The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges

The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges

by Aatish Taseer


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In The Twice-Born, Aatish Taseer embarks on a journey of self-discovery in an intoxicating, unsettling personal reckoning with modern India, where ancient customs collide with the contemporary politics of revivalism and revenge

When Aatish Taseer first came to Benares, the spiritual capital of Hinduism, he was eighteen, the Westernized child of an Indian journalist and a Pakistani politician, raised among the intellectual and cultural elite of New Delhi. Nearly two decades later, Taseer leaves his life in Manhattan to go in search of the Brahmins, wanting to understand his own estrangement from India through their ties to tradition.

Known as the twice-born—first into the flesh, and again when initiated into their vocation—the Brahmins are a caste devoted to sacred learning. But what Taseer finds in Benares, the holy city of death also known as Varanasi, is a window on an India as internally fractured as his own continent-bridging identity. At every turn, the seductive, homogenizing force of modernity collides with the insistent presence of the past. In a globalized world, to be modern is to renounce India—and yet the tide of nationalism is rising, heralded by cries of “Victory to Mother India!” and an outbreak of anti-Muslim violence.

From the narrow streets of the temple town to a Modi rally in Delhi, among the blossoming cotton trees and the bathers and burning corpses of the Ganges, Taseer struggles to reconcile magic with reason, faith in tradition with hope for the future and the brutalities of the caste system, all the while challenging his own myths about himself, his past, and his countries old and new.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374279608
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 03/05/2019
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Aatish Taseer was born in 1980. He is the author of the memoir Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands and the acclaimed novels: The Way Things Were, a finalist for the 2016 Jan Michalski Prize; The Temple-Goers, which was short-listed for the Costa First Novel Award; and Noon. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He is a contributing writer for The International New York Times and lives in New Delhi and New York.

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FOR A LONG TIME, I had a recurring daydream of the ancient Indian city of Benares, superimposed onto the geography of New York. From my open window on West Eighty-Sixth Street, my mind's eye followed the westering sun over a roofscape cluttered with heat pumps and slim steel chimneys. In the distance, the curved blades of a turbine vent glinted in the late-afternoon light. A sign on the exposed flank of a building read SOFIA STORAGE CENTER.

Beyond, out of view, was the Hudson.

I imagined it, like the Ganges in Benares, taking a deep bend north and flowing toward its source in the high Himalayas. The traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway was stopped, and on the steep escarpment of Riverside Park were acres upon slanting acres of humanity. Bathers and pilgrims, Columbia University students, and old ladies with coiffured blond and copper hair watched the glittering river with vacant intensity. Ghats went down in two-hundred-yard flights, like stone bleachers, to the edge of the river, where long wooden boats rocked gently in the bilge water. Corpses, wrapped in their gold brocade, lay on bamboo biers, awaiting cremation.

The sky darkened, and silhouettes appeared in the yellow rectangles of the tall apartment buildings on Riverside Drive. The air was high with clouds of incense, the crashing of bells, and frantic chanting in Sanskrit. The people of two cities, and myriad systems of belief, poured out onto the riverside.

The liminal hour stretched out. A daytime darkness silvered the city. Thousands watched through special glasses; thousands more stood waist deep in water, their heads lowered, muttering prayers. Old men with knotty hands leaned on their wooden staffs; women carried babies on their hips. There were farmers and laborers, bank clerks and UPS deliverymen. A party of schoolchildren observed the changing shape of the sun through a steel colander. As its disk went dark, some cried, "Beautiful!" Others stood in solemn terror as Rahu, the eclipser — a demon riding a chariot drawn by eight black horses — swallowed the sun.

* * *

BENARES — VARANASI, as it is known officially; Kashi, as it has been known for millennia by the Hindus, who regard it as their holy city — is only eight hundred kilometers from Delhi, where I grew up.

In my midtwenties, after college in America and a couple of years spent working as a reporter for Time magazine in New York and London, I found myself living in Delhi again. I was working on my first book, Stranger to History, a memoir about my father, who lived in Pakistan, and from whom I had been estranged for most of my life.

