‘The Way Things Were’ by Aatish Taseer

They Way Things Were by Aatish TaseerCircumambulating 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.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

“Khirbet Khizeh” by S. Yizhar

Khirbet Khizeh Book ReviewKhirbet Khizeh is S. Yizhar’s fictionalized account of life as a soldier in the Israeli army during the 1948-49 war, and was published shortly after the war’s end. In this new translation by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck, Khirbet Khizeh takes on a renewed poetic significance, instilling the novellas enduring relevance for contemporary culture.

The narrator starts his account by noting that the event he is about to describe “happened a long time ago, but it has haunted [him] ever since.” He talks of the passage of time and his once hopeful idea that such a passage might have healed his sorrow and despair. However, it appears that nothing of the sort has come to pass. He takes readers back to the beginning, back to his own mindset before he was deeply disturbed by his and his cavalry’s actions.

It is a “splendid winter morning” the day that the troop “cheerfully making [its] way” across the countryside. As they are travelling, they come across the village of Khirbet Khizeh which they are told, by radio, that they must attack in order to dispossess the Arab’s who live there of their land. The infantry must, however, wait for the command do so. And so they wait. They grow restless, sleepy, and confrontational with one another as time seems to interminably pass for them. The narrator feels the pressure of wanting to act, for as he notes, in idleness “thoughts would stealthy creep in.” And “when the thoughts came, troubles began;” nobody want thinking soldiers, so “better not to start thinking” he resolves.

The indifference, lack of concern and general passivity of the soldiers continues as they talk and laugh of slaughtering a donkey for the fun of seeing just how long it would keep munching on grass after being shot three times. “What incredible vitality” the wireless operator observes. This scene foreshadows the stance of observance that the soldiers, and most especially Yizhar’s protagonist, takes on as the novella progresses.

Finally the group is “rescued from [their] distress” and given the green light to open fire on Khirbet Khizeh. The attack begins, and the rest of the piece details the narrator’s indecisions, frustrations and doubts concerning the rights of the Jews and the rationality of their actions. He develops a sudden sense of compassion for his enemy: mostly graying men, steadfast women and crying children – none of whom retaliate as they are herded from their homes. The narrator recognizes this change of heart in himself, but notes that at the time he “didn’t want to stand out from the others in anyway,” and so he tries his best to keep quiet.

He is, however, eventually compelled to speak out to his commander Moishe, that “it’s not right” for the Jews to displace the Arabs when they are so defenseless and passive. Moishe though is entirely indifferent and points out that if the Jews were in the Arab’s position right now, the Jews would be dead. He warns Yizhar’s narrator that if they don’t take care of the Arabs now, the group will present bigger issues for the Jews in the future. The narrator continues to argue with himself, but ultimately decides “this is war!” Though he does not by any means fully convince himself that his actions are just, he has at least subsumed his outward expression of guilt and questioning beneath the guise of wartime allowances.

As David Shulman notes in the afterword though, Yizhar’s expression of “all is well in war” gains greater irony in the fact that not much has changed in Israel now that the war is over. People are still being displaced, people are still hating and killing one another, and yet the excuse of war can no longer be used.  Though it might appear that the novel bends on a moralistic theme, Shulman notes that Yizhar’s narrative hinges more on choice than on morality. Perhaps these choices are necessarily tethered to morality as they are intimately bound to the notion of peer pressure both in the form of people and ideologies.

The text spans a mere 144 pages, and Yizhar propels readers directly into both the internal and external action of the novella, keeping them there throughout. Usually with translated text, there is a profound sense of loss and sadness surrounding the physical words on the page because they are merely representations of the original words used in the native language. De Lange and Dweck, however, capture with verve the poetic essence of the text beautifully and aptly. Yizhar’s very Dickens-like sentences build into paragraphs that wind around your heart, pulling you forward into the action, the distress, and the ambivalence that characterizes his work.

This new translation by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck was re-released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in December of 2014 and can be found at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from NetGalley for a fair and honest review of the text.