Aatish Taseer Talks Sanskrit, The Dangerous Power Of English, And His New Novel

'The Way Things Were' reveals how powerful language really is, and how damaging it can be.

Language is the warp and weft of a novel, but in Aatish Taseer's new novel, The Way Things Were, it's more than the material: It's a character. It may even be the hero. It's certainly, at the very least, the love interest. 

Though the book was written in English, the language to which I'm referring is Sanskrit. Taseer has studied the language for "seven or eight years," he told me last week, when we sat down in a remarkably noisy Manhattan Teavana to talk about his latest book. "It was not research for the book," he hastened to point out. "It was like… the other way around." 

Reading the novel, it would be difficult to draw any other conclusion. The book follows Skanda, a student of Sanskrit, in the year after his father's death. As his mother, Uma, and his father, Toby, the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu, have been long divorced after a passionate but brief marriage, Skanda must return to India to take care of the funeral arrangements. Toby, a renowned Sanskritist, imbued Skanda with his all-consuming love for the language, a romance that became the central one of Toby's life.

Taseer conveys this passion for the language without any sense of stilted, academic remove. The reader is frequently plunged into sidebars and dialogues that tenderly unwrap the layers of linguistic complexity hidden within a Sanskrit phrase, or the long line of cognates to which a Sanskrit word can claim relation. 

This taste of the wonders of what has been called the most perfect language doesn't exist in an ivory tower, however. As he continues his Sanskrit studies, Skanda must reckon with India's recent troubled history, his own parent's fractious marriage and the unacknowledged effects on his own childhood, and the inextricable complicity of the language he loves.

We talked more about the power of language, the complexities of Indian politics, and his own writing process:

The title of the book, The Way Things Were, it comes out at a certain point, derived from the Sanskrit word for history, a compound meaning “The Way indeed that Things Were.” What kind of history did you want to document in the book?

I think what I was interested in was the weight of the past on different characters. Even the structure for me was very important. I needed this surface narrative in the present, which was very still, and then you could feel a flood of events coming up from below. 

So it was more in the way almost as a mechanism that I was interested in history, and so that’s why the title came as a kind of gift, because it covers talk, legend, history, everything -- it’s a very old word for history.

In some ways I’m dealing with those places where there’s a kind of intractable history. It’s something that I find Americans understand very little. Because even sometimes you feel, with wars that have been fought, people find themselves in situations where they can’t understand why, if certain situations were to change, these people couldn’t just get along. And actually the old world is full of intractable history.

It’s funny because more and more we’re seeing that even our own North and South can’t really get along all that well.


And that’s such recent history.

Actually it’s funny you say that because the South is one of the few places where I feel, in America, the evidence of intractable history. And it’s there in Faulkner, you know. You can feel when you’re reading Faulkner that these people, just out of mad irrationality, are not going to give ground. 

I was going to ask about the weight of history, and how much it seemed to be hanging on Skanda and Uma and Toby throughout the book, and how Uma tries to just free herself from it. Even Skanda seems to feel, now that his father is gone, that he can just look to the future. Is it possible to escape history, or is it even desirable to do so?

I think if you face it, squarely, it is possible to free yourself from it. I think that’s the whole exercise, the whole paralysis that we find Skanda in, is as a consequence of his never having faced the past, of it having lived in him, and of it having caused a kind of pain, but never having been addressed. This process that we’re going through in the book, where on one hand you have the narrative unfolding and on the other you have this kind of waiting or purgatory that Skanda’s in, is, in a sense, a kind of facing up to the past. 

Uma’s approach is like a more violent approach. It’s the approach of clean breaks. I think that if you do it in that way, probably, you pay a price. Probably on the level of your humanity, on the level of your sensitivity.

And you can feel that actually with certain societies as well where there hasn’t been that reckoning with the past, and it keeps coming up, it keeps surfacing in certain forms.

You wrote an article about English and how it’s destroyed Indian literature. How do you think India’s forced adoption of English has affected its perception of its own history?

Generally history in India is a very tricky business. Sanskrit literature... there are plays, there are a number of different literary forms. The one thing that there’s no literary equivalent of is, like, the Chinese Annals or the Arab Histories or Tacitus or Herodotus. There’s no history writing tradition. So in some ways, India has always, for its history, looked to the accounts of foreigners.

