Review: The Twice-Born; Life and Death on the Ganges by Aatish Taseer
A woman has come to end her days at the House of Death in Benaras. “The woman’s son, a sixty-five-year-old science teacher from Bihar, sat by her side, reading to her from Tulsidas’s poem. The old woman’s hearing was gone, and the reading, like the small sips of water from the Ganges that were poured down her open lips, was a ritual act. It had been this woman’s long standing wish to die in Benares; her son had made good on this wish. He had brought her here to die and be free,” Aatish Taseer writes in one of the most affecting scenes in The Twice-Born; Life and Death on the Ganges. The passage took you back to your 12-year-old self. On a school trip, you had filled a bottle with water from this holiest of Indian rivers. Two decades later, as Ammachen, grandfather, took his last breath in faraway Kerala, they wet his parched tongue with the Gangajal. It felt like the closing of a circuit, like it had been preordained, and your adult self, until then always partial to Reason, began to Believe. Not in banal ritual and temple theatrics but in the truth of your own Insignificance.
Though Taseer’s book is ostensibly about the Brahmins of Benaras, it is actually a look at the psychological devastation wreaked on the colonized self, about the dissatisfactions of being a Macaulayputra, about the violent death of his father Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, about his own search for authenticity through the study of Sanskrit, about Hinduism and Hindutva, about the fascist nostalgia that drives the latter, about India and Bharat, about this nation’s rejection of beauty in its rush to develop, and about the endurance of caste in contemporary India.
That’s a lot to pack into 242 pages but the author succeeds. He draws the reader to look at the world through the eyes of a series of unsympathetic but unswerving characters, some of whom manage to be admirable despite the rank casteism manifested in their observance of pollution laws. Like PK Mukhopadhyay, the former head of philosophy at Jadhavpur University, who denies two young people his sanction of their inter caste relationship:
“Mukhopadyay would have the couple announce before all that they were in love, but that as their “system would not allow for its consecration, they had decided to forsake their romantic happiness and respectfully part… Surely it was more honorable to sacrifice one’s selfish happiness for the endurance of the system one’s ancestors had devised.”
The reader is appalled on behalf of the couple even as she understands (with repugnance) Mukhopadhyay’s distaste at the transgression. Taseer’s talent lies in his ability to bestow on the reader this temporary gift of double vision even as his own sense of outrage is never in doubt. You encounter it in the section on Anand’s yearning for the girl with the shorn hair in the monastery for the caste and sexual purity she embodies.
It shows up too in the chapter entitled The Dharma of Place. In Shivam’s house in his native village, the tension builds up as the author and his lower caste driver near the end of their meal. The Brahmins can’t (won’t) wash Mukesh’s plate. What about the author’s plate? In an acute earlier paragraph that unveils the amorphous nature of caste Taseer muses that he seems to be exempt from the laws of pollution:
“Shivam’s village, save for the odd family of the warrior caste, was exclusively Brahmin. I knew this without quite knowing what it implied. What, for instance, did my presence in the Brahmin household denote? My father was Muslim, and since religion in India is patrilineal, my staying overnight in the house should have been an unspeakable defilement, but strangely, it wasn’t. I seemed, perhaps on account of my being English speaking, to be exempt from the rules of caste. Shivam did, however, make one small adjustment as the village approached: he stopped calling me by my conspicuously Persian name and rechristened me with a reliably Hindu alternative: Nitish. “
The scene with its undertow of ghastly comedy recalls, as do many peculiar incidents featuring caste/religious ‘code-mixing’ in contemporary India (Rehana Fathima-Surya Gayathri at Sabarimala comes to mind), incidents from Rahi Masoom Raza’s resurrected irregular gem Scene 75 (translated by Poonam Saxena) where an Amjad Ali passes himself off as Gaurishankar Lal Krantikari, a Ramnath is actually Peter (or vice versa, you forget which) and Ghaffar Kanpuri is also Ram Manohar Kanpuri!
The wide intellectual sweep of The Twice Born includes everyone from Koestler, Alice Boner, Nehru, Gandhi, and AK Coomaraswamy to Bhasa, Bhartrhari, and Kalidasa via KA Abbas. The writing has a lyrical quality that makes you want to wander the streets of Varanasi once more, even will yourself to gaze at the fearsome Manikarnika Ghat, that mountainous perennially-burning pyre.
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If you have any complaints at all about The Twice-Born, which often reads like homage to VS Naipaul, like a book that could have emerged from the late writer’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), they are about Taseer’s tendency to include too many descriptions of teeth and to use words like umbrageous (trees) and nacreous (eyes). But this is a minor quibble.
The Twice-Born makes the reader think about religion, caste, culture and the idea of modernity, and most rewardingly, about where she stands in relation to all of these.