We That Are Young by Preti Taneja
Literary and page-turner are two genres that don’t usually go together, but in her debut novel Preti Taneja has achieved this most challenging of tasks. Her new, sprawling epic We That Are Young is a compelling and evocative story of today’s India, a country going through sweeping economic changes at a breakneck speed but challenged by the social changes that inevitably must follow yet resist like a cantankerous old bull.
It’s a retelling of King Lear, this time set in contemporary Delhi. Devraj is the patriarch of one of India’s leading corporations, self-indulgently called the Company. It has its fingers in so many pies – government construction contracts, luxury shawls, hospitality, green cars. He has attained mythical status in the country, despite the nefarious dealings that are inevitable in every business success.
He decides to retire and passes his company on to his three daughters (since there is no son). The youngest, Sita, refuses to be involved in the company, her interests more focused on saving the planet, so the other two are running things. Devraj turns against them and they think he has gone mad. That is just one thread in the power struggle that Taneja explores with such deftness and keen social commentary.
Preti Taneja may have been inspired by King Lear but has very much written her own book about family feuds, loyalty, love, ambition, hate and regret, power and misogyny. The story is told through the viewpoint of each of the five “children” the younger folk of the story. Devraj’s three daughters, Gargi, Radha and Sita and the half-brothers Jeet and Jivan, sons of Devraj’s right hand man Ranjit. These former childhood playmates are now at the center of a familial power struggle that will test their morality beyond their wildest imagination.
This novel has all the appeal of a soap opera of the highest order but is written in a literary style that is lyrical, visceral and astute. Yes, the power struggles get vicious and violent. But she also tackles the real issues of how women are faring in the new India, can they be accepted as business leaders and powerful creatures unimpeded by the strictures that society places upon them. Do their wants and desires matter? Can the haves continue to have more as the poor and destitute are left behind?
Jeet’s high life is constantly challenged by his closeted homosexuality that leads him on a journey of discovery amongst the poor and destitute to find out who he really is. Jivan returns to an India that he was banished from as a child, and finds it unrecognizable.
The book also examines the enormous cost of India’s rapid pace of development over the last two decades, the environmental implications, massive corruption scandals and the increasingly obnoxious income inequality. Taneja compares the excesses of the family with the destitution of the slums or bastis around them with a light but devastating touch.
Upon his return Jivan is met at the airport by his father in a vintage Bentley, he is shocked that there are malls in Delhi, and he is immediately aware of his “have” status - “There are women balancing bricks and bundles, walking barefoot on the broken sidewalks. Half-naked children grin to each other as they clean their teeth with dirty fingers, their hair in helmets of crazy around their heads. All of it see as if from far, far away, punctuated by Mercedes and 4x4s, Toyota, Honda, all the big boys.”
In many ways Lear is particularly suited to retelling in an Indian setting. To sire three daughters and no sons could be considered a calamity in the Indian social context, and when the patriarch turns against his two eldest daughters who are running the Company, there is a particular venom about daughters that will seem all too familiar to many Indians.
A super wealthy industrialist passes his company over to his daughters and then quickly regrets his decision - “this is a man’s lot. And what did I get? An embarrassment of daughters. A shame of sisters…Did they serve lunch politely and tirelessly? Did they both show modesty and dignity? Girls these days think it’s modern to show their legs, to have sex on movie screens. To shuck off their fertility as if someone else will do the needful. They want to live like men.”
The industrialist father and corporate scion has reinvented himself into a kind of moral leader and guru of the poor, and accused his elder daughters of turning against him, turning the hero worship he has received as a corporate titan into an allure more mystical.
Gargi, who is now running her father’s company, muses on the lives that have changed because of her company and her personal efforts – women’s programs, childcare, eco cars, water salvation. But as her father distances himself from his daughters and travels the country fighting corruption, appealing to the masses, going on a hunger strike, his daughters are saddled with all the transgressions of the Company, including sub-standard materials, child labor and muslim quotas.
Radha ruminates on her father’s tour “The kind of people her father never usually sees. The kind who serve his servants if that. She knows that a man does not need violence to make a crowd love him. All he needs is a stage, a pointing finger, a few well-chosen words. I gave them my Company and they kicked me out. I return to my people to lead them to truth.”
You don’t need to be familiar with the plot of King Lear to enjoy this book on its own merits. Taneja combines fast paced, descriptive storytelling with some detours into almost magical realism. It’s a door stopper of a book and she takes full advantage, giving the reader a vibrant sense of place.
There are some marvelous set pieces, including Jivan’s return to Delhi and the appalling opulence of The Farm, the estate that houses all the family and the hangers on “Lime green parrots swoosh above…a fat-bodied peacock pecking across the grass to check him out…a chandelier hung with pearls and diamonds drops from a vicious hook above…flowers have no scent…” and a hidden bunker that monitors all the activities on the farm.
When a storm of biblical proportions hits the slum Jeet has retreated to to find himself, the devastation is extraordinary and Taneja takes the reader into the wretched mess headfirst “A tongue, lashing lightning – the rain weeping rage down to the cowering earth—the sky a father disappointed. And they, the people of the basti, do cower as the sand beneath them turns to swamp and then becomes submerged, as the gutters between their shacks become a river which rises, rises, rises. It takes only minutes before shit floods through their hovels, bringing with it rats, big as baby monkeys, tails propelling them furiously against the night. The rubbish becomes a wave, washing away language, voices, drab stories of past lives, sufferings and hopes.”
For American audiences much of what they think they know about India is a place frozen in time, what I call a National Geographic circa 1960s version. Taneja has penned an extraordinary novel that grapples with all the changes that are taking place in modern India. She has also written a family drama that will appeal across lines of nationality and race. This book will appeal to lovers of Dynasty or Dallas as much as King Lear’s most ardent fans.
BEFORE YOU READ:
Length: 553 pages
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Themes: family, business, poverty, love, corruption
Commitment: it’s a big one, no doubt, but this wonderful new writer is worth your time and effort