My time in the West had given me an outside view of my world in Delhi, robbing my life there of its easy, unthinking quality. I thought I should do something, by way of traveling or learning, that would help me establish a connection with India at large, the country that lay beyond the seemingly impermeable confines of life in Delhi. I wondered if I should learn Sanskrit, the ancient language of India. In the early centuries of the Common Era, it had served as a lingua franca for the learned in a region that stretched from modern Afghanistan to Indonesia. Sanskrit was no longer spoken, but, like Latin or ancient Greek, it retained its liturgical function among India's Hindu majority. I would have had some notion of a vast body of literature in Sanskrit, but, as more an absence than a presence, it was further proof of an intellectual inheritance that had not come down to me. Absences can be suggestive, and I wondered if a voice from the past might serve as a beginning point in my quest to reconnect with India's history and language. That was why I went to see Mapu, an old friend of my mother's. He was among the few people I knew who had sought to regain what a colonial education had denied him: he had attempted a version of Frantz Fanon's "return to self."

* * *

We sat in Mapu's office in a lush enclave of New Delhi. The room was bright and bare, save for a painting of a blue dancing Shiva. Mapu was dressed in a white kurta, ribbed and starched. He had a classical face, prominent eyes and cheekbones. He was in his sixties but could still erupt into fits of childish laughter.

When I told him of my interest in Sanskrit, he began to speak of Kamlesh Dutt Tripathi, the former head of Sanskrit at Banaras Hindu University. Mapu described Tripathi as steeped in Indian myth. "He is someone who can pass a flowering tree, pick one, and say, 'Mapu, you know, this is the flower that Kalidasa'" — the great Sanskrit dramatist — "'uses as an earring in such and such a play.'" "What?" Mapu would say. "How do you know that?" Then Tripathi would show it to Mapu in a text.

This was the kind of knowledge Mapu had seen disappear in India from one generation to the next. The lines of transmission had gone dead, not centuries ago, but in his own lifetime. He felt the loss more acutely than most because he had worked in conservation.

"And I did it all wrong!" he cried.

He recalled one project in which he laid stone over all the ghats. When it was done, he went up and down the Ganges in a boat, proudly inspecting his achievement. On the shore, an old man approached with a troubled expression. He said, "But where will I read my Ramayana?"— one of two great Indian epics, a Sanskrit Iliad.

"What do you mean?" Mapu said. "Here. There. Anywhere you like."

"Have you ever walked on the stone in the heat? It becomes very hot. I won't be able to sit on it."

Mapu was so upset that he went back to Delhi and resigned his post. He hadn't realized that that particular ghat had always been left unpaved. Trees grew there; it was a place of shade and cool, where people could come to read their scriptures and epics.

"Isn't there anyone to tell me these things?" he cried, seeing in this one crisis many others. "No writers, no historians, no architects?"

Mapu belonged to an aristocratic family, the second son of the second son of the maharaja of Kapurthala, a princely state in Punjab. His family were renowned Francophiles, but his parents were of a generation of Indians who were still culturally and linguistically bilingual. I had childhood memories of Mapu's mother, Aunty Sita, a tiny woman with a cap of woolly white hair. I had a passion for the Hindu gods as a child, and Aunty Sita would recite the Sanskrit hymn associated with the destructive dance of Shiva. Its dark dithyrambic beat gave me goose bumps. Aunty Sita, dressed forever in a widow's white and so at home in Indian ritual and custom, had seemed to me the picture of a traditional Hindu woman. As an adult, I was surprised to learn that the same woman had been a celebrated beauty of Europe in the 1930s. She was the muse of Man Ray, was dressed by the American designer Mainbocher; Barbara Hutton, Mapu's godmother, was a close personal friend. Mapu had inherited something of his mother's luminosity and grace, but by the time he grew up, the age of Indian bilingualism was over. Mapu's generation of upper-class Indians could barely complete a sentence in an Indian language, let alone move between cultures.

As a young man, Mapu paddled in the shallows of café society. He wore leather trousers and listened to the Eagles. He went abroad to meet the grand friends of his parents' and was spotted arriving at JFK in a peacock-feather cape. It was a pared-down version of the life his parents had led. Colonization overlaid by socialism had beggared the Indian aristocracy. They had lost their money, but they had also lost the style and confidence that comes to people who know their own culture before they know another.

