The Way Things Were – in Sanskrit, it would mean one-word ‘Itihaas’. Aatish Taseer makes a bold attempt at pivoting his Delhi drawing room stories around some words – words that transcend languages and are connected to each other via a common root. He then tries to link the story of a family with the important events in the socio-political history of Delhi. Mostly between 1975 and 2002 covering three main events – the emergency of 1974, killing of Indira Gandhi and aftermath of that in 1984 and the Ayodhya Ram Mandir movement. Most emphasis is on the 1984 riots. Almost giving a first-person account of the last moments of Indira Gandhi at AIIMS in Delhi. I am sure his lineage as half Sikh probably brings in the personal sensitivity into the narrative.
The last impression that the book left me is of hearing a person absolutely suffocated in the drawing room circles of the Delhi, who had no idea of the world outside Lutyens Delhi. One-off people outside that part of Delhi belong to erstwhile royalty or are rich businessmen of Mumbai. Even when the story does travel across continents and across places like Hampi in India, as a thought it is still stuck at Delhi drawing rooms. You realize the impact of drawing room politics on author’s mind. When he goes into the mundane details of how the so-called society women fight. And for what silly reasons. When he talks about the relationship between Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs – you see it coming from a personal legacy than what is the ground truth – at least what it is outside in public view.
The book begins on a high note promising to be a story of a Sanskrit scholar. Who I hoped would join the threads of the present with the past using the language. I think the author also wanted to do that. But he somehow got on to the political agenda of proving that intellectual culture is dying. He repeatedly says when the culture becomes a slogan it starts dying. You cannot debate that and there are ample examples of that. At one place he mentions If we were to associate the genius of a place with one particular thing – the Russians with literature, say, or the Germans with music, the Dutch, and Spanish with painting – we would have to say the true genius of ancient India was language.
This had me thinking, how important the language would have been for the continuity of our culture. And how fast are we losing it in favor of English?
Aatish Taseer also tries to write in the way Indian epics were written with stories hidden inside each story, with interloped narratives. And layers after layers trying to unravel the story. He defines this way of storytelling and calls it Ring theory. I find him making a desperate attempt at using ring theory to tell the story. Keeping the main narrative between a year after the protagonist’s death and immersion of his ashes, as he goes back and forth between his past and present. I personally admire this style of storytelling. And it has far more rasa than any other form of storytelling. However, the stories have to be multi-pronged or multi-dimensional to fit in this form of narrative. This story lacked as many dimensions. Though there is a conscious effort to put those dimensions. The story remains stuck within 2-3 Delhi drawing rooms.
Having read Tavleen Singh’s Durbar that also talks about Delhi Drawing Rooms of the 1970s and 80s, it seems like son is trying to fictionalize what his mother wrote as pure non-fiction. All through the book The Way, Things Were, he is leading to an incident in Gulmarg, which turns out to be a rather anti-climax. The characters are pretty real though. If you have interacted with politicians, journalists and the residents of Lutyens Delhi – you would identify very strongly with them.
The couple of small mistakes that I noticed is that in 1975, FabIndia was not selling bed sheets. And it is the temples in Hampi that have musical pillars, not palaces. Given the editing standards these days, these mistakes are nothing to worry about.
Though a work of fiction, there is enough realism in the novel. It is autobiographical to an extent. It is part memoirs of turbulent times in Delhi and it is an exploration of a language – an experiment, a teaser that titillates the reader and keeps them guessing.
Overall, The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer is an interesting book. It is the same drawing room circle that would make this book a success, making it a perfect sense to keep writing about them.
Take your call.