 Will Nicoll

  From the Reviews:
  • "Taseer is fascinated by language to the point that his characters speak in fully formed philosophical paragraphs rather than a naturalistic vernacular. What they say here, though, about India, love, family and the accommodations inherent in every life, is intensely engrossing. What he has done with great intelligence and elegance is to deliver a novel of ideas in the guise of a very human story." - Michael Prodger, Financial Times

  • "The Way Things Were is a weighty, sometimes unwieldy novel that frequently takes more pleasure in pondering the third-person optative of class VII verbs than the reader may be willing to share. Yet its philological labours advance a significant truth" - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "Aatish Taseerís new book The Way Things Were is not so much about a family but about a nation and a language. (...) Itís an important book because it reclaims ancient and modern history for todayís Indian at a time when wildly opposing versions lay claim to his attention. (...) This is a book of ideas, and the three generations of Skandaís family are merely vehicles to argue its many sides. It reminded me a bit of a Woody Allen movie, where people talk and intellectualise endlessly in a way thatís neither natural nor normal, but intensely enjoyable all the same because Taseerís are the drawing room debates of todayís India." - Vaishna Roy, The Hindu

  • "There is little argument that the fugue of language and heritage that is The Way Things Were is a substantive contribution to new writing from the subcontinent." - Amanda Hopkinson, Independent on Sunday

  • "Throughout the book the scar-tissue left by colonialism and the agonising poverty of a society in swift, violent transition are felt presences. (...) Character development is subtle and clever, but Taseer has wider questions to explore: he wants to assess the state of Indian society, and to make sense of the countryís schizophrenic relationship with its past." - Will Nicoll, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Way Things Were begins with the present-day death of Sanskritist Toby, nominally the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu but an expatriate since 1992. The story follows his son Skanda -- a Sanskritist living abroad like his father -- returning to India to lay his father to rest in his homeland, and then moves back and forth between past and present in presenting the life of the family and the history of modern India. The flashbacks center around several significant events from recent Indian history, including the declaration of the Emergency (1975), when Toby meets and marries Skanda's mother, Uma (also known as Mishi); the anti-Sikh riots after the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi; and the turmoil surrounding the mosque at Ayodhya and its destruction in 1992.
       The contemporary setting and situation can only fully be understood by filling in the pieces from the past, a point Taseer emphasizes by being deliberately vague about many of the present-day details. The Way Things Were is a novel about the importance of history, and of knowing and understanding the past: without that, Taseer suggests, the present is unmoored. So also the title is taken from the Sanskrit word for 'history': "a compound: iti-ha-āsa: The Way indeed that Things Were".
       Outlines are revealed early on, but it takes some time to fill in the details and how the characters got to where they are. Skanda is the son of Toby and Uma; he has a sister, Rudrani -- who has clearly made the most radical cut with their homeland, as it's already revealed on the first page that: "India doesn't exist for her. She's Mrs. Glowitz and that's the end of it". Toby was a noted Sanskritist, author of a leading textbook, editor of the Clay Sanskrit Library-like Kidd Sanskrit Library (in tamarind-coloured volumes, "a very grand publishing project -- akin to the Loeb books"). A professor at Oxford, he was lost in language and a true academic: "there was never a man who knew more about India, and, yet, knew India less".
       Toby and Uma were married but drifted apart; Toby later married Sylvia, while Uma married the very successful businessman -- and fierce (Hindu) nationalist -- Mahesh Maniraja (known as Mani).
       Skanda is studying Sanskrit and preparing a translation for the Mani-funded Maniraja Classical Library (a Kidd-like project of Indian classics) -- of Kālidāsa's The Birth of Kumara (Kumara being one of the names of the god also known as Skanda, so the novel's Skanda is, in fact, in the process of literally realizing himself ...). His father indoctrinated him in Sanskrit from early on, arguing:

It'll give him a feeling for the country he lives in, for its past, for its other languages; it'll give him a sense of how things hang together; it will deepen his sensibility.
       Yet Uma recognizes understands that it is also an elite language, and with its intricate but long-fixed rules a sturdy but in some ways limited structure. As she gleefully tells her nationalist second husband, who has grand plans to 'bring back' Sanskrit into Indian schools:
Its relationship to the local languages operating below it was always and only -- even more so than English today' -- and how she relished the use of the difficult word -- 'one of "hyperglossia". Not simply a high language, my darling, but an über, über language, a language of the super elite, as there has never been anything the likes of since. And the peasants of Uttar Pradesh, Mani dear, did not speak Sanskrit -- not now, not ever. They spoke no more Sanskrit than you do ...'
       Fervent Hindu nationalist Mani is representative of an India that is blind to its own history, seeing only what it wants to see. Mani is not even religious -- he admits to being an atheist (and eats beef "with relish") -- and defines himself as: "a political Hindu": the meaning of Hinduism itself is lost on him, as his politics and worldview amount to little more than tribalism.
       Mani and Toby represent two extremes, which is also reflected in their sense of language. Toby is constantly explaining how Sanskrit works and what it's influences, rippling through other languages, have been. An immensely flexible language, Toby teases out meaning from it; meanwhile Mani:
was the kind of man who always meant everything he said. A true literalist, there was never a gap in his speech between word and meaning. He spoke a language that was lacking in those shades of meaning that come usually o be part of its music. If listening to him speak, one found one had to concentrate hard, it was because the words were just words; they were not spoken with any feeling for sound or emphasis; and one could be replaced with another. His language, as with certain borrowed forms of art, was stripped of all possible liveliness and invention, of subtlety and humour.
       Mani is a prosaic extreme, while Toby (and Skanda) lose themselves so in language and its poetic possibilities that they can't find any hold in the realities around them. It is Uma who is most pragmatic; criticized when she is young for her ignorance of Indian history she sets out to rectify that (largely by falling into Toby's arms), but when she realizes Toby's limitations she moves on. Mani's actions -- "often drawn from cliché" -- are always predictable to her -- "he would never be able to surprise Uma" -- but she seems to prefer this, meeting her expectations in ways Toby couldn't.
       The Way Things Were is a novel of the frustration at a country and culture that does not adequately engage with its own history. Among Toby's frustrations is the shallowness of intellectual life in India -- but then Toby never really fit in, either; indeed, with only one parent who was Indian: "Toby looked a foreigner in India". Of course, he is a true academic -- ivory tower and all -- and while his knowledge is deep it comes up against the limitations of modern-day, everyday Indian life (and society and politics).
       Typical of the book is one anecdote about the time after calm has been restored after the 1984 riots, but when Sikh children are still teased and heckled by their classmates. Toby suggests a course of action to one of the kids:
Tomorrow you go back to them and say, 'OK, fine, we killed Indira Gandhi. But who killed Mahatma Gandhi ?'
       The boy does and, as expected, the one heckling him has no idea -- but of course neither does the boy. There is no sense or understanding of even such significant history -- unimaginable to Toby when doling out his advice. (Mahatma Gandhi was, of course, assassinated by Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse.)
       The Way Things Were sprawls a bit unevenly, and the back-and-forth presentation can be irritating, but Taseer's book is an impressive slice of modern (especially ca. 1970 through 1992) India. In particular, Taseer balances history and personal stories well, showing the small and large ways history impacts individuals (though admittedly his cast of characters all enjoy considerable privilege, making for a very limited slice of Indian society). Taseer's use of Sanskrit -- the language as well as the literature -- is also effective (though perhaps occasionally too distractingly detailed for readers with limited interest in such matters).
       A fairly impressive work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 July 2015

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The Way Things Were: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature

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About the Author:

       Aatish Taseer was born in 1980.

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