Intelligent and Original, Lear Translates Perfectly onto Modern India
Jivan Singh returns to his childhood after a long absence, there to witness the unexpected resignation of Devraj, founding father of the Company - a vast corporation that sits at the heart of Indian life. At the same time, Devraj's daughter absconds - desperate to escape from the prospect of marriage. Her older sisters are handed control of their father's company - and there begins a vicious struggle for power, from the luxury hotels of New Delhi through to the slums of Napurthala.
India is a frequent topic for writers the world over but they rarely capture the essence of such a multi-faceted country, instead veering between semi-nostalgic tales of the British Raj, or slum set tales of poverty that blend uplifting inspiration with heavy doses of condescension. In "We That Are Young" however, author Preti Taneja takes her readers to an India that feels contemporary, modern and remarkably varied, her story offering the reader opportunities to delve deep into contrasting corners of Indian Society, but always doing so in an organic fashion - never forced but threading well into the main plot to present the reader with an intriguing and original portrait of life in modern India.
The links to King Lear are clear throughout
Now, it should be said that the plot is an adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear, and adaptations of Shakespeare don't always read particularly well - with the myriad of Shakespeare adaptations out there, authors and directors seem desperate to stamp their mark on the work, rather than allowing the strength of Shakespeare's creations to speak for themselves. A few novels have done so admirably though, with "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski (a retelling of Hamlet set in Wisconsin) and "A Thousand Acres" by Jane Smiley (an adaptation of King Lear set in Iowa) using new settings and time periods to help the reader discover new meanings and connections in centuries-old texts.
It is certain that "We That Are Young" will be joining those books in the ranks of original, intelligent and illuminating Shakespeare adaptations.
Taneja embeds this tale into modern-day India and makes the reader see just how good a fit it is - the wild, vital and youthful energy of India serving as a setting that, somehow, translates perfectly from Shakespeare's vision of Ancient Britain.
The links to King Lear are clear throughout, with characters renamed to suit the Indian setting and serving the same purpose they do in Shakespeare's text, but placed into contemporary situations that, for the most part, feel hugely fitting - from Devraj's torn position as the King Lear figure through to his elderly mother's tragic background as the Fool.
a magnificent portrait of modern-day India
The well-known plot allows author Preti Taneja to place a focus on the characters and the setting - a mix of old and new that's readable, raw and tremendously exciting. Bringing something new to a piece by Shakespeare must be a considerable challenge, but the author writes in an assured, direct and easily readable prose, and whilst this is the author’s first full-length novel, her significant experience as a journalist and academic is evident in just how smoothly readable "We That Are Young" is: the characterisations are precise and crisp, and the descriptions are perfectly placed to describe both what is a very foreign country for most, and to linger long in the mind of the reader - evocative, fragrant and sensual.
The dialogue too is something to take in, then go back a few pages and read again. It has a raw, pulsing energy to it - flowing through the book and dragging the reader along for the ride, ending on a closing speech that had me wanting to applaud. Dropping in phrases in Hindi could, in a lesser author's hands, have served to alienate the English reader, but instead feel like intimate whispers from the character to the reader - and work wonderfully in reastablishing the setting of the book.
This is a magnificent portrait of modern-day India - a vibrant feast for the senses and full of humanity in all its horror and wonder. It’s a doorstop of a book that deserves time putting aside for - a rich treat to be devoured and digested over time. Taneja is a considerable talent - and I’m hugely excited to see what her next project is.
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