Eastern Promises: Inside the Bold New Novel ‘The Way Things Were’
When you are seven years old, Salman Rushdie apologizes to your mother. As a Sikh and a noted journalist who’s received both death threats from extremists and come under scrutiny from the Indian government, she’s concerned to see her unique name appear in famous novelist’s latest book, The Satanic Verses. While you stand beside her, Rushdie tells your mother that he can’t remove the name Tavleen from the text; she’ll have to bear the weight of association with a fictional, female terrorist who blows up a plane. He scribbles his apologies in a bound proof of the book and as you walk away, the famous author tells her, “Don’t worry: It won’t be you that will be in trouble, it’ll be me.”
If this happened to you, as it did novelist Aatish Taseer, the encounter might have ballooned into epic proportions in your head. But for the deracinated child of the aforementioned journalist and a Pakistani Muslim who’d become governor of the Punjab province, it’s just one small illustration of a life spent navigating the blurred lines between art, politics and the personal. It follows that Rushdie’s books pop up in discussions and lies open, half-read, on the end tables of Dehli drawing rooms in Taseer’s latest novel, The Way Things Were. For one thing, he has a soft spot for that memory, which cemented the writer’s life to romance and danger in his mind. More importantly, the 68-year-old Rushdie’s works famously grapple with the end of the British raj and the fallout from India’s 1947 partition; the 34-year-old Taseer’s new title picks up during his generation’s postcolonial crises, beginning with PM Indira Ghandi’s 1975 infamous declaration of Emergency.
“It took me three books to just unravel all this personal stuff and put it away,” Taseer says. “This is my direct material, in some ways, but it’s not autobiographical. I was working in that nice, happy, pure space of the imagination.” Unlike the 2009 memoir Stranger to History, which mulls his relationship with his estranged father, Salmaan Taseer, or his 2011 novel, Noon, there’s little mention of the violence that plagued his family during those years. (Salmaan was killed by a member of his own security detail the same year Taseer’s half-brother Shahbaz was abducted.) Instead, this 565-page epic traces the dissolution of a marriage, and brings to mind many writers of the subcontinent — not just Rushdie or Rohinton Mistry but more recent names such as Neel Mukhurjee and Jhumpa Lahiri — who focus stories of national drama through familial ones.
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