Circumambulating the connection between past and present in an ever spinning web of repetition and mirrored effect, The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer is a tale that raises questions concerning family, history, language, culture, religion and devotion among other issues. Told as a dual narrative of past and present, the contemporary story of Skanda and Gauri is mirrored by that of Skanda’s father Toby and his mother Uma. These two stories are further reflected in the larger backdrop of political life in India, religious Hindu stories, and in the very language of Sanskrit which both Toby and Skanda study with the verve of a passionate love affair.
The novel opens with the death of Toby and thereby Skanda’s return to India for the first time in over twenty years. A graduate student at Cornell University, Skanda uproots his life in Manhattan to bring his father’s ashes back to, India because both his mother Uma and his sister Rudrani refuse to return to their homeland. Reconnecting with members of his family who he has been isolated from since the separation of his parents, Skanda begins to piece together the disjointed history of his and his family’s past for his new love interest Gauri. In his telling, parallels are drawn between Skanda and Toby, between Skanda’s romantic relationship and that of his parents, as well as between the cultural norms and trends of each time period.
Themes of escapism, idealism, and devotion ring most prominent in The Way Things Were. Obsessed with cognates, both Skanda and Toby have a way of relating everything back to Sanskrit, of taking any serious or romantic conversation and of ignorantly veering toward banality with their almost scientific breakdown of the words involved. The father and son’s romanticizing of the Sanskrit language mirrors their aloof attitude towards life itself. Neither is severely affected by any great event in his life, and this tends to frustrate the more passionate and emotionally driven people surrounding them.
How Skanda and Toby see themselves is shaded by their naivety and blindness to what’s going on around them. There is an “obsession…with origins” that haunts the duo in a way that colors their presence in reality and thereby their relationships within that present. Though they can each be frustrating in their own way, they are by no means the antagonists of the novel. Uma and Gauri have equally frustrating tendencies and characteristics that allow the reader to see both sides of each relationship with greater insight and understanding. In fact, nearly all of the women in The Way Things Were are juxtaposed by the men: the men being figures of stagnancy and of a circular nature, while the women are the more adventurous and restless characters who induce change because they have the emotional pull and drive to do so.
The Way Things Were is not only about a shared past that reiterates itself in each coming generation, but the book directly addresses the idea that “people will have the past speak in ways that have more to do with the present than the past.” There is an idealism that imbues Skanda and Toby, while other characters such as Skanda’s aunt Isha, see the past through the pessimistic lens of failures and shortcomings. Either way, each character remembers the past exactly as they want, coloring their present with the selective memories of the past. “The insidious cloud of amnesia” that hovers above both India and the characters in the novel proves at times detrimental, while at other times, the characters would seem to benefit from forgetting perhaps the most volatile of experiences for which they hold grudges. For, as Taseer posits, “how does genuine renewal occur?” He goes on to state that it most likely “comes at a time when men acknowledge the past as dead.”
A book whose every word holds a depth of meaning miles wide, a story whose pages are dripping with cavernous metaphors sans any holes in their meaning, Taseer’s superb novel The Way Things Were is nothing short of a modern day literary masterpiece. The interwoven stories and the layered meaning to nearly every word spoken is magnified by the depth of character, place and time with which Taseer imbues his novel. Moving, frustrating and entirely entrancing, The Way Things Were is a beautifully crafted novel with a seemingly endless depth.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Way Things Were is available for purchase at your local bookstore.
FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.