We That Are Young by Preti Taneja

Galley Beggar Press, August 2017, 556 pp

Galley Beggar Press, August 2017, 556 pp

The head of the Devraj Company is about to retire. Divesting himself of power in a ceremonious event, Devraj aims to leave the rich company to the care of his three daughters on the condition that all three proclaim in turns how much they love their father. All goes well until the youngest daughter, seeing the damage that the extravagantly rich corporation is doing to the Indian people and nature, abstains from the unnatural flattery, and decides to live her own way. Conflict ensues between the old and the young in a story of gigantic size that is populated by numerous characters, creating an immersive arc of a story in part real, part fictionalized India.

We That Are Young is unusually long for a debut novel. For that we have to thank Galley Beggar Press and their guts to publish a debut of nearly 600 pages. Less unusual for a debut, Preti Taneja’s novel leans heavily on literary tradition, being built very intricately around William Shakespeare’s King Lear. The story of a demented patriarch is interwoven so carefully into the context of modern India that one cannot but be in awe of the outcome, and only guess how long it must have taken to write it. We That Are Young is a rather incredible feat of Shakespearean adaptation in its suitability for our own day, easily surpassing some of the titles published in the ongoing Hogarth series of novels adapting the Bard’s plays. (Regrettably, I have yet to read Edward St. Aubyn’s coeval adaptation of King Lear, titled Dunbar, and cannot therefore compare the two.)

However, as much as I want to support size XL debuts – works that are not hindered by the cruel constraints of the business – We That Are Young, like its source play, is simply too long. An unabridged King Lear lasts easily over three hours, and Taneja’s novel, were it a play, feels closer to six. She is keen to describe surroundings, and clearly has a penchant for atmospheric writing. Her scenes do not necessarily further the plot, but serve to create a stronger sense of specific times and places. This requires a lot of persistence on behalf of the reader, and, in the right mindset, savoring small details is indeed rewarding. It works magnificently when, for instance,  Jeet (the Edgar who turns into Poor Tom in the original) transforms into Rudra the Naph in order to save his skin, and goes to live in abject conditions, surrounded by piles of shit and plastic bags. These mounds of excrement and garbage have a legendary status, and the local boys believe that a monster lives underneath it all. Poor Tom crawls in the filth of the earth; Rudra in human excrement. “How has he got used to doing this?” Rudra thinks, crouching “in the shitting field,” and continues: “So used to it as he was born this way and returned to the origins.” It is such a fitting transposition from Shakespeare’s original creeper of the mud.

Yet, at other times, there seems to be just a little too much of inconsequential dialogue, which serves to enhance verisimilitude, but often drags on for a little too long. On the other hand, what is impressive about the dialogue is that Taneja has gone as far as adapting complete speeches from Shakespeare. Consider, for instance, Devjar  insulting his daughter Gargi:

—You are the one whose name is evil, the one who lies with disease upon your womb, who kills the embryo as it settles, as it rests, as it stirs, who wished to kill it before it is born; you hunger for the one who spreads apart your two thighs, who lies between the married pair, who licks inside your womb, all for your own unnatural pleasure. And if you think you are going to be the great Mother of my whole company, you are wrong. You cannot be a mother to anyone. [. . .] No barren woman can know how ungrateful children can wound.

Compared to the original, Devraj’s speech is not quite as terrifying or vivid, yet it shows the extent to which Taneja has read the original. Lear, insulting his daughter Goneril:

Hear, Nature, hear, dear goddess, hear:
Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful.
Into her womb convey sterility,
Dry up in her the organs of increase,
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her. If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatured torment to her.
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child.

A hundred more examples could be given to demonstrate similarities, from the smallest details to overarching themes. It is unnecessary to go over them, yet a question remains: how does strict adherence to the source text serve We That Are Young as a novel of its own? Besides providing the occasional aha moment for the reader versed in Shakespeare, the plot, when followed so strictly, is a little silly in modern context. The blinding of Gloucester and the rage of the demented patriarch in the storm are two examples of scenes that, no matter how good close reading skills a writer has, are bound to be clumsy as soon as you take them out of the original context. Or, perhaps, We That Are Young is simply best enjoyed when the reader is not too much aware of its supporting structure. I find that my close involvement with King Lear detracts me from enjoying Taneja’s work in full. Perhaps I am not the ideal reader, too aware of the structure.

I also find myself wondering how believable is the plot in the sense that, although set in a realistic context where India has obvious ties to the West, nobody in the novel seems to notice how the story of the Devraj Company follows the plot of one of the most influential plays ever written. Whether this matters is up to the reader, of course, and some willing suspension of disbelief, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, would be beneficial to my reading of adaptations in general, I suppose. But that shall do for comparisons. We That Are Young is, after all, a stand-alone novel that uses literary adaptation as a technique, not as the main point. It is a novel about India, about patriarchy, about human vanity, about those that are young eventually surpassing the old, and in all that Taneja’s novel is very impressive. I am eager to see where she goes from here because, as much as my feelings toward this one are conflicted, We That Are Young showcases exceptional talent in writing.