Edgar: The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
King Lear, Act 5 Scene 3
Preti Taneja’s We That Are Young is King Lear reinterpreted for the 21st Century and relocated to India. It is published by the wonderful Galley Beggar Press, the press that published A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, who published the most strikingly original novel I read in 2016, Forbidden Line, and whose admirable, self-declared, mission is “to produce and support beautiful books and a vibrant, eclectic, risk-taking range of literature,” books that really are “hardcore literary fiction and gorgeous prose.”
The last lines of King Lear, and the title of this novel, link with India, the world’s largest democracy, also being cited as the world’s youngest nation. The ILO report that two-thirds of the population are under the age of 35. Perhaps more pertinently for the country’s economic development, the Indian government’s own projections have the country in 2020 with an average age of 29, and a demographic bulge of 64% of its population in the working age group of 15 – 59.
Taneja’s wonderful transposition of Lear not only pays tribute to, and increases our appreciation of, Shakespeare’s original, but creates a memorable and revealing portrait of this modern India. She also manages beautifully the difficult task of largely following a well-known and pre-established plot and cast of characters, but at the same time creating an intriguing, complex but highly absorbing story of her own.
“King Lear” becomes Devraj Bapuji, billionaire owner of the Devraj Company, a ubiquitous conglomerate. As the novel opens his youngest and favorite daughter Sita (the Cordelia character) has just returned to India, having graduated from Cambridge.
Devraj announces his desire to split his 60% shareholding in the Company between Sita and her two older sisters Gargu (Goneril), married to the rather passive Surenda (Albany) and Radha (Regan), married to the much more ambituous Bubu (Cornwall).
But asked to express their gratitude for Devraj’s gift, Sita, as Cordelia, declines to join in her sisters’ flattery:
Papaji mujhe kuch nahi bolna hai, she says: she holds up her empty hands: there is nothing but air in between.
Father (respectfully) I don’t want to say anything.
Cordelia: Nothing, my Lord.
King Lear, Act 1, Scene 1
At the same time Jivan (Edmund), the illegitimate son of Devraj’s right-hand-man Ranjit Singh (Gloucester) has returned from the United States after his’s mother death. Jivan was Ranjit’s favorite and a playchild of Devraj’s daughters, but was sent, almost exiled, with his mother fifteen years ago to America when his illegitimacy became an embarrassment.
Jivan’s initial impressions of a Dehli he has not seen for fifteen years — an India that has become younger as he has become older — set the scene for the novel’s early acts:
He can make out flyovers strewn like necklaces across the city, jewelled with billboards promising reincarnation in this life, and ways to afford it, because it must be achieved. There will be ads for new cars, mobiles, modified milk for bachchas’ bone strength and protein powder for abs; ads for Company hotels full of romance, for new detergents and washing machines. For flour to make perfect chapattis: pictures of fat young execs and good Indian girls promising hot married sex with their homemade bread. Now they are cruising over acres of flat white rooftops dotted with satellite dishes, hundreds of ears all listening for his arrival.
The movement of the Bentley: its preserved hush. As if Jivan is back in the crematorium, watching the coffin glide towards the incinerator. He has to have a short, brutal battle with the lump in his throat. The cold air makes him sniff. Only girls get sick-sick. The last thing Ranjit said to him before he was put in the car and sent to America. Jivan sniffs again. His father and Kritik Sahib do not look at him.
The sounds from the road are muted, the car windows frame and colour everything sepia. Scenes from old India reel out before him, comforting after the airport. A sabzji wala shambles down the lane, his cart loaded with wrinkled root vegetables dug up from centuries ago, whole families stacked onto mopeds, eight legs dangling over the sides. There are women balancing bricks and bundles, walking barefoot on the broken sidewalks. Half-naked children grin to each other as they clean their teeth with dirty fingers, their hair in helmets of crazy around their heads. All of it seen as if from far, far away, punctuated by Mercedes and 4x4s, Toyota, Honda, all the big boys. Jivan takes in these shining beasts as visions from a future-possible; at the same time, he wants to shout freeze-frame! He’s thinking, How long has the party been going on? Why didn’t you invite me? There are even new buses with doors that fully close. But the trucks still say Horn Please! in fading yellows and pinks, and everyone still drives as if they don’t need sight. There are still a few white cows standing dumb as temple paintings, white against red walls – this, at least, has not changed.
Jivan immediately sets out to undermine the relationship between Ranjit and his one legitimate son, Jeet (Edgar), a homosexual in a country where this has only just been legalized (and was soon to be criminalized once again). Jeet flees his privileged life and reinvents himself as Rudra (Poor Tom), a Naph seer, living in a slum set around a large rubbish dump in the shadow to one of the Company’s luxury hotels.
Other key characters include
– Devraj’s Hundred (Lear’s hundred servants) – a cadre of selected young high-fliers from the Company, but whose riotous behavior displeases Gargu and Radha.
