Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young is a Shakespearean tragedy with all its villains – brute, Machiavellian, seductive – recast as members of a dynastic business family.
The bleakness infiltrates everything; the few pinpricks of light there are in Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young are consumed by tempests of rage and vendetta. This is a Shakespearean tragedy with all its villains – brute, Machiavellian, seductive – recast as members of a dynastic business family who live in the Farm in New Delhi and run the Company. This is a Shakespearean tragedy awash with omens bleeding doom into landscaped gardens and evening skies. Peacocks die, or are killed, “There is more dry blood, crusted around a hole in the peacock’s breast.” And a storm makes the sky swoon and the earth churn, “A tongue, lashing lightning – the rain weeping rage down to the cowering earth – the sky a father disappointed.”
A father disappointed is perhaps an accurate, if mild description of the forces that set into motion the dramatic action of Shakespeare’s King Lear, first performed on December 26, 1606. In the opening scene of the play, Lear, the aging king of Britain, demands declarations of love from his three daughters. His momentous decision to divide his kingdom rests upon their response. But the exchange is not meant to be taken seriously; it is merely a flippant performance of ask and tell between an eccentric patriarch and his three daughters, in which each daughter is acquainted with her role.
“Sir, I do love you more than words can wield the matter/Dearer than eyesight, space, or liberty…” proclaims Goneril, the eldest. “Sir, I am made/Of the selfsame mettle that my sister is/And prize me at her worth in my true heart,” announces Regan, the second daughter. Cordelia, the youngest, refuses to participate in the family game or speak in hyperbole. She disrupts the ceremonial performance by stating plainly, “Unhappy that I am/I cannot heave/My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty/According to my bond, nor more nor less.”
Heartbroken by her honesty, Lear banishes her, divides his kingdom between Goneril and Regan, retaining for himself an entourage of one hundred knights.
In We That Are Young, the characters are transmogrified by geography, milieu, occupation. Lear is Devraj Bapuji – business leader, erstwhile Maharaja of fictional Napurthala, wearer of Shahtoosh shawls and saffron-coloured Y-fronts, giver of mesmerising speeches and deranged soliloquies. Goneril is Gargi Devraj Grover – 33-year-old acting chairman of the Devraj Company, introducer of cappuccino to Company coffee shops, lover of Nina Simone, Mali and Rokia Traoré, Gargi Ma to many, drinker of Company wine and thinker of morbid thoughts: “He divided us for his own pleasure. Like meat torn from bone.”
Regan is Radha – pretty Radha, elegant Radha, executive director in charge of public relations, tweets @MrGee, user of Kashmiri medicine in sandalwood boxes and other recreational drugs. Cordelia is Sita – Cambridge University graduate, seeker of rare plants, crusader of the people, eco warrior, narrator of comforting stories: “Lo, I am thy honeybee, a poor winged creature of the forest,” Devraj’s favourite. It is Sita who, during the course of a family lunch, when her sisters have performed their parts with exaggerated gesticulations and florid reassurances of filial love, says matter-of-factly, “I love doing whatever you ask and need. But I’m an economist. And an environmentalist.”
Sita sets in motion a narrative that sweeps across the farmhouse in New Delhi to the Company hotel in Amritsar, to the fabricated Dhimbala basti and the wasted Napurthala grounds, to Kashmir, for the opening of the Company Srinagar hotel. The narrative is interspersed with Devraj’s first-person chronicles from Srinagar – a technique that acquaints one to the patriarch, makes one privy to his thoughts, and reveals, as the third-person accounts of the other characters progress, that he and Sita are trapped inside the abandoned house of his long-dead Kashmiri Pandit father-in-law.
Taneja’s reimagining of King Lear also produces Jivan, the illegitimate son of Ranjit who is director of the Devraj Group. There is Jeet, Ranjit’s legitimate son and Devraj’s godson. There are Tuesday parties for Devraj’s Hundred – a group of handpicked young men who are the future of business, media and politics in this country. Delhi is a lithograph of roads, roundabouts, college boys in fake Nikes and girls in block-printed cotton kurtas and jeans, protestors with the Indian flag draped around them. Amritsar is the garish colours, tacky décor and antiquated service of the Company’s boutique hotel; it is also a brief quietude at the Golden Temple: “At the Temple, the peace and silence feels almost like a drug.” The fictitious Dhimbala basti – with its nine circles that are suggestive of the nine concentric circles of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth-century epic Divine Comedy – heightens (and subverts) the opulence of the Company’s microcosm. A motif of the grotesque, the basti, with its hovels, open drains and mountains of human effluence and garbage, achieves a realism both terrifying and bewildering, particularly when fragile beauty flares in its midst. The Napurthala mandir, a shrine in the middle of filth, is astonishing in its crude aesthetics:
“On a low shelf, an oil wick diya in a rough terracotta pot burned a steady flame. A real snakeskin was looped around a garland of fresh blue flowers, the pale colour of sky. Flowers! Here!”
Srinagar, where the incomplete hotel has glimmered through the narrative arch, is delineated as deceptively languid, with its gold light, chinar-lined boulevards, leather shops, apple carts and jars of honey. Taneja outlines cities with the attentiveness of a cartographer. In We That Are Young, roads, bastis and maidans are prosceniums for an age and time to perform its dharma, its unsung acts of heroism, its grand tragedies. The cityscapes of this novel (even those that are allegorical) are willing accomplices in the acts of the citizenry. Even the fleeting moments of respite that Taneja provides in a chronicle that mirrors the world as an instrument of destruction, nestle in tiny alcoves within specific parts of the city. For instance, Jeet meets his homosexual lover Vik in a bookstore in Hauz Khas Village. They are at a poetry launch; the poems are in translation. Jeet is aware that “bookstores such as this one, built on translation, would not survive in bricks and mortar, the cost of rent was rising, would become too high.”
Love, like the bookstore, isn’t resilient enough to survive Taneja’s fictive universe, and the narrative churn swiftly demolishes tenderness. It dwells instead, on the business of the Company, and the blood that must spill to keep it running. Among the weaponry deployed to maim or kill is a gold candlestick, a splintered cane, a knife, an Ambri apple. There are several melodramatic moments in the novel, evocative of popular Bollywood adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Ranjit, with his bone-topped cane and silver hair immediately summons an image of late actor Amrish Puri in his various villainous roles in Hindi cinema. But We That Are Young is an assortment of characters, voices, cultural hybrids. It is an appropriation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hindu mythology, Christian tenets of sin and redemption, Bollywood songs, ghazals and cusswords for the purpose of a vigorous interrogation.
We That Are Young is Taneja’s debut novel. Prior to this, her novella Kumkum Malhotra, published in 2014, won the Gatehouse Press New Fiction Prize. Located in a tiny house in Nizamuddin, Kumkum Malhotra explores the predicament of a woman as she is slowly ostracised by her family. Predicaments, particularly those that women find themselves trapped in, are examined with excruciating honesty by Taneja, a fellow at Warwick University who has worked as a human rights editor and filmmaker. In We That Are Young, one catches oneself muttering, “Serves him right!” when Devraj is ousted from his Company. After all, doesn’t Devraj humiliate Gargi in public, doesn’t he say, “Are chup, randi, chup!”
Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.