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A World Of Voices: We That Are Young

Emily Harvie looks at the portrayal of modern-day India in Taneja’s beautiful retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear.

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Image Credit: Knopf, 2018

We That Are Young packs a punch through its intriguing perspective as a rewrite of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy King Lear. The title of the novel itself, comes from the closing lines of the play, “we that are young, shall never see so much, nor live so long.” These words are repeated in Taneja’s novel amidst a similar scene of chaos as is found in the original. They largely encompass the main issues Taneja seeks to explore: youth, and the difference between a generation.

In this, her debut novel, Taneja reimagines the play in modern day New Delhi. Her King Lear is business tycoon and Patriarch, Devraj Bapuji; a man who owns half of India through his various companies ranging from hotels to coffee. In classic Lear fashion, he decides to retire early and proceeds to divide his empire between his three daughters, leading to devastating consequences (obviously). His company falls to his eldest two, Gargi and Radha as his youngest, Sita, runs away to avoid an arranged marriage.

Even if you are less familiar with Shakespeare’s tragedy, We That Are Young remains captivating throughout. Taneja modernises the play. She delves into the tensions within generational clashes, death, climate change, tradition, and religion: exploring these issues before the beautiful backdrop of India.

Vivid descriptions aid her navigation of the geographical terrain of the novel, providing  an intimate perspective of India for those of us who have not yet been lucky enough to explore the country for ourselves. Taneja blurs the traditional with the modern, illustrating how globalisation and modernisation have morphed both the family and their home country into what she displays forth in the novel.

The contradiction between the east and west, the new and the traditional, is rampant from the very beginning. The novel opens with the return of Jivan, the illegitimate son of Devraj’s trusty right-hand man, Ranjit. Jivan makes his grand return from America, where he has been studying for the past fifteen years, leaving behind his white girlfriend but bringing home an american accent. By observing him being thrown back into life in Delhi, we are thrown into this abundant culture just the same.

Language is used as a pivotal tool for bridging the gap between these eastern and western cultures. Hindi is woven into the descriptions and dialogue throughout, without  warning or translation. Taneja emphasises throughout the novel, that this is an Indian story about a modern Indian family and does not compensate for this in any way.

Her accounts of Delhi life for the family are full of vigour; rich in depth yet, admittedly, sometimes overbearing and unnecessary. That would be my biggest criticism of the novel. However, Taneja's unabashed critique of Indian life shines through. Her use of extensive descriptions and metaphors allows for in-depth, well-thought out discussions surrounding the corruption rife in India’s wealth gap, misogyny in its traditions, and other vast inequalities within its society. She sets much of the novel amid the political chaos of India’s anti-corruption protests of 2011 and 2012 and is ‘unapologetically political’ throughout.

Tackling the issues of  wealth inequality and combining it with the issue of climate change is how Taneja brings us to one of the most well known elements of King Lear : the storm. In Lear’s world the pathetic fallacy highlights his slow descent into madness as his wicked daughters take his kingdom. In We That Are Young, Devraj is forced to take shelter in the slums of Amritsar, ‘waist deep in a tide of company plastic bottles’ repenting his sins towards the slum to its dwellers, mirroring Lear’s proclamations of sorrow over his corrupt Kingdom.

Having said this, the most intriguing element of Taneja’s reimagining  would have to be the three daughters. In the original, the two eldest are the villains, ungrateful to their father and manipulative as well as  destructive in their pursuits of power. Yet, Taneja brings a complexity to all three that I very much appreciated. She does not make them the instant heroines, flipping the script to give a new, feminist retelling. Instead she gives them depth. She adds a realism in discussing their hopes and dreams for the company, for their family, for their futures, for themselves.

This was most prevalent through Gargi and Radha’s complicated relationships with sex and marriage. There is a shared confusion in the importance of tradition and liberation and unique differences in how they each navigate their sexuality in the novel. Taneja does not make them the sweet alternatives to their evil originals. She makes them real women, and gives them powerful voices.

We That Are Young is a magnificent retelling of King Lear. The decision to displace the original and reimagine it in modern New Delhi adds a whole new avenue for Taneja to explore the potential for her characters. She is unafraid to critique each element of Indian society and puts depth and  great care into exploring the many clashes that the youth of modern India experience. Her descriptions can be too much at times, but there is passion in her voice.

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