‘Now is the time for madmen to rise’ [book review]

A review of We that are young by Preti Taneja

I do enjoy a challenge when reading, and Galley Beggar Press is usually happy to provide one. This time it came in the form of Preti Taneja’s We that are young, an undertaking that is nothing if not ambitious. Dense, raging and often extremely discomfiting, this is a firebrand of a novel set in modern-day India, a social and political portrait centred on one family and moulded around the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear. It’s a daunting task for both writer and reader, but fortunately with Taneja we are in good hands. Length notwithstanding – though part of the effect does come from its almost overwhelming outpouring of words, so don’t be put off – this is a tightly crafted story that showcases a formidable voice and gives its readers pause to think.

Cover image We that are young

Setting is absolutely essential in this novel, which takes us on a troubling journey deep into India: Delhi and Amritsar are the two major stages, but within them we encounter a host of vividly drawn backdrops: hotels and private houses that are staggering in their luxury are juxtaposed with the stinking, overpopulated lanes of a basti (shanty town) precariously bordering a rubbish dump. It is a world of stark contrast that many readers may not feel at home in, but Taneja deftly precludes this by writing the first section of the novel from the perspective of Jivan, a young Delhi-born man who has spent around half his life in America and is now, following the death of his mother, returning to his long-lost family. Though we aren’t party to much of Jivan’s life in the States – the novel opens on the plane to Delhi, so all we have access to are infrequent memories – this device allows the reader, too, to enter India as an outsider, the setting that is at first often alienating or shocking gradually growing on us until it seems natural. So too does Taneja insert us gently into the minds of her characters, beginning with the figure who is perhaps most relatable and gradually unleashing on us an ever-intensifying degree of madness.

Waiting for Jivan on a private estate known as The Farm are his half-brother, Jeet, father, Ranjit, and the three sisters Gargi, Radha and Sita, who are the daughters of Jivan and Jeet’s godfather and heirs to the preposterous fortune amassed by their business mogul father, Bapuji. Jivan’s re-entry to the fold coincides with a dramatic shift in The Farm’s normally ordered proceedings: Sita, unmarried, absconds with a young man, and Bapuji, in what appears to be a fit of insanity, steps down from his company, leaving his offspring to fight it out amongst themselves. Gargi, apparently sensible yet conniving, initially takes over responsibility for the business, while PR expert Radha seems at first to support her, though cracks soon appear in their relationship. Jeet, meanwhile, has also vanished, surfacing later in the guise of an impoverished sage, and Jivan is left to take over company security. What happens is laid out in excruciating detail; Taneja doesn’t spare us when it comes to violence, abusive sex, drugs, power trips and emotional wrangling. Though based on a well-known story, the ending still managed to be shocking, and despite the fact that I sometimes struggled – the novel has a decidedly bitter tone, necessary but often hard to swallow – it was a book I felt a real need to finish in order to find out what happened.

Divided into six sections – one each for the five representatives of the younger generation, plus a final one titled ‘We that are young’ – the novel gives us an intimate view of the lives and ambitions of each character. I enjoy novels with this set-up, as it gives me a chance to identify with one or two figures more closely; in this case it was definitely Radha, with the more outward-looking Sita coming a close second. While my affinity with them wasn’t necessarily based on shared temperament or experience, it says a lot about Taneja’s ability to draw believable characters even when they are, in many ways, extremely dislikeable.

The grabbing, scheming, self-centred and jealous nature of nearly all the main protagonists – bar perhaps Sita – is mainly what makes We that are young a bit of a challenge. A lot of what happens I found upsetting; much of the time I felt enthralled by the horror show. It doesn’t make for the most comfortable reading experience, but nonetheless it has a strange power. I can’t say that I particularly liked any of the characters, but at the same time I felt an odd sense of empathy, aware that, despite their many flaws, I did care what became of them.

Though we spend a lot of time inside five characters’ heads – with occasional forays into Bapuji’s rambling and largely alarming inner monologue – the real protagonist of the story is India. The majority of the action is merely a prologue to the final showdown that takes place in Srinagar, where the company is due to open an exclusive hotel in the midst of the deadly Kashmir conflict. At the same time, there are uprisings in Delhi: ‘the soldiers of India’s newest civilisation are on the march’. And of course, the background to all this is the legacy of colonialism and the gaping divide between rich and poor, a tear in the fabric of Indian society that threatens to rip the entire country apart. The fates of the five young people and the country they belong to seem to teeter on the brink throughout the novel. ‘Now is the time for madmen to rise’, writes Taneja, one of many lines – several of which belong to Bapuji – that have an excruciating sense of inevitability about them, a fairy-tale-esque sense that the impending darkness cannot be thwarted.

For all it is shadowed and troubling, a maelstrom the reader can’t help but be caught up in, We that are young contains moments of surprising beauty and tenderness. Taneja has an eye for detail, which she uses to great effect when scene setting, and though I too have only experienced India as an outsider, I read many passages with a sense of recognition. To quote again from the book, ‘it is the small things that yield the most’, an idea to which the author certainly seems to subscribe. Creating an authentic world comes not from describing grand landscapes, but from the seemingly unimportant elements of which they are composed.

And, too, from the people who live in them, because this book is in essence a very human story. It is a tragedy, and perhaps also a warning, a blow struck to counter what happens when we let things go too far. It is hard to read, but also illuminating, and though published a couple of years ago feels more timely than ever at this strange moment in which – no longer just a metaphor – it seems that ‘the world cannot decide what to be’.

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