The Twice-Born: Caste and Identity for the English-Urban South Asian
Written by Aastha Gupta, you can find her work here.
Featured image provided by the author.
The Twice-Born, by Aatish Taseer opens with a recurring daydream of the author's - one where the ancient Indian city of Benares is superimposed onto the geography of New York. This is not unlike the lives of the Urban-English young of modern India, in whose daydreams, instead, America and Europe are superimposed onto the loud, dusty, haphazard Indian cities that they physically live in. Those western metropolises are the desired lands of plenty that we all aspire to - (After all, I too am **writing this in English.) The title of the book, The Twice-Born, translates into Hindi as dvij, a term also used to refer **to the upper caste Brahmins - for whom the traditional ceremony of Upanayana, or the thread ceremony, is regarded as a second or spiritual birth, an initiation into their caste identities.
The ideas of identity and modernity, are the currencies The Twice-Born essentially deals in. It is an observational account of the author's travels and stay in Benares while on a personal quest for his Indian identity, which he hopes to understand better by learning Sanskrit in Benares, a classical education in the Indian sense.
"Sphota, or "word-seeds," as the French mystic and poet René Daumal translates it, "evokes the blossoming of a flower, the development of a bud-thus a constant germinative power hidden beneath the appearances which manifest it." I had never heard of the concept. I knew no Sanskrit. I did not know that ancient India had made a study of these things. I was ignorant of the Indian passion for grammar, linguistics, and hermeneutics, the obsession with literary theory and figures of speech. But I had studied Wittgenstein at Amherst; I knew of Hellenistic philosophy and the different Platonic schools."
This book resonated with me deeply on many levels, having studied in a boarding school founded entirely on the British model of education, like most of the English-Medium public schools in India, which effectively creates, 'a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste and character, in morals and intellect', as Thomas Macaulay famously hoped for in his minute of 1835. The book brought me to Benares with the author, also educated in one of the Indian English boarding schools, and revealed a city teeming with characters that provide profound insight into a familiar yet almost alien world, ranging from the ragtag young Anand Mohan Jha, in his red bandanna and tinted glasses with large tobacco encrusted teeth, to the austere figure of the dhoti-kurta clad scholar P.K Mukhopadhay . Both Anand Mohan Jha and P.K Mukhopadhyay are vastly different characters. Anand, 'a wild wheeling figure,' is reminiscent of the young men one routinely sees lounging about at the local chai galla, whereas Mukhopdhay is highly reclusive and leads the life of a scholarly hermit, a specialist of Indian logic with students from as far as Bihar and Orissa. What binds them, and indeed all the other characters Taseer documents deftly, is their crisis of identity and their internalised information of caste, whether or not they are aware of it.
When one does their daily trawl of their Instagram feed, one often asks (as I often did), 'How does it come to this? Why would society object to a jewellery ad depicting an inter-faith, Hindu - Muslim couple?' It seems alien, unintuitive and unacceptable, this attitude of intolerance and piousness. What we fail to understand, however, is the reality of the general public, the world that they occupy, of whom we, the mall-going, American-TV-show watching, English-speaking, Urban know nothing. the public that the English- Urban were shocked at when the BJP was voted into a second term.
Very early in the book, Taseer describes his father, Salman Taseer's demise at the hands of his bodyguard. Salman Taseer, who had been the governor of Punjab in Pakistan, famously spoke out against the blasphemy laws, which had been rigidified in the 1980s, calling them 'man-made' 'black laws'. Taseer's take on this is that Salman Taseer thought he was protected from the judgment of the masses as a blasphemer by his class and stature. 'The story' Taseer's writes, 'was nothing if not a lesson in the fragility of the power of the colonial classes.' Hundreds of people reportedly did show up for his funeral, no doubt sympathizing with his dissent of the blasphemy laws, but the bodyguard at whose hands he was assassinated, quoted the same as the reason for the assassination. The following excerpt reiterated this dilemma of class but couples it with the Indian internalization of caste.
"A fashionable woman, lunching at a new restaurant in a mall, found her pasta was not al dente. She called over the waiter. He was happy to replace it, but she stopped him. It was not enough that he replace her pasta. Did he understand, she wanted to know, the meaning of the phrase "al dente"? He reached in again for her plate. No, she said, her cruelty now sublimated into gentleness. She wanted him to learn. Did he even know the meaning of the phrase "al dente"? No, he confessed.' The waiter, for a moment, believed the scolding was about the food. Now he saw what was really happening. He could smell the woman's wish to diminish him. Otherwise, why ask what village he was from, what his training consisted of, whether he was qualified to be serving this food? The woman had seized on the phrase "al dente”-no doubt picked up on a holiday abroad—to crush him: to expose him for the servant she knew him to be... Caste would have informed the behaviour of the woman at the Italian restaurant. It was what made a relation of mine in Delhi to me, "This is the only country in the world where one person can look at another and say, 'Oh, he looks like a servant."
The title of the book suggests that it is about caste, and it is impossible to talk about India or Indian-ness without addressing caste, as Taseer's conversations with almost everyone in the book reveal. In many ways though, it is more about our collective identity as a colonised people. It is an especially insightful read for the English speaking South Asian and the book's beauty lies in its strange quality of neutrality, which comes from lucid observation, even though the author's opinions are almost always transparent. It spans roughly a decade and is an astute observation of how Hindu India has chosen to preserve and/or remember its traditions and how it has attempted to mould these traditions to suit the framework that the world today comprises.
"Mukhopadhyay was right: to be modern was to renounce India. The transition stripped uncolonized India of its confidence, as it stripped the waiter of his. It created a new class of interpreters, comprising people such as this woman, who were ready to impose a new tyranny of borrowed artefacts, a club to which ordinary Indians could only hope to belong if they left behind much of what was dear to them, from language and dress to culture and worship. The relationship between old and new had been severed: to be modern was to come empty-handed into an unfamiliar world."
For all the ground that it covers, The Twice Born is a short read of two hundred and forty-odd pages, and well worth the time spent on it, and then some.
"Delhi and Benares are only eight hundred kilometres apart, but the real distance, the sense of travelling across centuries, was not physical. Distances in India rarely are."