We That Are Young by Preti Taneja
A Book Review. This novel blew me away. It’s bold, vivid, absorbing, unique, universal.
What’s It About?
Very broadly, generational conflict, ideological conflict and unresolved historical conflicts pervade this novel.
Yet as the characters weave themselves into our reading minds, as we come to know their thoughts, fears, hopes and vices, their story is all about a potent fusion of power, misogyny and greed. It is this dangerous mix that drives this tale from scene to scene, drama to drama and ultimately to tragedy.
When ageing tycoon Devraj, known affectionately by associates and the nation alike as Bapuji, sets out to divide ownership of his empire, nothing goes according to his plan or to anyone else’s. All are scheming and all are thwarted. There will be no happily ever after but you’re in for a glorious literary ride.
‘We That Are Young’, The Reading Experience
Devraj himself is a hidden power in this tale. The story is told primarily through the main actors; his three adult daughters (Gargi, Radha and Sita) and his closest business partner’s two adult sons (Jeet and his half-brother Jivan).
But whenever the novel switches to Devraj’s point of view, he has the role of a cryptic narrator. As the plot unfolds, we grow more able to make sense of his bizarre ramblings. We realise his mysterious stories confused us, even as they drew us in. With time he unmasks himself. This unmasking and the conclusion of his story are like a stage finale. The action has been scripted and executed to the letter and now his curtain falls.
He is telling a story in parallel with the other characters, his like an interlude to theirs — but only as their stories wind to an end, do we understand where his story meets theirs.
Narrative questions kept driving me to skip ahead. I postponed (and lost) hours of sleep, speed reading ahead. But that didn’t stop me from going back to savour the details line by line, page by page.
And I mean savour.
The first thing that charmed me about this novel was the writing. It’s beautiful. That’s an understatement. It’s exquisite. If you admire writing for the craft that it can be, you will fall in love with this book. You’ll fall hard as I did, even before you’ve worked out what it’s about.
You’ll appreciate the poetry in the prose and the vivid descriptions, woven in to bring both opulence and squalor to life. You’ll appreciate how distinctly each character is drawn. Each throbs. We can feel their needs, understand their hearts.
There’s some untranslated Hindi too, which for the unfamiliar like myself, adds to the sense of place and authentic feel of the book. You may have experienced this with films set in a non-English speaking country but made for and by English speakers - most of the dialogue is in English but the brief switch to Russian, German, Mandarin, Pashtun etc doesn’t detract. Rather, it helps to anchor the story to its location.
I wasn’t familiar with Shakespeare’s King Lear when I picked up We That Are Young, so I met the characters with no inkling of their fate. I started my read wondering if there would be a nice happy romance between Jivan and Sita. Would she escape a planned arranged marriage in defiance of her father? Might it be Jivan, back in Delhi after a 15 year ‘family banishment’ in the USA, whom she persuades to abandon the pursuit of money for love?
But it wasn’t going to be that kind of story.
Spoiler Alert! Here come the characters! Skip if you want to avoid character and plot spoilers.
Charming? Foolish? Reckless? He’s the Stranger Come to Town of this story. Will his presence leave The Company and its actors better or worse? How will his relationship with his father and half-brother develop? Does he symbolise the Indian of the diaspora, away too long to be anything more than a Westerner, an wannabe Indian and a de facto foreigner?
She seems to symbolise maternal energy and womanhood both in its ‘stereotypical traditional’ characteristics (submissive, agreeable, nurturing, truthful, patient, kind) and in its ‘stereotypical modern feminist’ characteristics (defiant, ambitious, seeking to improve the lot of women everywhere, rejecting the traditional roles of obedient wife and daughter, rejecting motherhood).
If there are likeable characters in this story, Gargi could be one of them. It’s not a story of heroes or heroines though, so likeable is as good as it gets.
‘Who is Radha?’ Jivan asks her at one point. Does she even know? I’d say she’s been too buried in her own insecurities to know. She is essentially the Materialist, the Hedonist. Her childhood urges to connect with the ordinary have long since died a death. She lives, trapped in opulence. Trapped. Trapped in traps others have set and traps she makes for herself.
Jeet, the prodigal son.
He wants to defy expectation. He wants to break free of the life and roles designed for him.
Jeet surprised me. At first we meet him only briefly and then hear so much gossip about him that when we do begin to spend time with him again, his actual story takes us by surprise.
We find him on an extreme spiritual quest.
Vik, his lover, has left him. Maybe his is actually a quest to prove Vik wrong? Maybe he just needs to show Vik he’s a man, worthy — and more than just his father’s son?
Does he return transformed or matured? Do we like him less after he moves from seeking freedom (and then penance) to claiming and seizing power?
Sita is the environmentalist, the naturalist, the idealist. As much as Gargi is the pragmatic trying-to-be-ethical capitalist, Sita is your youthful, street protesting leftist. Her schemes are naive. Her revolutionary spirit will be crushed before it can stand.
I don’t think my spoilers would have spoiled it for you. In the pages of We That Are Young you’ll find power struggles, betrayals, unrequited love, lust, deceit, anticipation, mystery, sudden unprovoked violence — nothing is ever as it seems.
Don’t think this merely a story of modern India. This is a story told through modern day India, through the prisms of extreme wealth and extreme poverty, through the actions of those able to exert and abuse their power — but make no mistake, it’s a story about us all.
The characters in We That Are Young believe they are battling for the soul of The Company and for the future of India. Our human global challenges are similar. What to change? How fast? To benefit our people or all people? The old ways or new ways? What is the truth and when is it dispensable? For which ends are all means justified?
Is our vision for the world that of Sita, Gargi, Jeet or Bapuji?
The one theme resonating for me as I read, looming larger and beating louder, scene after scene, was the ever present misogyny.
Gargi, Radha and Sita cannot escape from it. Diligence, obedience, subservience, pragmatism and truthfulness do not protect Gargi. Defiance, beauty, the gamifying her sensual sexual self, even her wily, well connected husband of her own choosing cannot protect Radha. Education, idealism, embracing foreign ways, personal agency and autonomy — these will do nothing to protect Sita.
Misogyny is institutional, deeply woven, fiercely upheld. We That Are Young, asks us to look at it, not in India but everywhere.
Maybe other themes will emerge more strongly for you on your reading of We That Are Young, but misogyny was the one that stood out for me.