Reviewed by Lucy Unwin
We That Are Young is ambitious. So very ambitious, and so very good.
Most strikingly it’s a thorough and impressive academic exercise, but it’s also a great story, engrossingly told, a refreshing study of female sexuality and the male perception of it, and a Trainspotting-esque seminal moment in literature for young, wealthy Indians. And that’s not even mentioning the writing, which, by the way, is shockingly good.
This is a novel to spend a good amount of time with. It’s long already, before you factor in each sentence deserving to be pored over again and again. Every phrase works overtime, doing at least three jobs at once. The opening image is not only arresting – the sight of London from a plane – it also offers a decisive opening salvo from a character to whom India is the future, Colonialism far behind it.
The glittering ribbon of the Thames, the official stamps of the Royal parks, a bald white dome spiked with a yellow crown, are swallowed by summer’s deep twilight. The plane lifts, the clouds quilt beneath it, tucking England into bed to dream of better times. It is still yesterday, according to his watch. He winds the dial forwards. Now it is tomorrow…
And off to India he flies.
That’s Jivan, the first of five characters the story is filtered through: Jivan, Gargi, Radha, Jeet and Sita. Jeet is the son of a powerful Indian businessman – right hand man of Devraj Bapuji, who runs the India-monopolising ‘Company,’ Jivan is his bastard half-brother, returning from exile in America to claim his place in the family. Gargi, Radha and Sita and the three daughters of Devraj himself, who decides to split his business empire between them, based on how much they profess to love him.
Because yes, it’s a re-telling of King Lear. Devraj is Lear, Gargi, Radha and Sita are Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, and Jeet and Jivan are Edgar and Edmund. I knew it was inspired by Lear when I started reading, but my memory of how King Lear itself breaks down was hazy. I vaguely assumed the premise and characters drew on Shakespeare’s classic, and it was only a little Wikipedia-reminder of the plot later, that I realised how very closely We That Are Young follows the play. As an academic exercise it is rigorous. Each element may be transplanted to modern India, but they’re all there. Instead of Lear wandering on the heath, Devraj wanders the Dimbala basti – a slum. The French army becomes a wave of anti-corruption protestors. The love triangles are there, the deaths are there and the gruesome moments are there too. Even some original lines of the play are woven into the dialogue. But it not only captures the original with detailed accuracy, it adds to it. Like Shakespeare, but better.
The characters and relationships are rounded out beautifully. As a counterpoint to Jivan’s actions stands his beautiful love and grief for his dead mother. Devraj Bapuji is not only less sympathetically presented, but deeply disturbing. Gargi and Radha are complex and relatable, even as they destroy everything around them. And piled on top of that is the wealth of Indian political and social history, a vibrant representation of modern India in all of it’s contradictions and extremes, and a wonderful depiction of a woman’s perceived place in that, and wider, society.
It’s not perfect. As always with a selection of different perspectives, some spoke to me more than others. Unfortunately for me I preferred the first three, which meant my enthusiasm dipped towards the end. And, as the course of the various plot threads play out, and different motivations come to light, I wanted to delve back into some of the viewpoints we had left behind. Also, the faithfully followed drama from Lear can feel a little over-cooked for modern tastes – what we expect in Shakespeare is not what we’ve become accustomed to in modern literature. Eye-gouging, for example.
Either way, I keep coming back to the beauty of the language, and the vividness of Preti Taneja’s imagery. The book is peppered with throwaway lines like this: “The thunder sounds; getting closer, closer – a thousand frogs croaking at the back of the sky’s dark throat.” And one of my favourite elements of the novel is how vibrantly it articulates the lives of an underrepresented group in literature: wealthy young Indians. As it drops in and out of Hindi, with no translation, it feels almost like their Trainspotting moment, albeit in a rising, rather than falling, economy. It even has it’s own ‘Choose Life’ speech. Which feels like a good place to leave you:
We that are the youngest, the fastest, the democracy, the economy, the future technology of the world, the global Super Power coming soon to a cinema near you, we, hum panch, that are the five cousins of the five great rivers, everybody our brother-sister-lover, we that are divine: the echo of the ancient heroes of the old times, we that fight, we that love, we that are hungry, so, so hungry, we that are young! We that are jiggling on the brink of ruin; we that are washed in the filth of corruption, chal, so what? Aise hi hota hai: we are a force that is all natural – slow – death – to Muslims, gays, chi-chi women in their skin-tights, hai! We that sit picnicking on the edge of our crumbling civilisation, we that party with shots and more shots, more shots as the world burns beneath us, as the dogs bark, as the cockroaches crow, as the old eat their young and the young whip their elders all wearing birthmarks of respect, we that present only the shadows of our selves behind our painted smiles, we that protest for the right to drink whisky-sours served to our beds at noon, we that eat our beef with chopsticks, we that twist tongues to suit our dear selves, we that worship the ancient religion of Lakshmi, of Shiva, of wealth creation and ultimate destruction, we that are the future of this planet, we that begin with this beloved India, will endure, yes it all belongs to us, and we will eat it all. All of it is ours, we that are India and no longer slaves: We that are young!
Lucy Unwin blogs about books at Those Precious Stolen Moments. You can find her on Twitter @Stolen_Moments and @LucyAnnUnwin.
Preti Taneja, We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press, 2017). 978-1910296783, 503pp., paperback original.