That generation, educated in convents and English-style public schools, accepted cultural loss as inevitable. Mapu did not. He broke with his world, with its emptiness and ennui, and set himself on a course of restitution. He taught himself about Indian textiles and redesigned a jewel of a museum in Ahmedabad called the Calico Museum of Textiles. He was a founding member of INTACH, one of the country's first and most important conservation organizations. He went to Benares over and over, educating himself in Hindu tradition and ritual. He could explain what each element in a ceremony stood for, from the flowers that were used to the colors that were worn, and the Sanskrit verses that were associated with the different deities.

India ceased to be background for Mapu, ceased to be an interlude between foreign trips. The country his mother had so easily been part of, participating in all its ritual and customs, became his again. Mapu's quest earned him the scorn of his friends, who accused him of having gone native. "He used to be so glamorous," a friend of his once told me, "but Ahmedabad was the ruin of him."

It was nonsense; Mapu's time in Ahmedabad was his making. He could never fully regain what had been known when tradition was intact. Once that break occurs, it is final; it cannot be undone. But loss, like absence, need not be inert; it can allow one to look with curiosity and feeling upon that which others, more culturally intact, have taken for granted.

When I mentioned Sanskrit, Mapu said, "You're a very intense young man. And this is a language whose every nuance will come to intrigue you. It is important to know where to stop, important not to be sucked in by Sanskrit."

In the same breath, he brought up Kamlesh Dutt Tripathi. Mapu said he hoped Tripathi would agree to be my teacher and spoke romantically about the relationship between master and student, guru and shishya.

"Just as the guru chooses his shishya," Mapu said, "so too must the shishya choose his guru."

Mapu's own search for a guru had brought him to Ram Shankar Tripathi (no relation to Kamlesh Dutt), the head priest of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, which was the Vatican in the city that was like Rome, or Jerusalem, to the Hindus. The meeting Mapu described, between himself and his guru, was every bit the mystical union that Arthur Koestler likens to "a soul in search of his assigned body," a search that ends in master and pupil instantly recognizing each other. When Ram Shankar Tripathi set eyes on Mapu, he simply said, "Aa gaye ho, raja saab?" (Ah, you've come, raja saab?) And that was that.

Mapu had first gone to Benares at the age of nineteen. "I fell in love with the city as a young man," he said, "and it has always been my first love." He stayed in a palace, and what he remembered above all else was the sound of bells. He would always think of it, he said, as the city of bells.

I was getting up to leave when Mapu's expression darkened. His mouth grew small, his lips arched.

"But you have to be able to hate it as well. You have to be able to look at that river and say, 'I hate you.' And when it gets too much, you must flee."

* * *

THAT WAS DECEMBER 2007. in February of the next year, I was aboard the Kashi Vishwanath Express from Delhi bound for Benares. The carriages of the overnight train were striped in two shades of blue. I was traveling with an American friend, and we found our names on a passenger list glued to the outside. The platform was crowded with travelers, some asleep on their luggage, some sharing food from pink and white plastic bags. We traveled deep into the Indo-Gangetic Plain, which like the Nile or Indus Valley had been one of the basins of early civilization. The darkened landscape was dotted with redbrick buildings bathed in white fluorescent light. The train stopped along the way at medieval Muslim towns set on the banks of sluggish rivers. We passed brass-producing Moradabad, then Lucknow, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh. The stations, with their high-pointed arches and little canteens, were teeming despite the late hour, and anxious crowds awaited the arrival of the train.

In the morning, a sun of dull gold rose through tinted windows. The flat green fields smoked. The air in the sleeper grew close. The relative anonymity of the night before, with passengers boarding and disembarking into the early hours, gave way to the intimacy of waking up among strangers. Some stirred and stretched, others belched frankly. I felt the manners and indifference of the big city fall away, and the laws and customs of rural and small-town India come into effect. A few passengers took plastic vessels with them into the toilet; others brushed their teeth with sticks of neem out of the open door of the moving train. All this was a preparation of sorts. Delhi and Benares are only eight hundred kilometers apart, but the real distance, the sense of traveling across centuries, was not physical. Distances in India rarely are.

