Written by a journalist author who is loved and hated in equal measure by the public, who courts controversies through his written words, the book The Twice-Born by Aatish Taseer is probably last in the series of both his fiction and non-fiction writings inspired by Indian subcontinent.
A book based on my hometown Banaras, the author writes “Delhi and Banaras are only eight hundred kilometres apart, but the real distance, sense of travelling across centuries, was not physical.” Being born and brought up in the city, only leaving it when the career call came, and having lived away from it for past 20 odd years, this sense of distance has never felt so acute as in last two years of living through the Covid period.
This “oldest living city” with a documented history of more than 25 centuries atleast, has seen destruction many times, and it was rebuilt again and again. Being the centre for both Hinduism and Buddhism religions, and also a city frequented by Jains and Muslims, its multi-tonality creates a complexity which is not visible to a casual visitor but can be understood only once you spend time to understand it.
The book starts with the author’s lament on how far away he has been from the Indian culture, lamenting the loss of being able to read the vast Indian literature – so rich in almost all Indian languages, he attempts to assuage this gap by a visit to Banaras – a trip that made him realise how wide the gap in his understanding was – which he tried to alleviate by learning Sanskrit.
It is an universal truth of our generation, where we have not understood or assimilated enough of our past to appreciate its relevance in the present and its lessons for the future. Much of the blame lies in the education system – the methodology, the focus on competitive exams and certain professional careers – the emphasis on passing the exam than real learning. I realise it now that inspite of living in Banaras how far away from its real culture my upbringing ended up with.
Armed with readings of Sanskrit, Aatish goes back to Banaras again few years later – this time at the peak of heat – of both the season as well as of Indian elections – appropriately for the book on finding his identity. The city which is embodiment for religious identity for all Hindus and a gateway for Moksha, it holds a prism to the contradictions of centuries of tradition versus the modern outlook that repudiates those customs and beliefs.
These contradictions or dichotomy is highlighted even more starkly in this oldest living city, and is defined by the author as “infinite systems of inequality” which encompasses caste, language, education, class and wealth. The dichotomy also lies in the definition of Nationalism and in the ways to revive the pride of so-called Hindu rashtra. A city which witnessed so many attacks by Muslim rulers in the past has manged to live with the ganga-jamuna tehzeeb of the two religions, infact, the economy of the city rests on the foundation of this confluence where many of the artisans are Muslims while they sell their products through Hindu traders.
The Twice-Born by Aatish Taseer is a beautifully written and insightful account of the author’s experience in Banaras and offers a unique perspective on the tension that underlies the vibrancy of the city due to religious and cultural divides that continue to fuel it, it is a city where caste and religion still rules powerfully.
With its minutely detailed prose, characteristic of Aatish Taseer’s writings, the book still leaves you discontented – the story complex and contradictory like the city itself. While his insights are valuable not only for their depth of knowledge but also for their compassion and empathy, the sense the reader gets is of absence of a binding thread; the beauty of the city in its many forms juxtaposed against the darkness of the daily lives of people – “physical ugliness of India and the fineness of its internal life”. Inspite of all the mis-givings, The Twice-Born by Aatish Taseer holds a mirror to the gulf and clashes ailing the Indian society today.
The solutions to its many conundrums – religious, political, socio-cultural cannot be found through the scriptures and rich trove of literary writings, but it needs many strong minds and hands which can rejoin the severed link between old and new. To be modern in a way that does not renounce nor does it unnaturally revere what was the old India – the “language and dress to culture and worship”. An intricate balance of nostalgia as well as disenchantment with the past, “beauty of what history has bequeathed” and the modern conveniences and evils of life, engendering the knowledge learnt through the centuries with the science and technological advances today, marrying the present with the past which does not renounce the India we knew and gives the confidence to lead the way into the future.
Post Script: While the book was pre-ordered before its release in October 2018, I could never finish the book in these years. The book even travelled with me to its city of origin Banaras in 2019. Finally, I finished the book earlier this year when I read a spate of books on my hometown for a podcast. I don’t write reviews as such, more musings of my mind as I read any book.