Reading Books: “The Way Things Were” Aatish Taseer

(Excerpts from the book in italics)


I read Aatish Taseer with a different kind of interest and reason. It’s his background of an Indian mother and Pakistani father, a union that in certain ways of the society, did not work, ought not work. Yet, there is him, caught between the two, figuring out the nuances of that relationship, the two countries, their cultures, ways, people and seasons, and writing about it.

After Stranger to History, Noon and Manto, I have realised the issues Taseer will write about are going to come from a different layer of the society, of people who are rich, they may get poor in due course, but his books are not going to be about survival necessities. Its survival, but of a different kind.

There are two primary threads in the book, both minorities in a way. The warp, Sanskrit, as a language, its exclusivity and alien-ness, and one person’s love for this language, the expressions in Sanskrit weave the story. And the weft, a Sikh family, its spiritedness, acceptance, rejection, denial of situations, some they create and some they are forced upon.

A lover of Sanskrit, and a Sikh air-hostess fall in love and leave for Hampi, literally from a party where they have just met.

Do you know where Hampi is? No ma’am, restaurant?

And they get married, the two distinctly different worlds they come from start sprouting the commonalities and differences. So something like Himachal, for one, is a beautiful word in Sanskrit and for the other, its cold, snow, beautiful hills…..In each of the many life’s events, situations, good and bad that they face together, each discovers the ugly, unlikable, a completely different way of the other. And most of the time, that different perspective, is loathsome to the other.

Every failed marriage has its victors. There are those who walk away from its ruins with its vitality, its lessons, its experience; and then there are those who are undone by it, who are left with futility and nothing else.

And she remembered it through separation, because in these moments, when the framework of a shared life comes apart, one’s emotions are unreliable. They are, like a swimming pool in spring, full of cold and warm currents. One has to be careful not to be taken by occasional bursts of tenderness; not to mistake these short-lived conflagrations for real fire, for love again. In these moments, one needs, as protection, a rationale for the separation, something immune to strong emotions.

Then 1984 happens, the butchering of the sikh community, altering hopes and dreams, forever. Its inconceivable how some of the everyday routine still goes on in the face of adversity, like the celebration of Diwali, cooking what can be called an elaborate meal when the family is not sure about the whereabouts of the son. Tremendous grit to go on, to push the obvious to the back of the mind and go on. To deal with here and now.

It is so hard to live a life, against the all-pervasive power of a nation against you, like a giant weight on your chest, like a fear that shadows your body and haunts your soul. That feeling of claustrophobia when you want to run but all roads end in an un-penetrable wall and the earth is shaking with an earthquake.

People always say our literature is crammed full of big events. Of riots, partitions, and emergencies. Some may ask: is this really the stuff of everyday life? Surely some people may just be living quiet lives with quiet problems, unaffected by these cataclysms. My answer is no. It is as Naipaul says, “The train has many coaches and different classes, but it passes through the same landscape. People are responding to the same political or religious and cultural pressures.”

That lost hope of escape. Escape from a society and its ways, its languages, its relationships and how it Engages. Lunches, dinners, kitty parties….which thrive on things that have gone wrong, on someone else’s unhappiness. A failed marriage, illicit relationships, gossip, business failures… So far as one is part of those tables, one does not realise how quickly those chairs get emptied and reoccupied, and one becomes the other, the topic of a bridge table conversation.  When you are not invited any more. Its difficult to imagine what those spaces can mean to certain sections. This is what I meant “a different layer of the society” where existence is defined by where you are invited, your links with the influential and the moneyed. And it means so much.

Some delightful expressions form the book:

…all beautiful and complex things when they are crudely destroyed – or partitioned – produce at first a kind of wonder before the horror of their destruction sinks in.

‘ its always that way? With certain people.’‘What way?’ ‘They put in place mechanism for their own undoing.’

 He saw the world only through the lens of his politics. It reduced the complex world into simple binary, in which people were either this way or that.

And yet, strange as it must seem – they had corresponding desire to make a great show of their Indianness, to talk of classical dance recitals, of concerts, of textiles, and spirituality.

These goons in saffron, they say they want a Hindu renaissance, they have no idea what a Hindu renaissance would entail. Their shitty little values about sex and food would be the first thing to go out of the window.

Its so hard to connect one time with another, this world with that world, the scale feels all wrong.

….if you end up estranged from the natural world in your country then it comes to feel like a foreign country, its seasons alien, its extremities harder to bear.

The air of something build and abandoned, the lifeless majesty of the mausoleum or tomb.

And my favourite, rains and seasons, so beautifully written

To be delayed by the monsoon. When clouds as big as mountains cover the sky. ..if there was anyone to whom this season truly belongs, it is the peacocks. But not just because they are happy when it rains, but because of how sad they are when it stops raining.

 ‘A change in the weather’, Proust tells us ‘is sufficient to create the world and oneself anew.’ Never is this more true than with the rains, which arrive like a person arriving, and, one hour to the next, everything is altered: the character of the heat; the quality of the light; the colour and smell of earth.

It was a season that anticipated the great heat with a parade of flowers. The silk cotton, with its fleshy coral flowers and stony branches, casting long shadows over the ground, had come and gone. And now, as the days grew whiter, and the scorching breath of grisma began to blow over the city, a procession of flowering trees ushered in the season of death. There was the burnt orange of gulmohar, the phantasmagoric yellow of the laburnum and the heartbreakingly clement lilac of the jacaranda; on the city’s roundabouts, the thatched canopies of jarul were covered in bright purple blossoms. It was funeral, this solace of flowers, even as the frank gaze of the sun beat down on the land; and shadow grows short and inky…

Amavasya; which does not by the way mean moonless; it means a dwelling together – ama, together; vas, to dwell. The night the sun and the moon dwell together, and so, moonless, because –

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.


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