The Way Things Were: A Novel

The Way Things Were: A Novel

by Aatish Taseer


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The Way Things Were: A Novel by Aatish Taseer

The Way Things Were opens with the death of Toby, the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu, a Sanskritist who has not set foot in India for two decades. It falls to his son, Skanda, to return Toby's body to his birthplace, "a tin-pot kingdom" not worth "one air-gun salute." This journey takes him halfway around the world and returns him to his family, the drawing-room elite of Delhi, whose narcissism and infighting he has worked hard to escape. It also forces him to reckon with his parents' marriage, a turbulent love affair that began in passion but ended in pain and futility.

Aatish Taseer's The Way Things Were takes its title from the Sanskrit word for history, itihasa, whose literal translation is "the way things indeed were." It is both an intimate portrait of a family and a panoramic vision of the last half century of life in Delhi, with Sanskrit woven in as central metaphor and chorus. Through one man's struggle with his inheritance, it explores the cultural schizophrenia of modern India and the difficulty of building honestly on the past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250097460
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 11/08/2016
Pages: 576
Sales rank: 852,158
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 3.50(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 two novels: The Temple-Goers, which was short-listed for the Costa First Novel Award, and the highly acclaimed Noon. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He lives in New Delhi and New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Way Things Were

By Aatish Taseer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Aatish Taseer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86547-824-4


Skanda is deep into his translation of The Birth of Kumara when his mother calls to say his father is on his deathbed.

Uma has many flaws, but falsity is not one of them. She does not even pretend to be sad. In that special way of hers, part convent school, part cafe society, she says, as if Toby were dead already, 'Well, darling, it was bound to happen one day. I hope you're not too sad. You must be. He is your father after all. Skandu? Jaani? Say something. Are you in shock?'

'A little, Ma. It's only 6 a.m. ... How do you know?'

'Sylvia called me.'

'Sylvia?' he asks, wondering why his stepmother would have called his mother before him or his sister.

'Yes. One has to be gracious in times like these. And she's very good in these respects. Very correct. "I vaunted to geev the cheeldren som tayme, Uma." Must have been such a relief after me.'

And here she gives the first of many little laughs.

'Have you spoken to Rudrani?' he says, thinking of his sister in Connecticut.

'She won't go. She's on one of her trips. India doesn't exist for her. She's Mrs Glowitz and that's the end of it. That girl, I tell you, she will wake up one day unable to remember the life she escaped to find herself in the one she's in now. So unlike me! I always took things head on, even when I was just an air hostess without a clue about the world.'

His mother does not mention that time in her life very often. It makes him wonder what the prospect of his father's death is making her feel.

'Should I go?'

'Of course, you must. To Geneva first, and then India —'


'I just want you to be prepared. He'll have to be taken to Kalasuryaketu. And I'm certainly not ... Women, besides, have no role in these things.'

'What condition is Baba in?'

'Sylvia says hardly conscious, unable to recognize anyone. But it may just be, now that he's passing on,' – and, here, she gives her little laugh – 'that he's in no mood to recognize her.'

'Will you come to Geneva?'

'No, not to Geneva. It's no place for me. And your father ... Who knows! Might be a nasty shock after all these years, might hasten him on his way! I'll see you in Delhi, should that be the way things go.'

'But how do you know he wants to be taken back?'

'He does want it.'

'Really, Ma? He left for good in 1992. Never went back. Why take him now?'

'Apparently he gave Sylvia some indication before he ... well, before he couldn't.'

'That he wanted to be taken to Kalasuryaketu?' Skanda says cautiously.


'Will you come?'

'I won't, darling. It's been too long. It feels like a buried life. But you must go. There'll be a lot to handle, mind you,' she says, changing the subject. 'Indian customs. The drive down there. The cremation. Bureaucrats, collectors, local bigwigs. I'll make sure someone from Mani's office is there ...'


Mani is Maniraja, Skanda's stepfather of many years. They try usually to avoid him in conversation.

