The characters in We That Are Young reside at ‘The Farm’ – a sprawling house in New Delhi complete with its own topiary of fat peacocks, bulbous pink flowers with English names, Fendi furniture, and a room in which it snows at the press of a button. It’s not far removed from reality – Antilla, the world’s first billion-dollar residence for a single family of four, is a 40-storey building that towers over the suburbs of South Mumbai, replete with a staff of over 600 people, its own electrical power grid, ten-storey parking for a collection of unusable vintage cars, and a room, of course, where it snows on demand. In dialogue with Shakespeare’s King Lear, Taneja’s debut novel explores the lives of a family that owns a multinational conglomerate, ‘The Company’, to which each character’s fate (and inheritance) is inextricably tied. We have our patriarch, the Lear figure, Devraj; his three daughters Sita, Radha and Gargi; and his right-hand man Ranjit’s two sons, Jeet and Jivan. The embarrassment of riches makes for an irresistible, if outlandish, setting; Taneja vividly indulges our intrigue in the way the rich conduct their daily lives, letting her words ooze out their luxury – filthy, yet so desirable. After a particularly gruesome scene in which Radha administers the plucking out of a man’s eyes, she steps back into her suite and calls for a pot of first flush Assam, and rose macaroons.
A reinterpretation of Shakespeare is the perfect postcolonial conquest: he remains the epitome of the Western canon, patriarchal, and repeatedly failing to include representations of the ‘other’ without recourse to parody. Mainstream appropriations of Shakespeare in South Asia, such as Bollywood filmmaker Vishal Bharadwaj’s trilogy Maqbool (Macbeth), Omkara (Othello), and Haider (Hamlet), have generally taken us to rural settings, wherein tragedy is relegated to a matter of the lower castes. Taneja, a Shakespearean academic and human rights activist, eschews such stereotypes, and goes straight for the jugular: the innate hypocrisy of the Indian class and caste system. ‘It’s not about land, it’s about money,’ states the first line of the book, taking us to the root of every character’s motives.
Jeet is the charmed son, whose queerness is hidden from family view as he obsesses over the past, collecting sculptures of ancient dynasties from across the country – Srinagar, Hyderabad, Gandhara, tracing all the way back to the Shunga dynasty. Jeet favours figures of broken or splintered women, often naked, and often allegorical of the Earth, or India itself, such as ‘a red sandstone sculpture from fifth century Uttar Pradesh, the boar avatar of Vishnu, rescuing the Earth in the form of a sunken woman’. His collection includes objects lost in the mainstream telling of the subcontinent’s past. These sculptures tie Taneja’s contemporary narrative to imperial history; they illustrate the subcontinent’s continual experience of the fetish and ornamentation of its ruling classes. Jeet sends himself to the slums in a search for ascetic enlightenment, shaving his head and walking barefoot over open sewage. It is a sharp deconstruction of privilege: he is able to install himself neatly into slum sociality, quickly move across its complex hierarchies, and even set up a fledgling business that monopolises the water supply. Jeet’s ‘becoming’ is instead an undoing of the entitlement afforded by class and caste, albeit temporarily: he is soon back in the leather interior of his favourite sports car.
Where King Lear centres upon the flawed and intimately cruel Lear himself, Taneja is more concerned with the three daughters, the last descendants of a Kashmiri royal family. Gargi, the eldest daughter, fashions herself a true matriarch, with a temperament similar to the Company concrete that she so adores, ‘high-performance, ultra-micro-reinforced, all Company stamped’. Radha is brilliant, but rendered by the men in her life as an object of beauty. She is at once the rich-girl cliché — perfectly set hair, a body zipped into tight bodycon — yet written with a deep vulnerability. Sita, the youngest, is missing for most of the book, defiantly leading her family on a chase across Company hotel rooms, where she leaves behind a luxuriating protest against the Company empire: pork buns torn open and arranged in the shape of pigs, oysters shucked and strung together with the hotel sewing kit, and caviar shaped into underwater landscapes over the bed linen.
Just as a Shakespearean play characteristically establishes an ‘other’ as a figure of suspicion, here it is Jivan, Ranjit’s illegitimate son, returned home from America upon the death of his mother. He is referred to colloquially as ‘foreign-return’, as a member of the Indian diaspora. The phrase is itself a contradiction, like the identity that Jivan represents: fractured, yet twinned, the American pitted against the Indian, a constant reminder that identity can never be a static, singular thing. But neither can it operate on such a binary.
At one point, Gargi offers a tellingly critical aside: ‘Scenes like this do not belong in books… in which little people reflect without pause on art and violence, the big questions through the worship of everyday things.’ Taneja maintains layers in her writing that overreach the simple fantasies to which we are accustomed in populist postcolonial writing; neither does she give us a straightforward Shakespearean telling. Rather, her writing is driven by parallels to the Mahabharata and Ramayana, entangling Shakespeare with ancient Indian literature. Taneja makes constant reference to Dharma – a moral quandary that never achieves resolution even in the ancient texts, which roots her narrative in ambiguity, grounded, like King Lear, in the disparity between what is considered legitimate and what is not. The characters of this plot are murderous, corrupt, yet wounded by trauma and hopelessly disengaged from any lived experience outside of their own. Each narrator is equally difficult to trust – there is no one who unambiguously appeals to any sense of morality – and everyone is equally implicated in each other’s actions.
Perhaps the book’s most shining achievement is its exploration of Kashmir, in relation to which each character bears, differently, a trauma of war and forced migration. Radha swoops over Srinagar in her private plane, skimming the surface of a mountain’s peak to shove her mouth full of snow. Kashmir glitters with the profits of war – a playground for the rich and their undeclared goods – and a land ripe for the emergence of a tourism industry. ‘I love the idea of lakes and boat-houses. War-zone lux. Very cool,’ says Jivan of The Company’s plans for a hotel in Srinagar. Yet the city exists somehow beyond each character’s reach. The novel takes place mostly behind closed doors, and each internalised area becomes a fresh space in which to enact deeds and erect buildings isolated from the outside world. The Company hotels, The Farm, the slums, Kashmir – all are drawn up from narratives foreign to their histories, and are particular to the characters that engage in their telling. Dislocated, like the forty storeys of Antilla, and the idea of India itself: still nascent, still hungry, still reeling from the promises made by Independence and globalisation.