– the sinister and violent Uppal (Oswald), Gargu’s chief of staff.
– Kritik Singh (Kent) the Company’s Head of Security, second only to Ranjit in influence, but who is rapidly dismissed by Devraj when he argues against his decision to disinherit Sita.
– Kritik’s own second in command, Kashyap, who fills the Caius role, Taneja eschewing Shakespeare’s rather implausible device of having Kent simply reappear in disguise.
Indeed via Jivan’s musing on Indian TV serials, the author gets in what is hard not to see as a cheeky dig at Shakespeare’s plots:
Jivan used to watch these hokey Indian serials on Star Plus TV, sitting with Ma in the afternoons when he got in from school. She loved them all: the family dramas with cardboard villains and handsome heroes, non-stop cases of mistaken identity, masters for servants, good girls for bad. Brothers disguised as each other, lovingly beating sisters, wives and mothers-in-law fighting over sons. In the end the good would get rich and the bad were punished. The lovers would be united with parental blessing, kneeling for hands to be raised over their heads in benediction, the parents would kneel and beg their children to bless them right back. It was always happily-ever-after-the-end.
But Lear — and this novel — certainly don’t have happily-ever-after ending. Indeed We That Are Young is full of the brutal realities of 21st-century life: the massive gap between the rich and poor, the depths of poverty, corruption, drug abuse, sexism, homophobia, religious and ethnic tensions, and the tensions in Kashmir.
The role of the Fool is played by Devraj’s elderly mother, a Kashmiri Pandit, whose mental health has never really recovered from the events of January 1990, when her husband and Devraj’s wife were both killed in their home-town of Srinigar in Kashmir.
As Sita, in his view, betrays him and his other two daughters move to seize control of the company, Devraj starts to lose his own sanity. Uppal reports to Gargi:
– It is your father, Gargi Ma’am
Oh God. What now?
– He went to the studio. He ordered the women to stop packing. Ten of the Hundred came with him, and they took Sita Ma’am wedding ladoos. For cricket.
She lets out a bark of shocked laughter. Drips of Coke spill and settle on her hands like Bapuji’s liver spots. She licks them.
– What? Why are you not making sure he’s not doing any nautanki?
– Gargi Ma’am this is not masti. There are ladoo all over the lawn, all over the jubilee garden. Stuck on the rose bushes also. You know this time I think he has truly gone mad.
Radha installs herself in Devraj’s place and his office, replacing his own photos of himself meeting various world leaders (Nehru, Thatcher, Bush, Mrs Ghandi) with one of (the real-world artist) Dayanita Singh’s Dream Villa photographs of a cityscape:
Devraj undergoes a Damascene conversion to the cause of the very workers on whose labour and sacrifices he has built his empire, and as the battle for control of the empire rages the scene moves from Dehli to Ranjit’s luxury hotel (Gloucester’s castle) in Amritsar, and then the action converges back to Srinigar, where the Company, in violation of rules forbidding outsiders from owning property in Kashmir, are building the ultimate luxury hotel (initially inspired by Devraj wishing to reclaim his heritage).
The part of Dover cliffs is played by Amarnath Peak:
The novel is narrated in the third-person but the perspective and focus shifts between the five main young characters, from Jivan to Gargi, Radha, Jeet and Sita, with interspersed first-person rambling thoughts from the highly confused Devraj (as he lies in the ruins of his former family home in Srinigar, where the plot reaches its tragic denouement). The device effectively combines a linear plot line with a circular narrative, allowing us to appreciate (rather more than in the original) each character’s motivations.
And Jivan echoes Edgar’s closing speech with one of his own:
We that believe in India shining. We that are the youngest, the fastest, the democracy, the economy, the global Super Power coming soon to a cinema near you, we, hum panch, that are the five cousins of the five great rivers, everybody our brother-sister-lover, we that our divine: the echo of the ancient heroes of the old time, we that fight, we that are hungry, so, so hungry, we that are young! We that our jigging on the brink of ruin; we that are washed in the filth of corruption, chaal, so what? Aise hi Hota hai: we that are a force all that is natural – slow – death to Muslims, gays, chi-chi women in their skin-tights, hai! We that sit picnicking on the edge of our crumbling civilisation, we that party with shots and more shots, more shots as the world burns beneath us, as the dog barks, as the cockroaches crow, as the old eat their young and the young whip their elders all wearing the birth marks of respect, we that present only the shadow of ourselves behind our painted smiles, we that protest for the right to drink whisky-sours served to our beds at noon, we that eat our beef with chopsticks, we that twist tongues to suit our dear selves, we that worship the ancient religion of Lakshmi, of Shiva, of wealth creation and ultimate destruction, we that will be born strong in the next life and in a party that never ends, we that are the future of this planet, we that begin with this beloved India, will endure, yes it all belongs to us, and we will eat it all! All of it is ours, we that our India and no longer slaves: We that are young!