Looking at the cover of The Twice-Born by Aatish Taseer, one wonders if the book is on Brahmanism, which is what the title suggests. Or is it about the caste system in India? Is it a travelogue on Benares? Is it a subtle commentary on the political system in India? Is it a narrative on customs and traditions in India? Is it the exploration of the contradiction between the ugliness of modernity with the beauty of the past of Indian culture?
While it is a combination of all these epithets, as one discovers, it could also read as a travel book written by a person who is half-Indian and half-Pakistani, and who spent his formative years in the USA, but returned to Benares after two decades to explore if anything has changed. In between, we are also told about his sexual preferences, as he refers to his husband (who incidentally also lost his father just as Taseer’s was assassinated in Pakistan), which are actually quite redundant to the narrative.
Taseer’s style is eloquent and touching. He takes us through his conversations with various people who are all mostly Brahmins. We learn that they are called ‘twice born’ because they are born in the caste the first time, and initiated or inducted into the caste after the ‘thread ceremony’. All these narrations are about these conversations with people in and around Benares, be it a professor, a priest or a boatman. Most of these opinions are expressed without comment, leaving the reader to draw her own interpretations.
Through the narrative, he touches on the anti-Muslim sentiment, beef ban, rapes, death, salvation, rebirth, witch doctors, magic and so on. In short, a mini cultural tour of India, but with a view that what is felt in Benares would also be the emotion elsewhere in the country.
Pointing at the contradiction between the status and reality of the city—what with it probably being the most pious city in the country where people come for blessing, as well as salvation, but which is filthy with little maintenance—he alludes to the current regime being called the ‘announcement raj’.
About caste, he discovers that people love tradition and see nothing wrong in the caste structure and its fallouts. While we in big cities think untouchability is ghastly, the so-called untouchables actually feel nothing amiss in this distinction, having accepted it. And from the point of view of society, changing such customs is a big challenge, thus cementing the status quo.
He brings out that the ‘real India’ which blames westernisation for all the wrongs, feeling this has been a corrupting influence and likening English as a means to enslavement. Crimes against women are only because of these influences and as a corollary, the true, rural, tradition-bound youth will not do any such thing.
Reading this book gets disturbing if one thinks beyond what is written, as we realise there is an India that is so different from the metro cities and from which we are so out of touch. This is where he brings in the rightist government, which has leveraged this faith by buttressing that India is the bastion of all innovation and that even before the West told us about great inventions like the aeroplane or nuclear warfare, we had all of them in our epics. Interestingly, he quotes Aldous Huxley, who said, “each time the west has announced a new scientific discovery, misguided scholars have ransacked Sanskrit literature to find a phrase that might be interpreted as a Hindu anticipation of the same”. Some things do not change.
After reading the book, one is forced to question if this India will really change. While we are quick to pick up the goodies that westernisation and globalisation bring us, we are still stuck to our decaying roots. The author is unable to reconcile magic with reason, faith with tradition or hope for the future and the brutalities of the caste system. Traversing Benares, politics and his personal life, the author does not pontificate or provide solutions, leaving believers to defend status quo.
-The writer is chief economist, CARE Ratings