|All we need is intellectual curiosity rather than using tradition as propaganda, Aatish Taseer tells ANANYA BORGOHAIN
By Ananya Borgohain,The Pioneer
The Way Things Were
Author : Aatish Taseer
Publisher : Pan Macmillan, Rs699
We not only have a political opinion but also information; the private and the political aren’t separate entities in India. All we need is intellectual curiosity rather than using tradition as propaganda, Aatish Taseer tells ANANYA BORGOHAIN
Aatish Taseer’s latest book, The Way Things Were, is set in contemporary Delhi but delves deep into the landscape of the past four decades. It chronicles the life of a Sanskritist, Toby, who dies and his estranged son Skanda brings his body back to his birthplace. It documents the major turns of Indian history and is distributed into sections starting from ‘The Emergency (1975)’ to ‘The Mosque (1992)’. In an interaction, the author explains how the imprints of the past cannot be detached from the present:
How did your fascination with Sanskrit start?
It started about eight years ago in a very simple way; I was working as a writer at a certain geographical space. I found that if a writer was working in another place, they would naturally sense the continuation of a tradition, the notion of a writer that has come from ages. For instance, in England, you could go back to Chaucer or Shakespeare, but in India I couldn’t go very far at all. I had a grandfather who was an Urdu poet; with great difficulty, I was able to open up that area but certainly couldn’t go further. I thought if I could hear a literary voice from six to seven hundred years ago, it would satisfy a great curiosity. I was introduced to Sanskrit in England, and later learned in America. Perhaps for half a century now, centres of Sanskrit learning are almost exclusively in Europe and America. Most of the grammar of Sanskrit is very complicated, it’s classical grammar. It’s based on cases such as Latin and Greek, which I was not familiar with, so the first six months of learning were very tough.
Do we have Indian scholarly Sankritists?
We have some very learned pundits, mainly in Benares. There is, for instance, Kamlesh Dutt Tripathi, who is an amazing scholar of Alankarashastra, the shastra of ornament. What is lacking here is a certain kind of vitality that has produced books by other Sanskritists such as Sheldon Pollock’s The Language of the Gods in the World of Men or Extreme Poetry by Yigal Bronner who is based in Jerusalem or Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought. There is a certain kind of scholarship in their works which is absent here. I have spent a great deal of time at the Sanskrit department of the Banaras Hindu University and have realised that the people are very knowledgeable there but there is also a lack of curiosity among them. People revere Sanskrit but it does not seem like an intellectually dynamic environment.
Is Sanskrit a dead language?
I think that does not matter. I don’t think it’s a concern if Latin or ancient Greek is a dead language. You go to Sanskrit not to speak to people but to have an access to what the classical world must have been like.
You sound like one of your protagonists, Toby. I was wondering if this person was also a victim of his own romantic notion of Sanskrit.
Toby is indeed one of the profound victims in the novel. You feel right at the beginning that this man is a casualty. There’s a point in the novel when Gayatri Mann says that Toby loves ideas more than he loves men. There was this incredible vision of classical literature in his mind and he was living in its remains. He never realised the extent to which it was a fantasy, that the modern impulses of the country was far away from that vision. He kept believing that that vision would be resurrected, like in European renaissance.
In this regard, which country do you think is similar to India?
I feel Russia was the first place where this dichotomy began to occur between what is a part of the Russian soul and the assimilation of ideas that filtered in from Europe. In the 19th century, there’s a sense of schizophrenia, a dualism where on one hand you want the voice of the country to speak but on the other hand almost all centres of learning and influences are coming from Europe. It’s very similar to the Indian landscape whether you compare it with the Hindu groups or the deracinated leftists. For my second book I had used an epigraph from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, it was an amazing scene where Dostoyevsky was passionate about how being liberal was divorced from a kind of Russian reality.
Things that you hear today in India, particularly social media is abuzz with terms like ‘sickular’ and so on are things which a 19th century Russian would have understood very well.
There is also the age old East-West debate in the novel. As a historian, would you not want to deconstruct the stabilised notions of what the East is or what the West is?
Absolutely, and I think the novel in terms of language does that a lot. There was earlier a certain kind of shame of being an English writer in India, a language which not everybody spoke and sounded exclusivist, thereby negating larger number of the populace. So when I learned Sanskrit it made me less antagonistic towards Western languages because the European foundations are so interesting and fluid that you realise a much deeper history. There would have been no Western renaissance without Islam, for instance. In a lighter way, while writing my first book I travelled from Venice to Arabia and then to Iran into Pakistan, and noticed what could be identified as an Eastern or a Western attribute. After you cross Bulgaria, you would notice people carrying things on their head or the introduction of spice in Bulgaria. In Europe, the lighting in a restaurant would be dimmed, in Turkey the lighting would be brighter. So, East and West come up in all kinds of ways.
How do you look at the book — an Indian literary history or a political history?
I think the personal and the political are not too separate entities in a country like India. In America, if you get out of intellectual circles and ask the layman about politics, they might not be able to respond. But in India, when I was researching in Benares, people not only had a political opinion but would also have a lot of information. I did not deliberately introduce politics into the novel, it’s the kind of India I grew up in. My mother is a political journalist (Tavleen Singh), my father was a politician (late Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab, Pakistan), politics was a discourse for me since childhood.
The years keep changing in the book but the roots of contention are the same. Will religion and the concept of God die?
In 1968, Salman Rushdie predicted religion would be dead. Imagine how wrong he was. I think in some traditional communities, the idea of your self came in effortlessly. There were set traditions. Their world was intact. Today there is a certain modern experience that will rob you of it. When you come out of it, the need to know who you are is amplified. Religion in a strong way answers that question, as seen in the character of Maniraja, a fundamentalist, in the novel. And towards the end, it is also about his rise and the demise of someone like Toby.
What is a Hindu Renaissance?
Modern India is weakened by the fact it has not been able to reach into itself. It’s almost as if the experience of modernity is a total destruction of a kind of traditional life. I think a Hindu Renaissance would be the rediscovering of the Indian past in an energising and intellectual way; a moment where a country can tell a story about itself. Not insecure slogan shouting like Bharat mata ki jai, but in a more scholarly pursuit.
You say that the 20th century ended in 1989. Tell us a little about that.
It was towards the end of the Cold War and by its end it’s also the end of the era of ideology. And then already in the 1990s you start to see the seeds of this new religious era; there is the return of conservatism, the nascent beginnings of what would happen in Afghanistan, the winding up of one drama and the beginning of a new drama, let’s say, 9/11. So if the drama of 20th century was ideology and that of 21st century was the return of God, then 1989 was an important year. In India too, it is the year when we had the last Gandhi Prime Minister and politics was beginning to change.
How do you look at the reinstitutionalising of Sanskrit in schools?
This book is concerned with the right motive. If what you are trying to do is not right and creating more slogans — more Bharat mata ki jai or “Sanskrit is the mother of all languages” — it will fall flat. I would like nothing more than youths being inclined towards Sanskrit but it has to be an intellectual curiosity. I think making it compulsory is not the right way. It would make the students loathe the Sanskrit teacher. They will feel like it’s chyawanprash or something! Intellectual curiosity needs to be cultivated. There are plenty of classical resources, we don’t need to invent it. We need to realise that it’s not a propaganda machine, and try to inculcate it intellectually.