I’ve been putting off reading The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer for a while because I was pretty sure I was going to love it and i did. It’s about a family of Sanskritists during the tumult of 1970s to present day India. That description hardly does the novel justice. It is, in fact, an epic exploration of the family, memory, trauma and how the past exists in the present.
For me, the way Taseer weaves Sanskrit and mythology was fascinating, but would not be lost on one who doesn’t know the ins and outs of Patanjali or Kalidasa. As Taseer explains, the title for the novel comes from the Sanskrit word itihasa, which i would translate as history, but more accurately as The Way Things Were Indeed, is an example of how he brings a somewhat moribund language to life.
Everything Taseer writes echos back to Epic Sanskrit literature, from the nonlinear form the narrative takes, to the naming of characters. But I do not want to give the impression that The Way Things Were is a novel steeped in Hinduism. It captures the fluidity of religion, particularly among a certain class of India, and they ways religions in India work together and against each other.
Who would like this book? Though The Way Things Were can be described as both epic in scope and as a family drama, this is not the Indian epic family drama we saw so much of in the heyday of Indian literature in English in the 1990s. Think Midnight’s Children, A Suitable Boy, and A God of Small Things. No, this is thoroughly updated and reflects today’s world. It is modern, gritty and real.
I also think anyone who loves language will thoroughly enjoy The Way Things Were. It is littered with cognates – words that travel through space and time from one language to another. My go-to is always the Sanskrit nau, meaning boat to English words like navy, naval and nautical. Taseer’s inclusion, understanding and love of Sanskrit brings Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime (review) to mind if you are looking for further reading.