King Lear strikes fear into the heart of me.
A few years ago, I went to see a production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in my home town of Stratford-upon-Avon. It lasted a good five hours, was utterly miserable (yes, it’s one of Shakespeare’s tragedies but, my goodness, give the audience a break) and I felt drained as I emerged from the dark auditorium. So, when I picked up Preti Taneja’s debut novel, We That Are Young, and realised that it was based on my least-favourite offering from The Bard, I was a little dubious. But as I started leafing through its pages, I became completely engrossed with the beautiful language and stunning setting. I was so drawn to the characters and narrative that I found it hard to put the book down and get some shut-eye.
Set in contemporary India, it tells the story of Jivan Singh as he returns to his childhood home after spending an extended period in America, only to watch the resignation of Devraj, head of the influential Company, as he hands his business over to his three daughters. On the same day, Devraj’s youngest daughter, Sita, takes off, leaving the business in the hands of her older sisters, Radha and Gargi. What follows is not only a brutal struggle for power, but a clash between old and new worlds. It’s a novel about money, power, dishonesty and longing. But it’s also a book about adversity, divided families and the idea that we are all performers.
“I’ve always had a sort of outsider perspective,” says Taneja. “Like a lot of second-generation immigrant children who come from middle-class families, you grow up surrounded by people who look and think and speak in two languages. At home, it was always very Hindi-orientated, as well as English food and English clothes, so it’s not like having a double identity, it’s more like having two worlds that you navigate between.”
Taneja’s CV is impressive. A writer, broadcaster, filmmaker and human rights activist, she is also a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Warwick University working in the department of English and Comparative Literary Studies, as well as the Centre for Human Rights in Practice until 2020.
So, what is it about King Lear that she finds interesting?
“When I first did King Lear for A-level, it really spoke to me. The sense of daughters having to perform for family honour struck me as something that Indian families, especially second-generation immigrant families, do ask of their daughters. You have to always behave yourself to show how brilliant you are, firstly as the child of brown parents, but also to prove that your parents did the right thing in coming to England.”
Recently, I watched a short interview Taneja filmed about Shakespeare in Education for the British Council and I was interested in what she said about Shakespeare’s plays “providing people with a means of saying what they’re feeling and what they’re experiencing to the rest of the world”. I ask her what this means to her as a writer.
“I’ve worked with people from various parts of the world who are in conflict zones or dealing with post-conflict situations, and in each situation, the plays have been used for different reasons,” she explains. “But there’s certainly something compelling about taking an old text and making it your own, for your own political moment.
“And like with my book, that fusion has something to say about colonialism and what it’s like to have been completely influenced by a different language because India was part of the British Empire for such a long time. That’s really exciting to work out and challenge, and be thinking again in two languages.”
I tell Taneja that at times the prose appears almost poetic, flitting seamlessly from English to Hindi and back again.
“I’m glad to hear that. Every reader will come at this differently. I’ve had young British Asian women come up to me and say ‘thank you’ because they’ve never read anything that does that, and at home that’s how it is. So, for them, it’s wonderful to see that presented in literature in a way that just normalises their life experiences.”
We That Are Young is incredibly political yet it doesn’t appear laboured, or as though Taneja has written a novel with an agenda. The characters are so vivid that it simply feels like the action is happening around them. Did she set out to write a political novel?
“It’s a bit of both,” she admits. “King Lear is a social tragedy and it’s about being locked in these kinds of behaviour even if [the characters] wish they could get out of them and try and do something different. Somehow the structure of patriarchy, and the structure of capitalism, are just much stronger. I am really interested in the way that people push against those things, and that difficulty of trying to be true to yourself and be good in the world, and also do everything that society requires of you. I think that is something that I did set out to explore, particularly from the point of view of gender.”
In a world where our actions are often dictated by what we see online or in magazines, or from various discussions about gender and sexuality playing out in the media, the novel makes for relevant reading.
“As for the rest of the politics, things like the narrative of climate change in the book were very much inspired by King Lear and my decision – and I didn’t have to try very hard – to find correlations between the play’s themes, like nature and god and goddesses, and the ways in which men think about women in the play. They do map on very easily to what I see around me, not just India, but also now we see it in popular discourse in America and the UK.
“With the Lear plays and adaptations that I’ve looked at from different countries, and the way that it’s been taken in English, to a greater or lesser extent, that story of a man wrestling with his own identity when he gives away his wealth – is he still a dad? Is he still a King? Is he still a real man? What do the trappings that we surround ourselves with do for us? Those are the sorts of questions we all face. In these times of great partitions, and the break-up of kingdoms and unions and things, sometimes we need theatre to think about what it is we are actually doing and why.”
It’s astonishing how words can transport you elsewhere. The sense of place in the novel is so evocative – from smells, to colour, to sound – that I felt like I was in India. And I’ve never been. But it’s the India of my imagination, of movies and of films and pictures. How much research did Taneja undertake?
“I’ve been going to India since I was little,” she says. “So for every holiday that my parents could afford, we were going back to India. Even when I wasn’t going, my mother was going and she’d bring a lot of Indian books and comics and toys and clothes. I had a very strong relationship with friends and family out there. So, when I started the book, to tackle that sense of nostalgia that characters have, that wasn’t difficult to do.
“But it’s always hard writing against contemporary events because the events are just so extraordinary in the real world that you think your imagination can’t encompass them. The events of recent times – again, in America, and here, and in India and other places – if you tried to write that stuff as fiction, you think ‘well the reader isn’t going to come with me on this journey’. That was a challenge.”
Written in the third person, Taneja wanted to put some distance between the characters and how they construct their identities. “King Lear is a play about how we perform,” she says. “So, I wanted to capture that point of view. To get into their heads came with its own challenges.”
Like me, Taneja’s favourite character is Radha, the middle sister. “She is so funny and clever. And so completely misunderstood. She always surprises me. I always thought that sounded quite pretentious in a way, that you don’t know what’s going on with your own characters, but when I started writing Radha, suddenly she had this Twitter account and this funny way with language.”
Taneja co-founded Visual Verse, an online anthology of art and words, with her friend Kristen Harrison who runs Berlin-based publishing company, The Curved House. “It was Kristen’s idea to explore something that would allow us to look at writing as a craft, as a visual stimulation. So, she finds the artists and I curate the words, and we launch it once a month. It’s nearly four-years-old now, and we’ve gone from 30 submissions a month to almost 250.”
This isn’t a paying job, rather a labour of love. “It’s amazing to see people supporting each other’s writing across different time zones.”
Finally, I ask Taneja if she has any advice for budding writers?
“The best thing you can do if you’re starting out is to find a community of other writers who you trust and just build up those relationships either online or in person because there is nothing like having that group of people who you can go to and say ‘I’ve just written this, what do you think?’ or ‘it’s not going well today. Can you remind me why I am doing this?’. It’s really important because they will keep reminding you that you are a writer, no matter what’s happening.”
We That Are Young is published by Galley Beggar Press