This is a belated review of another Galley Beggar title and one of my favourite books of the year so far: We That Are Young. We met Preti Taneja at Adelaide Writers’ Week in March and interviewed her for the podcast – she was a delight.
We That Are Young is is a modern-day King Lear set in India. It’s an epic tale – a short review and hyperbole will not do it justice.
I confess I have not read King Lear, nor been to India (although I feel like I’ve spent a week there, so vivid and evocative is the book). It did not matter at all, but Taneja has been faithful to the structure and themes of the play, so if you’re familiar with King Lear you will find even more joy in We That Are Young.
The story follows Devraj, the founder of the Company, who resigns and divides it between his three daughters: Gargi, Radha and Sita – the main sections are told from their point of view. The story begins with their childhood friend Jivan Singh returning from the US to India, reading an article about the company in the in-flight magazine. This is an engaging opening, told with a satirical eye, and at the same time cleverly gives us a snapshot of the family.
The characters are strong and memorable. The sisters are very different – Taneja has spoken of women in epics being cast as ‘crone, whore or saint’ – but we empathise with each in turn. She shows the experience of women in India and the problems they face, even if wealthy.
Gargi shows the difficulties facing career women, and we see behind her ordered, cool façade. She deals with sexism from the men in the company: when decisions are to be made, they tell her to ask her husband. Her story is told through an interview with a magazine. Taneja juxtaposes the interview with Gargi’s backstory: her answers don’t match the truth. At the same time, she is poking fun at the superficial questions asked of businesswomen. When Gargi tells Nina, the journalist, that the company is starting a water salvation program. Nina says: ‘Right. What is your one secret for absolute wellbeing?’
There are poignant scenes with her father, who critcises Gargi for not having children (“You will never know how much you’ve hurt me tonight. No barren woman can know how ungrateful children can wound”), reminding me of the attacks on former prime minister Julia Gillard.
Radha devotes her time to her clothes, food, pleasing her husband and social media – she is savvy at knowing what people want. We find through her past the reason she’s adept at this, but she also reminded me of modern-day influencers and You-Tubers, socially conditioned but clever at exploiting the market too. Radha is good at hiding from the past. “If she said such things, she would risk becoming Sita: she would find herself. Nothing but herself.” It’s a nuanced portrait.
Sita is kept from her sisters in a safe house. Her sections take on a nightmareish quality (“The young man nods. What big ears he has.”). She is strong but in peril.
“Inhale. Exhale. For the eco-warrior-Indian-daughter, there is no such thing as a Duty Free smoke.”
Taneja depicts beautifully the high life of the elites and the desperate poverty of many – it’s so vivid, you can feel the plush hotel rooms, soft fabrics of the pashminas and the champagne bubbles; then we are with Jeet in the dump (basti) trying not to step on sewage. There is a great line when Radha goes outside the hotel: “Radha has not been outside at ground level since they arrived here one whole week ago.”
It’s a novel of contrasts: youth and age, wealth and poverty, India and the West, love and betrayal. The mix of high and low makes it so engaging. The scenes are colourful and elevated – the events and characters seem hyper-real. But it’s also a family story about three sisters and the relationships each has with her father, with sibling rivalries, complicated affections and dark secrets.
The genius of the novel is that we see the family drama play out at the same time as we see, through the eyes of three modern women, the story of India unfold. The stage is set: kinships, tradition, entrenched hierarchies and sexism, conflict and violence writ large.
I love the humour and ease with which Taneja shifts register – from lyrical prose layered with references to Dante, Shakespeare and Bret Eaton Ellis to deadpan wit. For example, when Devraj is speaking:
“The crowd clap – none of them seem surprised at this rambling speech.
The writer should be fired – it makes no sense. The great Devraj has lost it.”
The dialogue is poetic and true to life. Devraj:
“Look at you, Gargi, a fountain run dry. You cannot serve a man’s needs. Radha, as for you? So fine, so fine. My God, as if fine cloth can cover your true nature. You girls are like two diseased owls … These things you think so beautiful do not cover your stink.”
And Jeet, in a passage that pays homage to Shakespeare but is wonderfully fresh:
“We that believe in India shining … We that are the youngest, the fastest, the democracy, the economy, the future technology of the world, the global superpower coming soon to a cinema near you . … we that are young. We that are jigging on the brink of ruin; we that are washed in the filth of corruption, chal, so what? …”
This speech is incredible: elevated language, English and local dialects – it’s poetry spoken in a storm in a basti.
I highly recommend this novel – one of my best reads of 2019.
What are your best books so far this year?