As if reworking Shakespeare’s King Lear weren’t enough of a challenge, author Preti Taneja also tasks herself with turning the epic power-struggle into a call to arms for social change. Set between the murky corporate world of New Delhi and its interests in Srinagar, Kashmir, We That are Young is both a criticism of today’s consumer culture and an appeal to those who will inherit it.
The story begins with Jivan Singh returning to India from America where he has lived for the past 15 years, although not by choice. Being illegitimate, he (and his mother) were an embarrassment to his father and were forced to live abroad. Now his mother is dead, Jivan plans to start a new life in New Delhi. He hopes his father can find him a place in the Company, where he works as the second-in-command to its billionaire owner and founder, “Bapuji” Devraj.
This is Jivan’s and the reader’s entrée into a world of unimaginable wealth. Devraj and his three daughters Gargi, Radha and Sita, have built an empire from selling cashmere shawls, opening hotels and manufacturing concrete—with sidelines in gun-running and bribing government officials. They live in a gated complex of stupefying luxury known as the Farm. Here Devraj lets his entourage of 100 hangers-on party on Tuesday nights as he gradually relinquishes control of the Company to his daughters. However, when the youngest daughter, Sita, refuses to bend to tradition and marry as Daddy wishes, a chain of events kicks off which leads ultimately to the family’s destruction.
Reading King Lear in advance will provide a more immersive experience in the book’s 553 pages as the plot sticks closely to the original story and characters. For example, Devraj’s oldest two daughters have names beginning with the same letter as Lear’s. The bastard son Jivan also pursues affairs with both Gargi and Radha in a similar way as Edmund (his Shakespearian equivalent) carries on with Goneril and Regan. Knowing the play also explains the extreme violence in the novel which otherwise might appear gratuitous.
Also like Shakespeare, Taneja can write both poetically and downright crudely—sometimes on the same page. Her language encompasses a wide spectrum ranging from colloquial English to whole sentences of romanized Hindi to the modern compressions used on social media. Whatever the mode, Taneja’s prose is always intense, detailed and engrossing. Readers will feel the touch of a five-star hotel’s feather pillow as vividly as they smell the sewers of an industrial town’s slum tenements.
In his recent novel, The Noise of Time, Julian Barnes asks “Was there a greater portrayal of the shattering of human illusions than King Lear?”
We That are Young is also about broken dreams: specifically the betrayal of one generation by its children and more generally the realization that the promises of capitalism haven’t come true for everyone. Taneja is keen to demonstrate that behind (and sometimes inside) New India’s glass and steel skyscrapers, poverty of body and spirit still exists. This notion reaches outside the Subcontinent too, capturing the zeitgeist in some Western societies, for example the UK, where electorates are becoming disenchanted with the existing economic model and beginning to entertain left-wingers with different ideas.
Having exposed the status quo, many writers often leave the text at that point. Taneja however chooses to take the debate one step further. With Devraj and his family destroyed, a question mark is left over the future leadership of the Company. Will it be run for the common good or for one individual’s glory? Instead of wringing her hands, Taneja shifts the burden of responsibility for change squarely on to the next generation. The title of the book is taken from the final lines of King Lear which encourage those remaining to say what they feel, not what they think they should say. This too is Taneja’s message to those that are young: if you don’t like the way things are, now is the time to get up and change them.