The Way Things Were / Latish Taseer

The title for this novel is taken from the Sanskrit word for “history”, Itihasa. Sanskrit is an ancient language of India, and the one in which the Hindu scriptures and classical Indian epic poems are written. It also serves as the central metaphor in this portrait of a family living in Delhi during the last half of the Twentieth Century. Taseer uses the language and history of Sanskrit to help explain the rise of Hindu nationalism, a movement that has dominated India’s political and social realms in recent decades.

As the story opens, Toby, a minor princeling and a famous Sanskritist, two decades after moving abroad, has died and is being returned to India by his son Skanda. Skanda, who went overseas to study, has been long absent from his home country, too. Following in his father’s footsteps, his academic studies have focused on Sanskrit in the United States. While intending to carry out the Hindu funeral ceremony for Toby and then return to school, the book chronicles, instead, Skanda’s year long stay in India after the funeral. During this time he pieces together his family’s history and is reintroduced to a country much different from the one he grew up in.

Combined with Skanda’s tale is the story of his parents’ marriage. It tracks their passionate beginning as a couple, how their relationship floundered, and finally resulted in separation and divorce. Taseer ties the arc of their relationship with four crucial events taking place in India during their time together: The Emergency of 1975 in which Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties for the next six years; the Gold Temple massacre in 1984 when, upon her order, soldiers killed hundreds of Sikhs; Gandhi’s assassination by a Sikh bodyguard later that year; and finally, the destruction of the Babri Masjid Mosque in 1992, which marked the emerging dominance of Hindu nationalism. In doing so, the author personalizes modern Indian history.

The Way Things Were is an epic story, much like the Sanskrit poems and stories that are woven throughout. The author is to be commended for stitching together these disparate pieces into a coherent whole. While not an easy read, for anyone interested in Indian history, it makes for a rewarding one. I did find the long passages on the linguist morphology a bit much, but these sections can be safely jumped over without affecting understanding of the book’s plot. As for me, I found uncomfortable parallels between the rise of Hindu nationalism and what is taking place at the moment in Trump’s America.

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