The Twice-born: Life and Death on the Ganges, comes from author Aatish Taseer’s deep absorption with Benares. His engagement with the city started 20 years ago when as an 18-year-old seeking permission for a year of backpacking through Europe, he was packed off instead to Varanasi because it was “the key to secret India”.
That first trip was not revelatory. Ten years later, equipped with a Western university education, he returned with the desire to learn Sanskrit and reconnect with India’s cultural past, as a way “to deal intellectually with a country whose reality perturbed me.”
On this visit, he witnessed a discussion among scholars on sphota, an ancient concept in Indian linguistics that dealt with the relationship between sound and meaning. While he’d seen Brahmins performing rituals and quoting liturgical texts, this was the first time he saw them engaging in a heated argument — in Sanskrit. It brought home “how automatic my incuriosity about old India had been,” and paved the way for his return to Benares.
Taseer’s first work, Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands, was part-memoir part-travel account. This book is more of a travelogue. While looking at Benares through the prism of its Brahmins, it also examines deep societal ruptures. The shared experience of colonialism forged a unity among Indians. However, it spawned the English-speaking urban elites who symbolise modernity, yet have lost the connection with traditional or “real” India.
The tension between modernity and orthodoxy is what the book explores through the documenting of the oral histories of a string of characters, most of whom are Brahmins, and also, with two exceptions, male.
“The West’s India became our India,” says Mukhopadhyay, a professor of philosophy, who describes himself as a “modern traditionalist,” with the ambition “to be a Hindu, without vengeance, and without apology.” A continuity of this view comes from the saffron-clad Shivam Tripathi, a member of a Hindu nationalist student group. “The conflict is not between tradition and modernity. It is between modernity and spirituality.”
To illustrate this, he takes Taseer to the Kedareshwar shrine. “Unspoken between us was the understanding that I was to try and apprehend what was happening here, in the sanctum, by using my intuition, rather than my intellect. It was as if Shivam could tell that I had been too long in my head and failed to see — or, rather, feel — something important.
So when, midway, I stopped to ask him the names of the leaves on the linga, he looked at me in annoyance. He told me they were bilva leaves and supplied the verses from the scripture, which said that they were dear to Shiva, but I was missing the point. Faith functioned by internal logic; it was its own means of knowing, and one knew by feeling, not by asking questions.” Later, the two go down to the river. “Behind us, some teenage girls, in jeans and pink socks, with busy designs on their sweaters, were taking selfies, screaming and giggling. Shivam turned to me and said with disdain, ‘Look, that is our modernity.’ Then pointing down the steps towards the river, he said, ‘And that is our spirituality’.”
Maintaining a dual insider-outsider viewpoint, Taseer writes with understanding but also with detachment. Until his visit to a Brahmin home in a village, the issue of caste remains an abstraction. Invited to dinner, he sees it in action: the lower caste driver who ferried him is allowed, as an exceptional gesture, to eat his meal with everyone else, but is then expected to wash his own plate because it is now polluted.
A ramble through Kashi’s bustling historic streets brings on a sensory overload. Likewise, The Twice-born is an engaging but busy book. Though non-fiction, it uses a variety of storytelling techniques to create a sense of energy: dialogue, atmosphere, characterisation.
Flexible in structure, organic in movement, rich in descriptions and life stories — including the author’s own — it delves into history, politics, religion, philosophy and literature. It weaves in the present by covering Modi’s election, Hindu revivalism, the aspirations and self-image of young Indians.
Finally, it raises provocative questions: Can any of us afford to be culturally isolated? How is culture transmitted? How do we create a space for it in the modern future? How does tradition assert itself? What effect has the foreign gaze had on us? Do we see ourselves as others see us, and does it repel us? Is there an authentic India? If so, which is it?
Ultimately, the author’s search for answers ends with a personal sense of closure. “Maybe all my questing after India had been the precursor to my moving more honestly away from it.” Fitting that it should take a journey to Benares for him to reach this epiphany.