10 minutes with Aatish Taseer


10 minutes with Aatish Taseer

The novelist on his passion for Sanskrit and on his most panoramic work yet

By Sonam Savlani  December 24th, 2014

Aatish Taseer’s latest work, The Way Things Were, shuttles between the past and present; between deeply personal relationships and historical events. It follows Toby, an Indian maharaja, his son Skanda and their (often complicated) lives. It  also touches upon various points in recent history: the Bhopal gas tragedy, the Babri Masjid demolition and the Emergency.

On the starting point of his book, The Way Things Were:
“The origin of the novel was a story I heard from a friend of mine. An Indian prince who’d grown up abroad, and who had recently cremated his father. He had spoken to me of bringing back his father’s body from Europe. He described to me the bureaucracy on both ends, the return to India, the drive to the small town in UP, the collectors, the politicians, the thirteen days of mourning. He had also said that when his father died he had felt this uncontrollable urge to party. I could relate to that — the feeling of release at the death of a parent.” 

On weaving Sanskrit into the narrative:
“Sanskrit is part of the hardwiring of the novel. The language runs like a thread through the novel, tying past with present, East with West; it is integral to the book. I knew naturally that Toby would be a Sanskritist; later it occurred to me that the language would serve as a link between father and son, and that Skanda losing himself in the world of Sanskrit would be a way for him to cope with the grief of (and for) his father. The language, full of historical pain and resonance — as it is in India — would be his real inheritance.”

On his own passion for Sanskrit:
“I went to it in search of literary voices from classical India. But I got a great deal more than I bargained for. It’s been an important part of my life for some six to eight years. I read every day; in fact I’m just coming out of reading group at Columbia, in which we’ve been reading the dice game from the Mahabharata. Incredible! It’s not the kind of language one conquers in six months and brushes up on from time to time; it requires constant attention, and even then it never ceases to make you feel small. Keep in mind that the traditional Sanskrit education was twelve years long!”

On modelling Uma (Toby’s first wife) around the strong women in his life:
“I wanted Uma to be like those tough stylish women I grew up around in the ’80s. The Delhi granddame! She was full of life and laughter, a little bitter, dard e Ishq se jan balab. There was something irresistible about her. I wanted Uma to have be a little unknowable in the same way, a frightening survivor. I wanted her to have that same ‘talent for life’ — James’ expression, by the way.” 

On the character that was the most difficult to flesh out:
“[Uma’s second husband] Maniraja, without a doubt. The other characters were people for whom I had a range of models. Maniraja was more alien. And he’s not very likable. But I needed very much for people to feel for him, to recognise his qualities, to understand his historical pain. I think I succeeded. He’s difficult, but he’s certainly not one-dimensional.”

On his next work of non-fiction:
“It’s a book of travel among a particular group in India. But I don’t want to say too much about it. These are early days and I’m quite superstitious.”

The Way Things Were (Picador) is out now