The Twice-Born by Aatish Taseer: Review

Book: The Twice-Born

Author: Aatish Taseer

Publisher: HarperCollins

Pages: 248;

Price: Rs 599

India is cultural conundrum for Western world since centuries. After colonial rule it becomes more complex because western intellectuals tried to understand it from their own perspective. Before the colonial rule, India was ruled by another invading mogul culture, but after moguls, a different reality, in the form of British empire, set in India with exploitation of Indian wealth being the primary reason in both cases. The difference between two, however, is that the British empire struck with modern outlook at Hindu culture, which mesmerised upper class of Hindu echelon.

And when 200 hundred years of modern British rule inevitably lead to clashes of modernity and tradition, it forced a kind of introspection of Indian Hindu culture. This introspection started with Modernist Movement in Indian languages which reflected in its literature. One valuable attempt was the essay collection Patthar aur Bahta Pani, by the Jnanpith award winning Hindi writer Nirmal Verma, in which the dilemmas of torn identity of Indians were first explored in depth. And, in this well-explored subject, Aatish Taseer has added one more interesting chapter through The Twice Born.

Aatish has selected a path well-trodden by foreign predecessors (like Alice Boner and Bettina Baümer) to understand these conundrums, probably unaware of Indian author’s more nuanced attempt. Aatish has the privilege of being born in India, although he is alien to Indian Hindu culture, while his predecessors were born in western countries and had chosen Varanasi as their home and in the process, became second class Hindus. While Aatish preferred returned to his foreign milieu after this inner journey.

But by no means this is a superficial book. Author tried to understand ancient Hindu culture by visits to Varanasi in a time span of 18 months, but left perplexed after being unable to break his prejudices and in the process left his readers in dilemma. In his sincere attempt to understand Hindu Brahmin culture, he provides cultural vignettes of the remaining Hindu Brahmanical culture still breathing in Varanasi, but losing heroic battle against dark realities of today’s capitalist world.

Basically, he is trying to understand his roots in Indian soil, but is unable to acknowledge that the glasses of Western liberal democratic tradition through which he is trying to examine the ancient Hindu culture, is also getting blurry. But because of his training in rigorous western tradition of reasoning he looks at decaying Hindu Brahmanical culture with more accuracy, which Indian city intellectuals refuse to do.

In order to understand Hindu Brahmin culture he has referred to some Western intellectuals who attempted to understand it previously at a different time. But, simultaneously he has a good connection with various Brahmin Pandits who try to provide him with an understanding as per his assessment of Indian reality. The Twice Born is written in two parts – summer and winter. In Summer, the author presents current state of Indian Hindu Brahmin culture in various aptly titled chapters. While reading them, we come across learned Brahmins like Kamlesh Dutt Tripathi, his Guru Pandit K. Chattopadhyay and real Dwij (Sanskrit word which is translated inaccurately as twice born) P K Mukhopadhyay, relic of Bengal Renaissance, who is well-versed in Indian as well as western philosophies. Various viewpoints of such learned figures on Hindu Brahmin culture are essence of the journey undertaken by Aatish Taseer. Through the book, the author is trying to rediscover his Indian roots, and whether he becomes a Dwij or not, can only be known by him. But in this journey with him, readers definitely become more wiser about the Hindu Brahmin culture and Varanasi.

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