We That Are Young – Preti Taneja
By Jessica B S Brotman, on 28 April 2018
Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young, published in 2017 by Galley Beggar Press, has one of the most unique literary foundations that I have come across in recent years. The debut novel is a retelling of one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, and while this in itself is not unusual, the way in which Taneja reimagines the story of King Lear is. Set during India’s anti-corruption protests of 2011, We That Are Young explores Indian culture from the perspective of a group of privileged men and women, all of whom share deeply complicated relationships with the fictional and inherently corrupt organisation ‘The Company’. Run by Devraj Bapuji, a mentally deteriorating man who steadfastly adheres to the principles taught to him by a disgraced Maharaja father, The Company (the title of which is always capitalised) is a corporate monster with connections to seemingly every aspect of Indian infrastructure.
The undoubtedly tragic plot is driven by the fallout of Bapuji’s sudden decision to retire and to split his shares of The Company between his three daughters: Gargi, Radha, and Sita. All three women desire different things for their father’s organisation, but all three are prevented from acting on their own behalves because of their identities as women in an elitist subsection of Indian culture where outdated principles still apply. Their stories intertwine with those of Jivan and Jeet, half-brothers who have grown up under the guidance of The Company’s right-hand man, and who offer opposing perspectives on the insecurities and cold ambitions that exist within the organisation’s masculine figures. The narrative is largely told from the perspectives of these five characters, although there are odd moments where the narrative voices are wrestled back under the control of Bapuji. All of the central characters act to give the reader access to necessarily complex views of the entitled world in which they operate but while all are well-written the three sisters are the most fleshed out characters; rarely have I read a narrative with such unflinchingly human portrayals of women. Gargi, Radha, and Sita are deeply flawed and often stunted by the misogynistic landscape that they have grown up in, a culture where inheritance law requires a male to dictate how much each women should receive, where even in a 2011 setting all faults can be blamed on gender and hiding identity through technology is the only way to make sure that their voices can be heard. Yet all three sisters make choices that contribute towards their tragic downfall, and while the variety and range of abuses that they suffer at the hands of the public and by the men that are closest to them are deeply shocking, the women are so thoughtfully written that they can be seen as more than simply victims. Jivan and Jeet also face abuse and discrimination, the former for being the illegitimate son of a high-ranking official, the latter for his sexual orientation. However, the difference between them and their female counterparts is that while the men struggle to reinvent themselves to impress their superiors, the women go through a narrative of constant oppression in an attempt to simply discover an identity outside of the male gaze. Following along as the three sisters are punished for daring to attempt to grow makes them infinitely more sympathetic as characters.
We That Are Young is in no way an easy book to read. Taneja presents the reader with a version of India that does not pander to Western expectations, and that is more interested in human complexity than in portraying easily understandable protagonists. Her writing style is stunningly descriptive and often loaded with unusual metaphors; there are times when she forces you to look deeper into her word choice in order to comprehend what a character is actually doing in a scene. As with the original Shakespearean play there are instances of extreme violence, and again Taneja is not interested in signposting how the reader should feel or approach those moments, although it is safe to say that they are both extremely graphic and shocking. There are several occasions where conversations in Hindi remain untranslated, and it is clear that parts of the novel are not meant to be understood by everyone. Preti Taneja offers an vision of India that is rich and colourful, but also one with deep-rooted issues that cannot be explained or fully comprehended in one reading of her novel. At 553 pages this is not a light read, but for those who are willing to take on the challenge it is an incredibly rewarding, if emotionally affecting experience, and one of the strongest narratives that I have read in a long time.
We That Are Young is published by Galley Beggar Press