'Oh, come on. What does it matter? Just to get you through.'

He doesn't say anything.

'And at the other end, there'll be plenty of people to help. Tripathi and gang. The people there have great regard for Toby. Listen: get your act together; go to Geneva. You must, it's your duty ...'

'I will.'

* * *

Once he is resolved to leave, he leaves Manhattan quickly, in the modern way: hurried calls to friends to say goodbye, a chat with Rudrani, emails to professors. The parting glimpse of a long glittering city, islanded and on the verge of summer, supremely indifferent to his departure.

* * *

The night his father dies, a late spring storm plays mutely in the windows of the Geneva clinic. Electric spiders appear in the darkened glass, which, like a doubly exposed photograph or a matting effect in film, already bears the motionless reflection of foam ceilings and tubelight. He and Sylvia keep vigil. His father, tubed-up and hardly breathing, eyes dim, is visible past the door's long pane of wire mesh glass. The fear, even more than of death, is of an extended period of unconsciousness, the pacemaker heart continuing to beat even as the body fails. Who will bear responsibility? Sylvia, nurse to the long illness, already looks in need of release.

But at 2 a.m., just as he's stepped out for a cigarette, and is trying to protect its papery tube from the rain, he receives a text from Sylvia. His father's blood pressure has crashed. 80–40. By 4 a.m. it's over.

A kebab and a beer at dawn. The wet tarmac of the street brightens with the first light, a petrol rainbow eddies and opens out gently in a puddle.

Inside – eager to get the dead weight off their hands – the hospital management assail him with forms, and the names of funeral homes. Sylvia's soft but insistent crying mingles with the clipped but urgent tone of a Swiss German nurse. By morning, with the broadening of day in the city outside, a set of interlocking agencies and institutions have taken over. It may seem daunting to move a body from Geneva to Delhi, but it has been done before, a process need only be initiated. Sylvia won't come; she took him away from India alive three decades before, she does not want to take him back dead. This is where her responsibility ends.

* * *

Night, his father in tow. The embers of unvisited cities burn below him while his ears ring with the screams of the deportee. She boarded in Brussels, escorted by two men in grey uniforms. She was short and plump and dark, with lifeless shoulder-length hair. And she was sick with hysteria. 'India,' she yelled, the 'd' hard and bludgeoning. 'No want to go to India. Hate India. My life in India is bitch. Hate India. No want to go to India.' Again and again, her screaming, wild and full of ill omen, rang through the nervous silence of the plane. When at last Skanda stopped one of the stewards, he said, 'It's only for now, sir. It'll stop as soon as we're in the air. You see, sir, the only way she can get off is if the captain refuses to fly her.'

When they are cruising – and the plane is quiet again – he asks the men in grey, her escorts, what her life in Belgium had been. They explain, with her in earshot, that most of it was spent in a detention centre outside Brussels. So: no boyfriend? No job? No nice little apartment? No, they say, and smile. She listens, then with a sidelong glance, she says, in Hindi, 'But it was better than India. They gave me a cappuccino every morning. I felt free.'

* * *

In the morning, the light of India presses red against the shuttered ovals. He lifts it a crack and a fierce blaze sweeps searchingly over the cabin walls. Grisma, Skanda says almost aloud, as they descend. From gras: to swallow, to devour, to consume. Summer, in a word. Indian summer, real Indian summer. Not some mere extension of good weather, but a season of glare and hot winds, of bleached land, its beige-brown parcels visible from the air: a season of white skies, of wheeling kites; a season of death.

A game of cognates – a game his father had taught him – begins on the plane with the flight map. Distance to destination. Destination: gantavya. The place to be gone to. Gerundive of gam, an old Indo-European thread which takes little leaps of meaning as it travels west: turning go to come. In Gothic, qvam; in English, come; in Latin venio for gvemio. He makes an effort to stop. Theo Mackinson, his professor at Columbia, mocks him as a collector of cognates. But it is oddly comforting; it gives an illusion of continuity, helps thread past and present together.

