Aatish Taseer: Benaras remains unbelievably unchanged

Updated: Nov 05, 2018, 12:25 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

Like the Ganges, Aatish Taseer's narrative in his new book winds its way through the holy city's Brahmin enclaves, probing a reluctant India caught in transit

Aatish Taseer, Pic/Rane Ashish
Aatish Taseer, Pic/Rane Ashish

If he wasn't a writer, Aatish Taseer could have easily slipped into the role of history teacher. His latest book, The Twice-Born (HarperCollins), is a quest to retrace his ties with India. And, throughout this journey, which displays a seamless duality of the personal and professional, footnotes from India's ancient and modern history are his travelling companions – from Tulsidas to Pandit Nehru. "I dislike writing 'potted' history. It needs to be organic, and if people lead us to it, it offers a wonderful opportunity. This book is all about that," he says on a visit to the city. Edited excerpts from the interview.

Looking back at your trips to Benaras, what is it that made you make it the subject of this book?
Benaras represents an imperfect modernity; it exhibits a sense of disturbance amidst change around. I wanted to capture this. From the start, I was clear that I didn't want to do a big journey; Benaras was this prism because it represented a microcosm, a metaphor for India. And then, (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi arrived on the scene. He understood this power and was able to fit his politics of revival by choosing Benaras as his constituency. He and Amit Shah have been able to engage with a dual India - the old and the new - and Benaras best represents this unevenness.

Were you apprehensive of writing about Benaras' Brahmins, and to use them as catalysts in a changing cultural and political landscape?
The book had a powerful beginning. It was kickstarted by the drama of the summer elections of 2014. I met hundreds of people; so many haven't even made it to the book. I sensed how the young and old had fallen into the toils of a changing India. My travels didn't end there. I wanted to return after 2014, which I did since I was keen to gauge firsthand how this politics of revival, revenge and rootedness, the relationship of restlessness and of losing tradition was shaping up. Still, I was unsure if the book would resonate in the US. Then Trump came to power. The West seemed tranquil till then but everything changed after his elevation. My publisher felt the time was right.

Without giving away too much, what section left an impression?
The journey to Shivam's village was tough. I was exposed to spiritual purity. To know about caste is one thing, but to experience it at close range is unimaginable. The more I saw of rural India, the more I wanted to cling to my beliefs because I noticed how people here were being governed by the stars and astrologers; kala jadoo was common. Benaras is just 800 km from Delhi, but they are separated by centuries. Each of my characters impacted me - from the tradition-bound Mukhopadhyay [his favourite] to the younger Brahmin boys, who despite being rooted to their beliefs, would boast about watching porn on their phones.

Has Benaras changed since your first visit as an 18-year-old?
Unbelievably. It remains the most authentic religious centre in the world, much more than Mecca, Jerusalem or Rome. Of course, a few cosmetic changes have arrived, like malls, social media and fast cars but its residents feel that the 'new' in their city was unsubstantiated. When all things 'Western' reach this India, it is in an unappealing form, one that is tough to accept.

In an earlier interview to this paper, you said that Sanskrit helped you understand India better. Did this book do the same?
This book is my way of saying goodbye; it's a prelude to moving away. India has been lost to me because a cultural shift has occurred. The election results dealt a deathblow. They unleashed something that I don't wish to be caught in. I'd rather not be reduced to a marginal character in this India.

Support for #MeToo
"May the reign of terror continue to focus on abusers of power. I didn't agree with my mother's [Tavleen Singh] views about MJ Akbar and Suhel Seth. They are known predators. The Indian male has always had a sense of entitlement; they are mama's boys. In the West too, the movement is yet to reach the heartland. Those voices, like the ones in rural India, must speak up for it to become a representative movement for change."

Benaras with Taseer
* Rasvanti's Laal Pedha is the most exquisite of the city's confections.
* Adi Vireshwar Mandir's aarti, though less famous than Kashi Vishwanath's, is old and special.
* Mahashivratri is the best time to experience Benaras' unique appeal.
* Benaras is the only location where the flow of the Ganges turns northward [Uttar Vahini], which is considered auspicious

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