Book Review: 'We That Are Young' by Preti Taneja
It's not often that a first novel strikes you as much as 'We That Are Young' by Preti Taneja did when I recently read it. It a book that haunts you, stirs the emotions and leaves you perhaps even a bit breathless by the end. The first chapter draws you in with lyrical prose and a strong backstory that you are yet to uncover. There is an urgency and intensity that remains throughout.
A setting of King Lear in the modern day, this book revolves around Devraj, ' The Company' he owns and the legacy it leaves. The book is in five sections, narrated by a separate character as the plot establishes itself and unravels in epic form. The book starts with Jeevan, the childhood playmate of Devraj's three daughters who feature heavily throughout. He comes home to find Devraj unexepectedly announce that Sita his favourite daughter is to inherit the company. The shockwaves resound as Sita refuses to vocalise her love for her father, before then in rage the legacy passes to the other two sisters Gargi and Radha. They they vie for power as other characters revolve around the power struggle as Devraj goes slowly mad.
With the huge number of 're-tellings' of classic plots that have made the market recently, it could be easy to put this book in the same stack, only the location of India being a bit more exotic. On that point, there is truth but this is no standard re-telling. This is a bold, brave, movingly written and sophisticated and should be read.
India as a country, as an economic entity and as a society is excellently captured by the author Taneja. Take Devraj thg a hugely wealthy, powerful businessman with an enormous empire epitomises some of the powerful of India's super elite. The family unit that Devraj has - his daughters - close friends and associates. They meet and socialise at lavish parties, dress superbly and on the surface, life seems to have no boundaries of energy and fun. In their hearts though, these characters are conflicted, anxious individuals. Sexuality, wealth, the generation gap all affects them. So many of the social attitudes in conflict in today's India today are explored in the microcosm of Devraj's family.
Family aside, the social economic gaps that are so obvious in India are deftly described and crafted throughout the book. There is one instance where one of the characters disguises himself (as in the original King Lear). Becoming an almost guru like character, Taneja uses the character Jeet, Jivan's brother to directly describe the poverty of India. Jeet becomes 'Rudra', a homeless spiritualist guru who has renounced material goods and lives amongst the poorest. Here Taneja is able to mix the supreme wealth described in her book with the desperate poverty of India directly and without filter.
There is so much in this book that makes it an epic. The social descriptions in a book of over 500 pages that is as unsparing as it is affectionate. The close family ties as described above are there, but the divisions are equally apparent. The socio economic disparity of India is all apparent for much of the book. Some major and timely recent scandals that have rocked India are described. Guru's that are far from what they promise - there was a recent high profile case of a convicted rapist who purported to be a guru in northern India recently. Corruption both politically and economically that are endemic in India at the moment. The abuse of people to build large wealth in the hands of a few is an apparent theme throughout. The disputed land of Kashmir even makes an appearance.
That is not to say this book is savage. Far from it. We feel for the characters. They have more than one dimension. They have the desires, the affection and the love that we all yearn for in our own lives. Yet, the darkness of the book overhangs the central events. The writing is warm, elegiac and the prose is at times beautifully poetic. The title itself, non-specific and interpretative.
This is in summary an truly magnificent new novel. The characters are so believable and so real. The beautiful scenery of India captured brilliantly as are many of the social issues that conflict an otherwise vibrant and multi-faceted society. There is an extraordinary weight to the book that absorbs you and leaves you questioning.
It's no easy read. The imagery is dense. The writing style is at times deliberately hazy making events on occasion blury and dis-orientating. A second read is almost a must. A true modern literary classic from the subcontinent.