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27.04.2018

“The city as we imagine it,” writes travel writer and novelist Jonathan Raban, “the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate on maps, in statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture.” Once in a while, a book comes along that applies the same treatment to a whole country (some countries more than others, of course); the India of ‘We That Are Young’ is one such fabrication.

This is an India where married women take the surnames of their husbands but keep their fathers’ names as middle names. Where the newly retired patriarch of India’s biggest business group becomes an Anna Hazare-like crusader against corruption and rallies thousands in his mission against - no, not the state - his corrupt daughters and bewafa betis everywhere. This is an India where a lot of people seem to care about Slumdog Millionaire.

We That Are Young is a retelling of King Lear set in contemporary North India. Mint Lounge has called the debut novel by British author Preti Taneja the “talk of salons in India and the UK this season.” With good reason: the Times called it “one of the most original and exquisite novels of the year.” The Irish Times noted that modern India, “a country where women are historically second-class citizens, where daughters are still commonly traded like livestock,” is the perfect setting for a retelling of the Shakespearean tragedy. Many reviewers have commended Taneja’s voice as vivid and inventive: the pages of ‘We That Are Young’ brim with Hindi phrases and dialogue. The Hindi parts are left “pleasingly unitalicised” as The Guardian puts it, before going on to declare that this “novel is worlds away from the kind of [Indian] book that permits only an exotic sprinkling of swear words and familial terms.”

The novel’s ambition cannot be faulted. Taneja’s prose, when it’s good, is sharp, even gorgeous. Several scenes crackle with tension; one that features a bloody trail of slaughtered peacocks stands out in particular. The women are fleshed out more fully than the Jacobean stage allowed. True, the novel’s emotional register is uneven, almost jagged in places, and much of the dialogue feels artificial. The novel is also at least a hundred pages too long, making this as much an endurance test as a novel.

Fair enough, you think: imperfections in a long novel needn’t invalidate its hype. Indeed, we can set all these complaints aside, but what makes us want to shout out that this King has no clothes is its feted “linguistic multiplicity”. Western reviewers should be thankful that the Hindi is untranslated: it is banal at best and outright incorrect at worst. In a particularly grating scene, a character toys with marketing catchphrases for her company’s new mall, the InCo mall; she even mulls over an acquisition of Indigo Airlines. Here’s what she comes up with:

“InCo IndiGo pasand hai! InCo loves IndiGo!
No, the other way round:
IndiGo InCo pasand hai! IndiGo loves InCo!”

If there is a page that sums up our problem with the novel, it is this one: the use of Hindi is clumsy, ungrammatical, and adds nothing to the book except more words to endure. Our complaint has echoes beyond the use of language. A plate of pav bhaji evokes in a character the need to hold forth on the “burn of hot spices” and the taste of (huh) “softly fried puri buttered on all sides.” The geography of a slum is described over several pages - special attention is lavished upon the colour of the sludge and the contents of the drain in each district – but it’s peopled only with stock characters: prostitutes with hearts of gold, precocious dark children who love thumkas and heroines from a decade ago. A walk in Srinagar quickly becomes a laundry list of Kashmir’s principal exports; no spice or fruit goes unmentioned. This is a book that fetishises detail, the sights and smells of India’s streets and the quirks of its peoples, but the portrait of India that emerges feels like a police sketch put together from second-hand and third-hand accounts. In short, the book feels false.

The author recently told Scroll, when asked about writing a book about a country she doesn’t live in, that “as a woman (of colour), I have no country.” Who, then, may we ask, is this novel for? Everybody is never an answer. Does the author have a model western reader in mind, we wonder: one who has an idea of modern India but also wants to be surprised; not a lot, just a little. A reader aware of but uncomfortable with his privilege. Look! No glossary! This book isn’t even trying to pander to us! We must love it!

Pick up artists have long known the first rule of wooing: if you want someone’s attention, pretend you are not interested. Better still, hit on their friend. Reading We That Are Young makes us feel like this friend: an accessory in somebody else’s flirtation. And honestly, we’d rather be somewhere else.

Why Was This Hyped?’ is an occasional new series criticising other people’s taste in literature. If you’d like to contribute, send an email to guide@bpbweekend.com.

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