Preti Taneja (2017) We That Are Young
Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young was listed as Sunday Times Book of the Year, Guardian Book of the Year, Spectator Book of the year, all in 2017. Since I’ve just read it, it’s also my book of the year for 2020.
When I say it’s Shakespearian in scope, I mean that as a compliment. I’m not really into Shakespeare and find his plays boring. The usual response I get is along the lines of I don’t really understand his work, which is true. I also don’t really understand the Old Testament or Maths, or people that like broccoli, apart from my granddaughter, Tilly, who chews away at the green stuff merrily. He (or they, will the real Shakespeare stand up?) has been responsible for more neologisms in the English language than anybody else. I’m told if I watch his plays I’d appreciate them better. I’ve watched Kenneth Brannagh’s Twelfth Night, with Richard Briers and Caroline Langrishe; Roman Polanski’s Macbeth with Martin Shaw in the title role; Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, with Mad Max, Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glen Close as Gertrude his mother. The best version of Hamlet I saw was The Simpsons, with a renegade knight poring poison in Homer’s ear and it finished in less than ten minutes with a sword fight. Homer won. Homer always wins. I laughed at that, out loud. I’ve seen a few versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and didn’t laugh once. Not even a chuckle, a hint of that could have been funny. I was sitting an exam and stopped writing about the Fool’s role in Shakespeare’s plays because I realized I was bored with it and didn’t have anything worthwhile to say, or regurgitate. That marks me down as not the right type of person. Not properly educated. A laggard fool.
I found Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear tolerable mainly for its black-and-white portrayal of the suffering working classes on the bleak moors. ‘Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are, That bide the pelting of the pitiless storm’. Compare and contrast, ‘shacks become a river which rises, rises, rises. It takes only minutes before the shit flows through the [Kashmiri] hovels, bringing with it rats, big as baby monkeys’.
We all know the story, King Lear dividing his kingdom between his three daughters. The King telling his youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, ‘Nothing will come from nothing’. Bend of break and be cut off from parental love and the King’s legacy, which is shared between his other daughters,
Her dying at the end. Lear’s question unanswered, ‘Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life/And thou no breath at all?’ milked to the full, through the ages, by those of thespian mind.
Preti Taneji does something remarkable. She transports King Lear to modern India and makes me love Shakespeare almost as much as the truncated Simpson episode. The story is the same but it is different. If you know your Shakespeare you know what is coming. If you don’t know your Shakespeare you don’t. But the book also makes sense as critique of modern capitalism. Ideology in action. Self-justification is king. We all know that story all too well. It’s been played out in America and here in Britain.
Taneja begins with the story of Jivan or Jeet, the bastard son of Ranjit returning home from America, where he left his exiled mum and disposable white girlfriend. A first-person account:
‘It’s not about land, it’s about money.’
The United States is on the wane, China on the rise, Indian and new money means the East will overtake the West in the near future. The East is the place to be for an upcoming young man. Devraj’s Company follows the Ford maxim of industrial America. What’s good for Devraj’s company is good for India and vice-versa.
The story of King Lear is also the story of the Earl of Gloucester. Lear has three daughters and no sons. The law of primogeniture, where the people that own the land, own the people on the land is one remove away. Jivan, like Edmond the bastard son of Gloucester, is at the bottom on a heap. No money. No influence. A gerontocracy in which his brother Edgar has at least a future worth having. Worth stealing. Jeet, the son of Saranjit and his half-brother is himself a thief, but with the complicating factor that he is also gay. In Indian society that puts him lower than a dog, or even a woman.
Mrs Gargi Devraj Grover, granddaughter, daughter, wife, and sister. Her birthday is coming up soon. It’s to coincide with the opening of a new hotel complex in the politically poisonous land of Kashmir. ‘ Eldest and dutiful daughter of the Devaraj Company, custodian of the keys to her father’s office.’
‘Sin comes in many forms… doubt is one of the worst sins of all.’ Fanaticism and loyalty. Deveraj told her who to marry and when to marry. Her father’s words were law. No one would go against him. Certainly, not the beautiful Radha her sister, whom Gargi mothers, even as a school girl, having no mother of their own. Devraj, in turn, indulges his youngest daughter, his favourite daughter and sends her to England to study. We that are young is a war cry. But it is Sita, the youngest and most headstrong, that refuses to marry who Devraj tells her, refuses to bow before his mastery. Sita that refuses both the loyalty and the love test. The stage is set for conflict.