I feel closer to writers when I can relate to them, and maybe step into their shoes to know what they’d be feeling. I’m not an empathetic person usually and that makes a lot of reading difficult for me to absorb, so it’s easier when I can tick a checklist that points to certain similarities. Since I’ve come back to Delhi in May 2018 after five years in Bangalore for law school, I’m finding myself in a city that I grew up in and know like the back of my hand, but not quite home for me anymore. It ‘should’ be, but it isn’t.
The Twice-Born appealed to me for this reason. This is a man I’ve grown up reading and looking up to. How does he feel trying to find an identity? How is he choosing which identity to dwell upon? The Twice-Born is a semi-autobiographical exploration of a history that Taseer seeks to understand to know where he is coming from. This idea of self-exploration is what underlines every interaction that he engages with during his travels to Benaras over a span of 10 years, right from when he is sent there, ‘the heart of India’, instead of a backpacking trip to Europe, till when he realizes that he is far too removed from this India to ever be at home here.
From a strictly literary perspective, Taseer is easily one of the best English-writing Indian authors I know of. He moves fluidly from fiction to non-fiction and is able to utilize a variety of literary devices to keep the text engaging. Despite being peppered with intense conversations throughout this exploration, the text is engaging without being preachy. Even his own thoughts and judgments on his interactions are deftly sewn into a story-like narrative, that brings to life scene and personality characterization as easily as it does historical narrative and research. So in terms of how it is written, absolutely top-notch finesse. I’ve seen him being called the modern day Naipaul, and I’ve never read Naipaul, but if Taseer is anything to go by, Naipaul must have been a pretty great writer.
In terms of what is being written, I’m flummoxed. Taseer explores cultural traditionalism in the backdrop of modernity and how the established structures of Hindu society are reacting to this change. He questions the gaze of understanding India being peppered with foreign influence and tries to undo it, himself having grown up closer home in the West than to the religious upbringing of ‘cultural’ (his words) India.
What made me want to explore historical narratives such as this one (and also Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra) was the complete absence of my personal history. What I learnt in school was a history being forced upon me by the dominant Hindu upper-caste gatekeepers of education (and also my family!). Coming from a pastoral background from Peshawar in Pakistan, I come from a Hindu family that moved to India only in 1947. Sanskrit wasn’t our mother tongue – Pashto was. Ethnic Day in college meant nothing to me because 2 generations ago our ethnic wear had been left behind to make a new country home. And yet, my family (close and extended) had adapted to India as if they’ve always been here. I’ve usually been a lot more inquisitive and questioning, which led me to reject a lot of views that were passed down to me by my parents. I think this has to do with the difference in the sense of security I feel here vis-a-vis my grandparents or parents. What India am I even talking about re-learning and re-visiting? I think this was my key exasperation as I finished the book.
I’m not sure how much Taseer has been able to revisit his past and learn about it. I think it is key to understand that the Past and our History and our Culture are not singular and straight-jacket, but consistently dynamic and fluid (i.e., they are the pasts, the histories, and the cultures). One interaction that stays with me is when Taseer speaks to Shivam who languishes about being in a ‘limbo’ between tradition and modernity. I think this limbo is what each one of us always exists in. Traditions are formed by retrospectively looking back at what practices have remained. Modernity is about which practices to follow henceforth. Wanting this limbo to end is probably wanting the dynamism of humanity and human life to come to standstill, and that only means death.
If someone comes home on any given day during a family meal, you’d mostly find my dad and me at odds about politics and religion. I’m not irreligious, but my dad wants the world, in general, to go back to ‘traditional’ values (you know who he voted for, right?). I, on the other hand, contemplate what exactly are the traditional values of a 3rd generation refugee family that were luckily granted citizenship the minute they entered the country, unlike what is happening in Assam right now. So, for me, the ‘traditional’ values are assimilating into a country that wasn’t my own at one time, following practices that weren’t my own. How do I belong to a new country and ‘go back’ to its culture?
It’s writing that is honest. Taseer has tried to be true to what he is and what he believes in, and yet has the courage to engage those he knows to think otherwise. That requires great strength – something he talks of when he ruminates that how strong really is India’s tradition and culture that it can fall flat in the face of any opposition? There is no becoming a hero – when he is unable to recover from the shock of a deeply entrenched caste system while dining in the village, he does not become the ‘saviour’ of shame. The invisible line of distance that was drawn years before he ever stepped into Benaras isn’t crossed as this exploration ends. Instead, they are cemented as he decides to move away from good. How much effort was put into crossing this distance is something only he can tell us. What I can say is that his experience raises more questions in me than I can answer for now, and maybe I’ll have to find my Benaras to go and explore in a few years time.
tl;dr: read it for its literary style and expertise; would miss it for the content only because I am limited by my distance in empathising.