Aatish Taseer’s The Twice Born, Life and Death on the Ganges, is a book that moves on many planes. At one level, it can be interpreted as (yet another) well written travelogue from (yet another) non-resident Indian from a privileged background looking for his roots. On another, Taseer comes across as a writer steeped in an alien culture looking for native scholars of Indian tradition from among Brahmins, an exclusivist Indian caste with several thousand years of traditional learning behind it.
As he introduces himself, Aatish Taseer is a man of mixed parentage, now situated in a language and culture far removed from India’s. “My time in the West,” he writes, “had given me an outside view of my world...robbing my life there of its easy unthinking quality…I wondered if a voice from the past might serve as a beginning point in my quest to connect…”
Question arises how may a writer like him measures the sense of remoteness from his known cultural moorings? Is it a point with only an emotional significance for him, or a wider cultural quest rooted in his chosen vocation? A white scholar from the USA asked today, what he might consider the centre of his culture, will probably answer: Europe. It figures. Europe to the western eyes has long been the only civilisation that ever had global ambitions. Ancient India, like China, simply didn’t have such ambitions, they think. It is true to some extent of India’s Brahmins, who formed the country’s intellectual elite for centuries, and were convinced they were themselves the repositories of all that needed to be learnt and built upon culturally on these plains.
So, Aatish Taseer seeks out Mapu Singh, the scion of an erstwhile francophone royal family, his long time friend, philosopher and guide in matters oriental. He quizzes him on how to approach Kashi, the holy city and seat of Brahminical learning, of death. The better understanding of Sanskrit, he hopes, will help him discover, ‘a shared Indo-European linguistic past’...And Sanskrit will make it possible for him, “to take ownership of the Indian past...to close the gap between text and context”.
The Brahmins of India, who underwent a series of shattering diasporas when pushed and attacked first by non-Vedic dissenters from Buddha to Gorakhnath, the great heretic and Yogi, who were followed 10th Century onwards by alien Muslim and Christian rulers, have for long had no specific state of their own. But Kashi, one of the seven original cities of India, remains for them what Jerusalem is for the Jews, one of the holiest cradles of true tradition. But Kashi is a complex city. Its history is measured in millennia marked by many vast rises, followed by equally dispiriting falls.
It is oddly comforting at first for Taseer to be an agnostic among believers. He feels close to them and wants them to feel blessed, the tormented land ruled by Modi quietened, the past acknowledged and shriven
Initially, Taseer approaches it as people with his kind of background in India do. From an older man who has “paddled in the shallows of the café society” when young. Mapu recommends a perfect location for him: the house of a wealthy Swiss artist and scholar, Alice Boner, where she spent many years after parting from her Indian lover - the famous dancer Uday Shankar. The house was ideally situated, he is told, for looking at the Ganges and writing. Being controlled by a trust located in Zurich, however, it was open only to a privileged few, the ‘Big Ones’, as the caretaker says to Taseer. This Big One, then, gets busy sending e-mails to the man in charge, Johannes Beltz, art curator at Museum of Rietberg at Zurich. Beltz soon sends an e-mail to the manager in Varanasi not only to allocate a room but to receive Taseer at the airport and give him the most suitable room at the Boner House. We soon learn this is Taseer’s third visit to the city and the first one after it became Narendra Modi’s constituency.
A feeling of relaxed boredom remains Kashi’s Sthayi Bhav, its USP Taseer discovers, Modi notwithstanding. And its new overtures to modernity brought in by the man with a 56-inch chest, seem synthetic, borrowed and coarse. The city still shelters Brahmins meditating upon scriptures in airless decaying rooms, public spaces stinking of urine, and public walls and ghats are rife with graffiti of both spiritual and profane kind. On roads, he sees coaches of foreigners taking it in through glass windows, relaying their India stories to fellow tourists with murmurs of motherly pity. One of them collapses in front of his eyes, overcome by sheer shock, or the heat and dust.
It is oddly comforting at first for Taseer to be an agnostic among believers. He feels close to them and wants them to feel blessed, the tormented land ruled by Modi quietened, the past acknowledged and shriven. But as the book progresses, he begins to realise that the ceremonial around him springs not always from a religious fervour, but a simple cultural relapse into the ancient personality of Kashi, Shiva’s Avimukt Kshetra. It may still be peopled by wandering wraiths: Yakshas and Ganas and those that came here to die on the banks of the holy river; that the hierarchical, half magic trust of its ancient caste system, still led by Brahmins, remains largely the arbiter of what the stubbornly passionate Indians consider the natural way to be. Authority and income for the rest will always be selling peace and exotica in that order.