‘India is endlessly stimulating’
Hailed by the late VS Naipaul as ‘a young writer to watch out for’, Aatish Taseer says that a country like India needs to be unambiguous. Only then, will it set an example for other countries to followUpdated: Jul 10, 2019 18:57 IST
Aatish Taseer’s life has always been a case of two extremes. Born in London, UK, to a Pakistani politico Salman Taseer and an Indian journalist, Tavleen Singh, Taseer spent a considerable amount of time in India. He never seemed to evade the spotlight, thanks to his much publicised relationship with Lady Gabriella Windsor, the daughter of the Prince and Princess of Kent. And then, the news of him coming out as homosexual and his subsequent marriage to Ryan Davis somehow kept overshadowing his literary prowess. Now, having authored five books, the 38-year-old feels that the status of sub-continental literature is still ‘pretty dire’. Excerpts from an interview
For someone whose formative years were spent in London and New Delhi, what’s your earliest memory of writing a book?
I remember I wrote the first sentences of an unpublishable novel called the Oracle At Watts. It was exhilarating. I resolved that day to make a go of this thing. I thought, if I could somehow make this work, there is nothing I would rather be doing. I did not imagine I would write many books. All I wanted was to see my name on the cover of a single book. And, lo, what a mess has ensued since…
What prompted you to write your last book, Twice Born?
I was interested in Brahmins, interested in their role as an aristocracy of the mind, interested, also, in the idea of an India that they carried in their head. I thought it would be nice to use them, in a place like Benares, where all of old India gathers, as a prism. I imagined that they would be able to give me a sense of the cultural crisis the country faces. And I was right — they did.
The idea of the ‘twice-born’ refers to Brahmins, or dvija, born once at the time of his biological birth, and then again when he is initiated into his caste. It also refers to ancient cultures, like India’s, reborn as modern nations. My theme was related to the pangs of that second birth, to explore the tension that exists between an old country, overlaid by a modern one.
Your works have constantly explored how India, with its age old traditions, is constantly clashing with modern ideas. What is your take on that, do you feel India will ever rise up to find a concrete solution to that issue?
It won’t happen easily. One cannot simply crack something like that. Naturally, one wants the relationship between old and new to be creative, not corrosive or sterile – but it cannot be brought about by an act of parliament. The best thing India can do is to compete in the world economy, and get rich. Prosperity is a great source of confidence. One should not underestimate the power of loss in bringing about revival. In my book, Tripathi, former head of Sanskrit at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), says “Sometimes, I think that this fight that we are engaged in, is one in which we are just going to keep losing. Maybe Heidegger was right, maybe, the destiny of the world does lie in complete westernisation.” Get rich, lose your culture, throw yourself into modernity and who knows what might happen!
Were you wary of not bringing in the typical westerner’s lens into your perspective while writing about India, and not stereotyping the country and its people, which is what usually happens?
No. My material comes from the people I travel among. I work from the inside out. I spend days and hours, spread out over years, among the people who become my subjects. What I write about is what matters to them. The trouble I have in India is never with rooted, culturally confident Indians. They always know what I’m talking about. My trouble is with the Khan Market intellectual, who feels I’m trying to snatch the margarita right out of his hands, which I’m not.
What do you make of the literary scene in the sub-continent generally?
It’s pretty dire and one of the reasons I fled the country. India is endlessly stimulating, but I feel its intellectual life is dull. Sometimes, it’s dispiriting to be among people who claim to care about ideas, but who really couldn’t give a f***.
What was your reaction when India decriminalised homosexuality?
It was long overdue. A country like India, ought to be unambiguous about being at the forefront of freedom. It’s a scandal for a democracy to be in that ‘other club’, comprised of countries like Pakistan, Nigeria and the murderous kingdom of Saudi Arabia.