A British-born novelist who grew up in New Delhi but also spent much of his adult life in New York seeks a closer connection to his native land through explorations into the Brahmin scholarly caste, the “twice-born.”
Taseer (The Way Things Were, 2014, etc.) began tentative forays back to India to learn Sanskrit in the ancient spiritual center of Benares, “the key to secret India,” as his mother told him. “In Benares,” he writes, “it was possible to see in miniature every major event that had etched itself onto India’s consciousness.” The author sought teachers to help him make a more intimate intellectual connection to India. In 2014, he spent many months in the Ganges-skirted city to interview Brahmins, who are by birthright the intellectuals, scientists, astrologers, and scholars of the society; during adolescence, they are “initiated by rite into [their] ancient vocation of the mind.” Taseer felt that penetrating the intellectual secrets of this “twice-born” caste would somehow dispel for him the feeling of always being an outsider—the sense, as Jawaharlal Nehru has written, of feeling a “queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.” In presenting his first-person stories of the Brahmins, the author also examines tales of Hindu nationalists; a scholar trying to synthesize the traditional vs. ancient currents; a revolutionary upstart; a spiritual feminist; and a family man who ultimately cannot wash the dish of the visitor who belongs to a lesser caste because it will contaminate his house and village. Unfortunately, despite Taseer’s earnest attempts to force a declaration of truth from his Brahmin interviewees, he is evasive about his own ethnicity and identity—namely, his Muslim family and his gay sexual orientation—often stranding readers with him in emotional limbo.
A beautifully rendered but flawed exploration of how caste still prevails painfully in modern India.