From V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State and A Bend in the River, via Anita Desai’s Clear Night of Day and In Custody, onto several works by Salman Rushdie and the wonderful God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and finishing with the most recent shortlistees from Jhumpa Lahiri and Neel Mukherjee, The Booker has long been a champion of the Indian novel. Which is undoubtedly a great thing. They seem particularly keen on any novel that mixes a look at the Indian family system with a critique of Indian politics. There are many examples besides those listed above.
Aatish Taseer’s The Way Things Were seems to fit the bill perfectly. It is a multi-decade spanning epic that looks at the ill-fated reign of Indira Ghandi and the religious fighting that ensued in that era. And it looks at all of this from the perspective of one large family. Add in an effort to make the Sanskrit language a driving feature of the narrative and we also have the originality that the Booker panel so often strive for. This book seems to have the lot.
But then, on paper, so did last year’s contender The Lives of Others. But despite the mix of fascinating family values and their changing power alongside the brutality of Indian politics and corruption, that novel managed to disappoint because of its ploddish delivery.
So the questions remains. Will Taseer’s latest work piece together these Booker bestseller ingredients to cook up something to rival The God of Small Things, or will we be met with one to join The Lives of Others on the disappointment pile?
Sadly, it seems to be the latter.
There seems to be, in fact, no better point of comparison than Mukherjee’s novel. Both took on a fascinating period in history and reduced it to a footnote in a much blander family tale. Both pushed aside some of the more interesting sections of the story in favour of some of the more mundane. And both chose to tell the tale in a way that dulled the impact.
Perhaps the biggest failing of Taseer’s novel is its structure. The story of how various eruptions of violence and corruption affected this close-knit group is told as if part of a conversation between the son of the family, Skanda, and his new lover Gauri. So every time we get to an interesting part of a chapter, we are interrupted by a pointless and unrealistic interlude in which couple discuss the events further. At first it’s a little annoying, by the end it’s infuriating.
Any Cop?: Once again the style and structure strip away the substance and the story. Ideas aplenty, and an extremely interesting period of history are pushed aside by a pompous family that is difficult to care for. Add in the many, many pointless literary references and it becomes a truly frustrating read. So look out for it when the Booker make their next announcement.