Language has obviously made it difficult, because five percent, I think, of India speaks English. So imagine, if you met an Indian who speaks English, you’re speaking already to a tiny, tiny superclass. It’s complicated because it’s a country where everyone speaks very different languages, so there has to be a unifying language, but English is also invested with power.

And you write in English, so is that a choice that you made, or do you feel like there isn’t really a choice?

Yeah, it was a choice that was forced on me. Actually, my grandfather was an Urdu poet, and there was a little period where all the different languages of India were going through a period where it seemed like they were flourishing. There might have been a subsequent generation of a substantial reading class built up in these languages. But almost at that exact moment, all of the people of that generation sent their children to public schools and convents, and they all received a kind of English education which was the detriment of any Indian language, so… by the time you come around to my generation, a clean break has occurred. 

So the only way for a writer -- it’s not even a question of money -- the only way to be writing to an audience that’s actually listening, a reading public, you have to write in English. I think of myself as almost no less than Ibsen or Joyce, writing into a tradition of exile, of cobbling together an audience in places like America, England, South Africa, Australia, India. I don’t think I can rely on any one country as a place I can write into. 

The author of <em>The Way Things Were,&nbsp;</em>Aatish Taseer
The author of The Way Things Were, Aatish Taseer

Do you think there’s a way for India, at this point to develop a modern literature in those Indian languages?

I think the movement now is all in one way. It’s an impossible stream to channel. Never mind the power of America, which would influence the position of English in the world, but even at times when political power has broken, the language has continued to move. In India, the movement is all towards English, and unfortunately towards a very dead, not a very vibrant language. 

There’s a moment in the book where Toby predicts at the time [when] a place’s linguistic needs would be the most -- it really needs to express itself -- the means are totally inadequate. It finds a borrowed English or a language of clichés, a language that doesn’t have that deep tissue of familiarity. And there’s a lot of other writing coming out that has that quality. There isn’t that deep sense of fluency, but it’s the only language in some ways as well.

We see the possibility of linguistic redemption in the book through Toby and it fails. He feels he’s placed his hopes in a class of people who are unable to replicate his ideals. I wondered if, in the end, there’s an idealism we place in language that can’t be borne through.

Toby’s not a man of revivalism. Right now in India there’s a whole politics of trying to revive Sanskrit. There’s a lot of revivalism the way Erdogan is trying to do with Ottoman Turkish. It’s not an intellectual endeavor. They’re trying to advance a certain kind of politics, a sort of nationalistic politics, using the symbols of the past. Which is in some ways a danger that this book is very alive to, in the character of someone like Maniraja. 

But Toby’s dream was founded in the intellect and the idea that basically the genius of a people, a language… some grain of it would come into the future and fertilize the present, and would be something more along the lines of a profound rebirth or an awakening. That never happens.

Every time someone in some way becomes a victim of the violence of this place, you see Toby is almost blinded by his naiveté. It’s a very attractive vision, but he doesn’t see the place he’s living in. He doesn’t see it clearly.

The idea of Sanskrit as a language of India is punctured at a certain point when Uma tells Maniraja that people never spoke Sanskrit, it was just a language of the super-elite. But Toby also has this sense that Sanskrit was this language of the people, if not in such a commonplace sense. So is it an illusion, in a broader sense, that there’s a true Indianness to Sanskrit that extends to the whole of the people?

Sanskrit has a very interesting role in that respect because it was always a high language, and it became the origin of almost all of India’s languages, like Latin was in Europe. In some ways there’s never been a more formal language. 

So there’s a lot about the classical world that was not fair or just, but that was still marvelous, that was full of many things to inspire the intellect and to create a feeling of wonder, and Toby was very much lost in that sense of it. He doesn’t have a program. Whereas Maniraja is not interested in the past for the sake of the past. The past has to serve a program. It has to be in the employ of the present.

I wanted to talk about the “drawing-room class” [the educated upper-class], where the novel is mostly set. A lot of them have ideals for India, but they’re not in dialogue with the majority of the country. Is that an inherent problem in terms of achieving or realizing those ideals?

