British academic and human rights activist Preti Taneja has packed her debut novel with so much insight and feeling for contemporary India that her sentences seem to spill out as if from an overstuffed bag. It’s a marvel that she was able to pack in so much (plot, atmosphere, social observation, you name it) while sustaining such propulsive energy over the course of nearly 500 pages, and yet she manages to the last. The overall effect is dizzying, dazzling, and ultimately convincing and immersive.
The book is a contemporary retelling of “King Lear’’ set in Delhi and Kashmir amid a period of unrest over government corruption. We enter on a flight from Logan International with Jivan, a late-20s, Harvard-educated striver en route to India for a business opportunity. His father, Ranjit, has summoned him to work for the India Co. — known among the book’s characters simply, nefariously, as the Company — one of those multinational megaconglomerates with its crooked fingers in every industrial pie.
The Company is helmed by septuagenarian billionaire Devraj, our Lear, whose family Jivan grew up alongside. He arrives as Devraj is announcing his plan to split the Company among his three daughters: youngest Sita, middle Radha, and eldest Gargi. We first glimpse the family on a security monitor, through which Jivan watches them eat lunch. This detached, unnerving introduction, reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s psychological thriller “Cache,’’ about a couple who discover themselves mysteriously under surveillance, situates this Lear squarely in our strange present day. The clan’s video appearance also casts the group in a TV drama light, foreshadowing the high-flying treachery to come.
And boy, does it ever, a torrent of betrayal and a struggle for power that takes place in the boardroom and the bedroom. Opulent resorts and extravagant parties provide a glittering backdrop for infidelity, backstabbing, and the consumption of oceans of champagne. Like the sharpest soap-opera creators, Taneja is a dutiful chronicler of carefully manicured appearances, luxury women’s apparel in particular, eager to taxonomize her creations through their selection of designer handbags.
Although Taneja delights in detailing the myriad ways in which women of means broadcast class through fashion, she uses these details to emphasize the limitations of a society in which a woman’s powers of self-assertion are limited to her choice between Hermes or Louis Vuitton. Sometimes, fashion becomes violent: In a fancy hotel mirror, Radha considers her dress, “tight from bust to mid-thigh, as if she has been cut open and bound back together like this.”
A fitting description, in fact, in a world where savagery lies just beneath the thinnest veneer of civility, a saga constructed of vivid scenes in which all the characters, but the females ones especially, are brutalized, discounted, murdered, objectified. To wit, Devraj arranges a marriage for Sita, sweetening the deal with a mammoth dowry. Sita bristles and runs away, setting off a wave of noncompliance among the sisters, the fallout from which has global ramifications. When a family has the net income of an island nation, even the least of its members can make terrible waves.
And waves pervade the novel, from the monsoon that fills in for Lear’s storm to the international culinary trends sweeping the hip kitchens of Delhi. Despite that the protagonists fall squarely within the one percent, the environmental problems their Company has caused wash over them, too. This is, after all, a work of realist fiction, one in which climate change is just as menacingly present — and the industry that causes it just as lucrative — as it is in life.
Taneja captures her sprawling subject in language befitting such epic sweep. She stuffs her prose with metaphor and simile, which can be a bit much at times, but more often than not serves to ground this novel of big ideas in the physical world. A philosophical exchange becomes “words thrown . . . to the rhythm of a butcher’s cleaver, chop, your faith, chop, your silence, chop, your brother, to the bone, your father.” A pauper on a bicycle frowns as though “grieving for his legs,” the veins of his neck bulging “like rivers on an ancient map.”
Hindi appears frequently without italics to set it apart from English text. This serves to remind myopic English-only readers of India’s power on the world stage. Further, they often unmoor to exhilarating effect, as when Gargi encounters the shocking sight of a maimed peacock corpse in the rose garden and summons her servant: “Her throat is parched. Her voice shakes. Rose garden phata-phaat aao, mali ko lekar. Mali ko lekar aao, someone good.” One fears that understanding Hindi would further augment the scene’s emotional intensity.
Strong emotions — and the compelling characters that experience them — help keep the novel faithful to its source material. (Taneja seems to heed Edgar’s edict to obey the weight of these sad times by speaking what she feels, not what she ought to say.) In the end, Taneja proves that nothing more than feelings — particularly when wielded by demented oligarchs and their misguided children — have the power to bring the world crashing down.
WE THAT ARE YOUNG By Preti Taneja
Knopf, 480 pp., $27.95
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Eugenia Williamson is a Chicago writer and editor.