And there is a lot to thread together, a lot that is erased with this new arrival. The airport of his childhood is gone. In its place, a many-armed sprawl of green glass and moving walkways. Gone, too, are the red-painted buckets labelled 'Fire' whose sand was hard and paan-stained, littered with cigarette butts; gone, the heavily tinted windows, from whose corners the peeling laminate left long sticky triangles of undarkened glass. Instead, there are springy carpets in a red and beige Kandinsky-esque pattern, and swift-moving carts, driven by men in attractive uniforms.

He spends six hours at Indian customs, though here the men his mother has arranged from Maniraja's office take charge. And they, in a deep sense, deeper than he will ever know, speak the same language as Mr Sitamani, the customs officer, a caste-marked Tamilian, who wetly stamps his documents red. His office, with its red ink pad and its yellow desk sponge, still suggests the old country. The game resumes: mani, like Maniraja – cognate with the Latin monile, necklace; the English mane – is jewel.

Once his late father is loaded in – reappeared magically now like a piece of lost luggage, his air-conditioned coffin bearing a wide range of stamps – they leave the wastes of Delhi in convoy, he in one car, his father in another. A pale iodine sky darkens and brightens in cycle after futile cycle. Occasionally there is a gulmohar in bloom, the tendrils of its flowers a scorched red, dark as sunspots. It's years since he has felt the breath of summer against his skin. The wet cotton of his shirt scorches his back. And he's happy for it all, happy for its intensity; he feels a swell of relief.

Tea and snacks in Dholpur. By evening, the landscape has changed. The old eggshell hills, bare and worn down to their core, are covered in a burnt yellow grass; in places they appear charred, as though someone has extinguished a giant cigarette on their furrowed faces. This is the landscape he has always associated with the approach of the Tamasa. The river. He can see it now in his mind's eye: broad and green, the surrounding land white. And little Kalasuryaketu on its banks. The landscape brings on a feeling of anticipation, as certain Mediterranean landscapes bring on an anticipation for the sea.

His phone vibrates. An email from his mother:

Janum, forgive me: still in Bombay. Can't make it to Delhi after all, but will try to be there on your return. Good luck with everything. Tripathi will be there to help. I don't think you have to stay the full thirteen days, since there isn't going to be a Raj Tilak as such. (Although, for me, you are now the little Raja of Kalasuryaketu.) I don't know what condition the Shiv Niwas is in, but I'm sure a room or two should be habitable. Also, send something along these lines to people in India and abroad:

I am sorry to inform you that His Highness the Maharaja of Kalasuryaketu my revered father passed away on Sunday 31 May. The family was in attendance and he passed on very peacefully. The spontaneous farewell from the town was unprecedented in our history and we are all humbled.

He BBMs her back: 'His Highness?'

'To many, he was,' she replies.

'And no "spontaneous farewell" so far.'

'Don't worry; there will be.'

And she's right. As the car begins the climb up to Shiv Niwas, people start appearing along the sloping streets. Out of barbers' shops, pharmacies, little road-side shrines. Out of their houses, and businesses, from auto-repair shops, where inner tubes are being checked for punctures in shallow dishes of water. The old men raise knotty folded hands over their heads; the women, on cue, begin to cry; adolescents take pictures on their phones and project a kind of sulky curiosity, while children run alongside the car, trailing their fingers along its flank. Everyone acts instinctively, everyone knows what to do, and as they come nearer Shiv Niwas, the streets clog, as though word has been travelling with them. Just before the gate, one young man, running purposefully alongside the car, pushes the children away and jumps in at the front. The driver, who he addresses directly, clearly knows him. The car slows outside the vast whitewashed gate, where the road rises sharply up to Shiv Niwas, and magically, it seems, an older man, long-toothed and smiling, appears with folded hands, in a grey safari suit. In a wordless exchange, the young man gets out, the older man gets in, and the young man now waves the car on, as though it has been awaiting his permission.

