‘Everywhere one saw signs of beauty, such as talent and genius, fighting their way out from an encroaching ugliness; a shade giving Peepul tree, its trunk bandaged in red religious threads, evoked the memory of something old and attractive, even when it was engulfed in brown smoke and traffic; a temple tank , its litter-strewn surface a deep inviting green, sought to bring tranquillity to the slum neighbourhood that had sprung up around it; a woman in a shimmering sari of pink and gold, dripping with bangles and jewelry, stood in open slippers in a verge of wet black mud.’
This authorial observation by Aatish Taseer, makes well for a metaphor for his latest- The Twice Born, Life and Death on the Ganges, Harper Collins.The dynamics of modernity contacting tradition is examined though the prism of brahmins of Benaras, which the author undertakes from his coordinates at the Alice Boner house- belonging to the Swiss artist and scholar. The theme, if not hackneyed is surely overplayed, though, to be fair, however reductionist the approach might be, theme’s treatment, is novel.
Taseer embarks upon an intellectual quest of checking the tenacity of religious beliefs in the 21stcentury India. This grail is peppered with personal notes and commentary on goings-on in his life, an exercise in peeling layers off, of one’s identity construct, perhaps. A questioning spirit in tow, the author sets off on a journey that takes him upriver and back along the Ganges, in Benaras.
Here in the holy city, the binaries of tradition and modernity, the old order and the new age chaos, the rural and urban, the English speaking and the vernacular, Politics and religion –also when these lines blur- play out, dwelled upon and mulled over, through the meandering course of the book. Recurring themes resurface- Taseer’s estranged father and his death, his relation with the world where distance is not merely physical, between Delhi and Varanasi and a milieu where most are battling this duality of existence and tussle.
Creative beauty of Taseer’s prose is unquestionable, a pity then that mid-way through the book – the reader in me starts questioning, the questioning writer- of his looking outward from a ‘(ad)vantage point of elitism, of judging the average ‘quasi modern’ Indian. This anthropological Venn diagramish study is conducted over 248 pages- with some refreshing though, not entirely new perspectives.
The copious references to philosophers and literary gems , Nehru, Koestler, Gandhi, KA Abbas, Tagore, AK Coomaraswamy, Bhartrhari and Kalidasa, remains on the surface, floating like marigold drops on the holy river. The musical notes of Taseer’s master prose are unmistakable –the classifiers like none other, hold a lyrical lure, even while talking about prosaic points of casteism, the clash of the civilisations – India and Bharat at a micro level; readings of fascist leanings in local and national politics, all form a part of the narrative that sounds all too familiar.
These personal and social ruminations chart the journey of a man who is as sure of his placement in the sceme of things; having firmly found identity as an observer of the distance within. Of one not being elitist but not hiding the cultural elitism one is born into either- which is refreshingly appealing. However, not to take away from the fact that in its mystical, prosaic-poetic quality, Taseer’s work charms and disappoints in equal measure.
The elegantly jacketed read lies somewhere between an academic paper on religion, casteism, orientalism and a prismatic reflection of a commonplace observation; though leans mostly towards the latter. In the end, remaining an open ended non-solution to a personal query in the public domain.