* * *

"Kashi," writes the historian Diana Eck in Banares: City of Light, using the oldest name for the city, "is a place that gathers together the whole of India. Kashi is a cosmopolis — a city that is a world."

In Benares, it was possible to see in miniature every major event that had etched itself onto India's consciousness. The entire history of the subcontinent lay in bits and pieces on its river shore. When, twenty-five centuries ago, the Buddha burst out of Bihar, with a sermon ready on his lips, he delivered it at a deer park in what is today Sarnath, thirteen kilometers from Benares. When Buddhism in India declined, and a resurgent Hindu faith arose, it was in Benares that a city of temples sprang up. When, in the twelfth century, the Muslim slave king Qutb ud-Din Aibak rode east from Delhi in a destructive fury, he laid waste to this ancient city of the Hindus, as would a succession of Muslim rulers who rose in Delhi over the next five centuries. In Benares, great mosques stood on the bones of old temples, and when Islam grew languid and overrefined, this city exerted such symbolic power over the Hindu imagination that a Hindu king took advantage of the decadence of the Muslim governor and made a dynasty. It was in Benares, too, that the descendant of that dynasty was outmaneuvered, in the eighteenth century, by the new European power on the horizon. Warren Hastings, the British governor-general, came himself to face down Chet Singh, the Hindu king of Benares, in 1781, and fifteen years later, the city came under British rule. Benares is the place that best embodies the India described by Jawaharlal Nehru, its first prime minister, as "an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously."

I had been to Benares once before, as an eighteen-year-old, on my way to college in America. It was not my idea to go; I had wanted to spend the summer before college backpacking around Europe. But to this request of mine, my mother responded with surprising urgency: "You can do that anytime. Please go to Benares. Benares is the key to secret India."

I have a picture of myself from that first trip. My hair is cut short, and I am sitting on the stone steps of the riverfront, dressed in a black long-sleeved shirt, patterned with white oms: . I'm wearing baggy pants and sandals, and what the picture makes clear to me is that I have understood my mother's wish for me to visit Benares as encouragement to don a kind of fancy dress. I am a Western traveler, a modern-day hippie in search of "secret India." Denied permission to go backpacking in Europe, I have gone backpacking in India instead, like a child camping out in his own backyard. It was easy then to brush off any discomfort I might have known in Benares. I was on my way to college in America. The glamour of a future in the West propelled me forward without any thought to the past.

Things were different now, in 2008. I had returned to India for good, I thought. My time in the West had not led to a life there, but it had grafted a layer of anxiety onto my way of looking at India. I saw everything as an Anglicized Indian watching an imaginary European or American visitor watch India, and I had my heart in my mouth as I tried to guess what he would make of it. It was an embarrassment twice removed. Anything that made India seem like a freak show filled me with a double horror: my own, and the vicarious horror I felt on behalf of the white man I carried on my shoulder at all times. I hated the presence of these intervening selves. I wished I had a more direct relationship with my country. But any attempt to do so only made the self-observing selves multiply.

* * *

We were staying — my American friend and I — at the Ganges View, a lovely riverside hotel run by an effete Benares grandee.

The weather was beautiful, but the trip had gone badly. The city was in a black mood. That blackness, to which Mapu had obliquely referred, had a name — tamas, etymologically related to tenebrous, was the term Benares gave to an underlying menace that was an accepted part of its character. "Those who are unfamiliar with Benares," writes Richard Lannoy, the author of The Speaking Tree, "can feel almost overwhelmed by the tamasic darkness they see there ... People shudder not only because of the physical decay and craftiness and trickery of those who prey on the pilgrim trade but, more insidiously, because that physical and moral decay contributes to a creeping fear of familiar structures breaking down, all safeguards and moral boundaries dissolved by an aberrant and subversive power."


Excerpted from "The Twice-Born"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Aatish Taseer.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents

1 Foreigners in Their Own Land 3


2 The Color-Filled Eleventh 21

3 The Hour of Juncture 43

4 The Rape and the Seduction 57

5 The Conqueror of Destiny 79

6 The Modern Traditionalist 99


7 The Revolutionary Brahmin 123

8 The Community of Death 145

9 The Isle of Rough Magic 165

10 The Dharma of Place 191

11 The Protection of the Seed 223

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