Preti Taneja’s new book is a modern take on Shakespeare’s classic tragedy King Lear
'We That Are Young' bears disturbing home truths
In one of the most ambitious debuts of the year, Preti Taneja, 40, ships the madness of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear to modern-day India. We That Are Young (Penguin Random House; on stands now) is set against the 2011 anti-corruption protests in the country, and absorbs its present complications of power and patriarchy. The Warwick research fellow and human rights activist recasts the ageing monarch as Devraj Bapuji, a business tycoon with a sprawling empire to divide between his three daughters.
ELLE: A number of Indian publishers rejected the novel, calling it “too close to the bone”; are you anxious about how it will be received?
Preti Taneja: Many writers I admire, from Charlotte Brontë to Paul Beatty, have faced resistance from publishers, and sometimes, political and legal factions. I can’t wait for readers to discover the novel. I hope it fires a sense of social justice in the same way those writers inspire me.
ELLE: Tell us about the title.
PT: It’s taken from the last lines of King Lear. Uneasy and ambivalent, they capture the potential of the youth to create change, but the generation is also intoxicated with its own power. It expresses the sense of generational damage I wanted to write about, and chimes with the fact that India has one of the youngest populations in the world.
ELLE: What made Kashmir a suitable replacement for the cliffs of Dover?
PT: The play begins with the division of a country, and ends with a civil war between siblings over one of those two parts — the one which Lear calls the most ‘opulent’. It was clear that Dover could only be Kashmir.
ELLE: What was the biggest challenge of adapting the play?
PT: Keeping up with events as they unfolded. Since I finished the first draft in early 2013, holy men have become political powerhouses, there’s been a reversal of laws on homosexuality…. Editing against such news headlines was extraordinary. My fear was that the book underplays how possible all of its scenarios actually are.
The year’s best reboots of literary classics:
Shakespeare’s Othello shifts to a children’s playground as an 11-year-old navigates the vexing social order of a new school in this adaptation of the tragedy.
This accomplished retelling of Sophocles’s play Antigone, in which a sister rails against authority to bury her brother (also an enemy of the state), features three British Muslim siblings, one of who turns ISIS recruit.
Billed as a “post-post apocalyptic” Alice In Wonderland, the novel injects dystopian unrest into a world with no poverty, ageing or death. The plot turns curiouser under Barker’s colourful, form-breaking typographical stunts.