After a moment's silence, the older gentleman turns around and extends his hand, and, with eyes dancing behind their bifocal lenses, he says, smiling knowingly, 'So, Yuvraj saab, you've forgotten me?'



'No! ... Oh, my God, of course not, Tripathi saab! How can you say that? I just got —'

'Been travelling a long while?'

'Too long, Tripathi saab. Can't tell day from night.'

Tripathi gives a long rasping laugh.

'I loved your father. Maharaj saab and I ... we grew up like brothers. He was a very great man. Very learned. We shared a passion for Sanskrit, you know?'

'I know, I know, Tripathi saab. He would tell me what a great teacher you were.'

'What great teacher, saab? I was nothing before him. But, yes, this much is true: my memory was better than his. When he was compiling his great textbook in the summer of 1975 – the year Mrs Gandhi declared the Emergency, I still remember – he would often say, Tripathi, give me an example of a saptami tatpurusa from Kavya – what I think in English you call the dependent locative – and, phat, I would produce something out of God knows where, and he would be speechless. Tripathi, he used to say, you may in some respects be a useless bunch, you pundits, but you have something. No doubt, no doubt!'

Tripathi is still laughing when the car swings round a corner. And Skanda sees, for the first time, from a great height now, the river, a meandering vein of green on the pale dry earth. The Tamasa!


The Creation of Poetry lecture was, half out of principle, half out of habit, always the first Toby gave on landing in India. He delivered it that June afternoon in Delhi at the India International Centre.

'In his rage,' Toby said, 'Valmiki curses the hunter from Nishada. "Adharmo 'yam iti," the twice-born sage says. "This is unjust. Since, Nishada, you have, at the height of your passion, killed one of this pair of kraunchas" – curlews! – "you shall not now live for very long."

'The curse of an angry sage,' Toby continued, 'is nothing we have not seen before in Epic. But what happens next is unprecedented: it is what makes this among the grandest openings to any work of literature. Because, within moments of uttering his curse, Valmiki regrets his terrible words. The question,' Toby breathed, 'is why? Why does the author of the Ramayana regret cursing the man from Nishada who, in killing the male of this pair of birds, has shattered his reverie and caused him such grief?'

The lecture came usually to Toby without mental effort; with such ease, in fact, that he feared he sounded mechanical. But that afternoon, despite the familiar subject and audience of friends, he was unable to concentrate. His gaze kept finding its way back to her. And she seemed to notice. Her large liquid eyes seemed to return his look; there was a trace of movement in her lips.

'We are not told,' Toby said, trying hard to focus his thoughts, 'Not told why he regrets his curse. But in what follows we are given an important clue. For, in the next instance, Valmiki utters what we consider to be the first verse of Indian poetry. "Fixed in metrical quarters," the sage says, "each with a like number of syllables, and fit for the accompaniment of stringed and percussion instruments, the utterance that I produced in this access of soka, grief, shall be called sloka, poetry, and nothing besides."'

Toby looked long at the audience, and, coming now to the end of his lecture, said, 'He regrets his curse, I feel, because he knows that his grief at the killing of the bird – grief, he feels interestingly, not for the dying bird, but for its mate, the hen, whose song turns to a piteous lament – has set free his inspiration. It is the dirty secret of his art. Known among poets as the adi-kavi – the first poet, a Sanskritic Cædmon, if you will – he is the first to recognize, twenty centuries ago, that, however much poets wish not to cause pain, there is no poetry without pain, no poetry without pity. And from here on, in the Indian imagination, soka – sorrow or grief – comes to be fused, both conceptually and phonemically, with sloka, poetry! It is this, and nothing besides, that we consider to be the birth of poetry.'


Excerpted from The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer. Copyright © 2015 Aatish Taseer. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Part I The Emergency (1975),
Part II The Riot (1984),
Part III Gulmarg (1984-89),
Part IV The Mosque (1992),
A Note About the Author,
Also by Aatish Taseer,

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