Under normal circumstances, I am a dog-earer of books. A book-marker — using receipts and matchbooks and old train tickets to flag pages and red pens to mark passages which moved me or made me want to kick an author in the shins. A mediocre book will have a few such scars. A great one will look ragged.
But I wrecked my copy of Aatish Taseer's new novel, The Way Things Were, folding the corners of so many pages and planting so many scraps of paper amid the chapters that it sits now, swollen, on my desk like a patient after gum surgery.
There are a lot of books which take small things and make them epic; fewer which can encompass the scope of the epic and still make time for the small, personal details. Almost no book can do both. And there are very few books out there that you can open, knowing nothing, stab down a finger and find a line or a paragraph lovely enough, even in isolation, to be worth scrawling down somewhere or tattooing on your neck.
The Way Things Were does it all. Pinballs, in fact, between the close and the epic with remarkable alacrity and balance. Taseer (already beloved, feted, the voice of his generation, et cetera) is a writer at the peak of his skill, giving the finger to hubris and rarely putting a foot wrong as he churns through a literary minefield of multiple narrators, nested time frames, 40 years of messy, modern Indian history, and a central motif which rests on the cognates and etymological contortions of a dead language.
Did that freak you out? Don't let it. You gotta be brave with this one — with the size (9 billion pages, roughly), the weight, the subject matter. It can all seem intimidating, but you need to just square up and face it. Dive in. See how long it takes before you come up again for air.
Taseer's main character is Skanda, a young man born in India, raised globally, educated in Manhattan. He's an academic studying Sanskrit, working on an endless translation project and a graduate degree.
Skanda's father, Toby, was a minor princeling ("rather more –ling than prince,") and a famous Sanskritist himself. At the opening of the novel, he has died, drawing Skanda out from amid the comfortable distractions of academic life and back to Delhi. There he is informed by his absentee mother that Toby's final wish was that his ashes be brought back to his birthplace. Skanda is the only one capable. Or willing.
The journey takes him a year and forms the snaking, left arm of the novel — a return to the land of his youth, to his parents' soured friends, to places he knew as a child which he can witness now as an adult. It's a vision of India growing and changing around him. "One India, dwarfed and stunted," he says, "[adhering] like a watchful undergrowth to another India which...wishes to shrug off its poorer opposite; to leave it behind; to shut it out; to soar over it."
The novel's right arm, twining around Skanda's tale, is the story of Toby and Uma (Skanda's mother) — of their love affair, begun in passionate heat, staled, and ending, finally, in the ugly way that all such things end. In their narrative lives the birth of a modern India — from The Emergency of 1975 to the destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992 — as seen from the drawing rooms and card parties of Delhi's elite, as well as from the backcountry dirt roads and cosmopolitan lecture halls that Toby frequents.
Taseer tells these stories concurrently, spinning the parents' love story as Skanda winds his way (achingly slowly, with no small amount of youthful, rich-boy angst) through time and the country — an effect the author lampshades early on during a discussion between Skanda and one of his professors who launches into a billowing digression on narrative structure and the actions of the heart, systole and diastole. "Of course there is a relationship," he says. "A vital relationship. But the two actions, like the two narratives, are also discrete...It is an intelligent breathing relationship, a porous relationship, but also subliminal."
One story cannot live without the other. The epic will not make sense without the tight, small details of the love story and the fiddliness of Taseer's (and Toby's, and Skanda's) obsession with Sanskrit, the mother of all language, so cooed over here that it almost becomes its own character.
But the effortlessness with which Taseer handles all this is what gives The Way Things Were its lift, its lightness (though never insignificance) and its thrust. There is, astoundingly, among all these hundreds of thousands of words, rarely a dull moment (particularly for those who get jumped up over cognates, doublets and linguistic morphology.)
And rarely a page without something beautiful to behold.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.