The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer [in Library Journal]
Aatish Taseer’s latest opens with a mother’s call to her Manhattan-based son, asking him to ferry his just-deceased father’s body from Geneva back to Delhi. Though a minor Indian prince, “Toby” G.M.P.R. Kalasuryaketu – half-actually Scottish, half-Indian – was more a foreign “novelty” in his ancestral homeland. A Sanskrit scholar with an “exaggerated reverence for the Indian past,” he bequeathed his linguistic obsessions to his “collector of cognates”-son, Skanda.
Chapters alternate between Toby’s abandoned India of decades past and the present, in which Skanda returns to India and unexpectedly remains. Amid a country in flux, Toby’s gift of language offers Skanda the possibility of understanding “the way things were.”
Verdict: Taseer, the son of an assassinated Muslim Pakistani politician and a Sikh Indian journalist, is undoubtedly a formidable storyteller (Temple-Goers; Noon), yet his constant, digressive displays of erudition – from Marcel Proust’s Swann and Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, to neglected vocabulary such as fissiparous and pleonastically – prove more distracting than enhancing. The result is an unnecessarily sprawling, nearly 600-page epic that should have been stunning. For more satisfying examples of what Things could have been, try Amitav Ghosh’s “Ibis Trilogy,” Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, and M.G. Vassanji’s The Assassin’s Song.