Yeah, I feel like the class has grown more and more isolated.

Sometimes it feels like people accuse blue America of having no awareness of red America, but blue America is a substantial thing in its own right! The two sides are somewhat evenly matched. In India we’re looking at this tiny population dreaming in the cities or dreaming in one part of the city, and this swell of people on the other side who are completely going in another direction. 

The election, from an American perspective, created a lot of dismay. There was a lot of suspicion about Narendra Modi as a figure, a lot of controversy. You wrote a little bit, in this article, about some possible false optimism about the election and how much he’d be able to change. What do you think about him as a figure and what he represents?

Because I covered that election, I’d like to make a separation. It was a very hopeful election, and it’s odd when you’re covering an election not to capture its mood, which was a mood of hopefulness. And [people] invested this man with their hope. On that side of it, it’s very moving when that happens, and just as you think of the Obama election, you can’t be blind to the fact that you’re traveling in that environment.

I have to say that Modi himself has come to seem to me like an increasingly buffoonish figure. I feel like he’s kind of channeled quite an ugly homogenizing spirit. There’s a sort of majoritarianism, even from little things, like these yoga days to beef bans to the ugliest rhetoric that’s come out of his ministers.

I had reservations about it then, in fact a lot of my dispatches from that time are full of reservations, but it’s been, even by those standards... he’s been kind of a disappointing figure. And the book kind of anticipates that. I feel like there’s that kind of man who comes out in Maniraja is, in a sense, the man of the future, and there’s no hiding the disappointment I feel related to the advent of that kind of personality.

The idea of linguistic unity is really important throughout -- cognates, for example, they signify global unity. But it seems like a lot of the time, language is more divisive than not, both personally and being used as a symbol of something politically divisive. Is this more of a failure of language itself, or of us?

Well, of us. We invest it with all kinds of -- you’ve seen, obviously, the way that language can be invested with politics. And it’s exactly as you said. There’s on one hand the kind of tragedy that when you probe it, it’s full of an underlying unity. And yet, in so many ways and forms, they’re like, "Ah, this person doesn’t speak English, he’s obviously of a lower class." It’s weaponized. And this is very true of India. Because of the partition, language became co-opted by religion.

I, for instance, because my father’s Pakistani, if I used a certain word for a certain thing, people have immediately understood a whole set of things about me. I remember at one point, when I first went to see my father in Pakistan and I crossed over the border, they were like, “Why are you coming?” And the language is interchangeable between Indian and Pakistan. So I said, “I’m coming for my sister’s birthday.” But I used a word for birthday that only an Indian could have used. And they knew. So there was this hushed silence. And then a man, from behind the room, used the Urdu word -- both words were understood, but he was basically like, “You’re not a Pakistani, because you used that word.”

I know your family in Pakistan has been really deeply affected by the religious conflicts there, and in Noon, you graphically get into the riots and violence. In The Way Things Were, the violence is in the background, and muted, but we’re looking at the roots of where this kind of violence comes from. Was it revealing for you to look at this kind of violence from behind the scenes, in a way?

I wrote Noon before my father was killed. And he was killed in that way, and my brother was kidnapped, and there was a year of all sorts of that violence. Too much to get into. But I think I felt, in myself, a kind of passivity that had come over me. And so Skanda’s passivity is very much, I think, part of the kind of mood I was writing out of. And I suppose I was done with that kind of violence. This book was the first book that I wrote after that had happened, and I was very withdrawn, and perhaps some of that has become part of the fiction.

Are you working on anything right now?

A book of nonfiction.

What’s it about?

It’s… I don’t want to say yet! It’s given me a lot of joy though, because I started life as a journalist, and it’s really nice to be out in the world again and to have real material in the world, and not just to be spinning your guts at home like with novels.

Do you prefer writing nonfiction generally?

No, I mean -- if a novel, especially like this one, takes hold of you, there’s nothing more perfect, in my opinion. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than those two years that I was writing this. It really kind of seized me. But it’s very tiring and it’s very nice not to force fiction. If it comes in that way, then one submits to it, but with nonfiction, you’re not stewing in it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 Correction: A previous version of this article contained an error in one instance of the title of The Way Things Were. The post has been updated to correct this.