Author: Aatish Taseer
Publisher: Fourth Estate India,
2018, pp 256
Book Review by:Aaditya Tiwari
To know where you are is also to know who you are’ is a continuous theme of the book ‘The Twice Born’ by AatishTaseer. I was attracted to the book ‘The Twice Born’ to seek personal answers. Being born with a Brahmin surname all I had was certain traditions which were devoid of any meaning. The education I pursued had no reference to who we were and what our history was. The history books prescribed in the school curriculum were my first source to know about Brahmins and their portrayal as ‘evil’ was incongruent with my lived experience. It was with desire to know more about myself that I approached the book and as I finished reading it, I had more questions than answers.
‘The Twice Born’ is an account of Aatish’s personal journey to discover his cultural roots. He who is born and brought up in India feels more at ease with the Western world than in India. Aatish attempts to understand his culture by learning Sanskrit. He visits Varanasi, leaves and then returns to stay there. He is attracted to the vast literature and history that Sanskrit has to offer. He maps the evolution and preservation of India’s culture by tracing the lives of a few Brahmins who have studied and pursued Sanskrit all their lives.
The book carves out the lives of these Brahmins beautifully. Certain discussions that Aatish has on modernity, culture, traditions and history are simply profound. They open up many avenues to think, to counter and sometimes just to re-read to absorb. One which really stuck with me was the interaction between Aatish and one of the Brahmins – Shivam. Shivam in his own way shows the difference between modernity and spirituality. He says, ‘either we throw ourselves into this modernity or we go back to what we were. What is intolerable is this limbo, this middle condition, for in the end the truth is only that. (pointing to the cremation ghats).’
At one point, Aatish writes that ‘no country is more dependent on visitors for historical information about itself than India…What India knew about herself was too speculative and abstract, too mystical, for outsiders to apprehend, and what visitors said about India could make Indians feel the visitors were talking about a country Indians did not recognize.’ He talks of the Dharma of the place, ‘The past in India is inseparable from the world of belief. Once faith was removed, Indians did not know what to make of their past. As with the dharma of the place, what mattered was not antiquity or beauty, but sanctity’.
AatishTaseer spoke at India Foundation’s India Ideas Conclave in 2016 on the idea of dissent. He said his is a cultural dissent. Aatish remarked that the colonisation British did in India was nothing as compared to the colonization India made of herself. Post-independence, India pursued the aims of colonizers with a dedication that probably would have surprised even Macaulay and the Indian elite continued to be culturally and linguistically deluded.
Aatish witnessed a sort of cultural resurgence in the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. He was in Varanasi at the time working on his book and delved into the political expression and significance of the 2014 mandate. He sees this mandate from the same prism that he saw India’s culture and gets judgemental about what was being done and what has been achieved. He witnessed that people were filled with a sense of pride but they had not found a way to use the immense cultural wealth in a modern way. Aatish says that ‘the second birth’ that had to occur had not occurred.
AatishTaseer has written a wonderful book that pushes us to think deeper. He chronicles Varanasi in a very innovative manner and gives a new perspective. Twice he writes in the book, ‘those in whom tradition was most intact were often the least able to speak of it.’ Through this book Aatish helps us understand the concept of ‘BeejaRakshan’ and tells why it is important to understand and preserve our roots.
(Aaditya Tiwari is a Fellow at India Foundation.)
(This Book Review is carried in the print edition of January-February 2019 issue of India Foundation Journal.)