Updated: Jul 16, 2020
I feel extremely conflicted about Preti Taneja’s We that are young, there are undeniably some great bits to Taneja’s writing. The themes she brings up, the way she writes, and the plot are all great, however, these are all undermined by the structure, the way she chooses to characterise the patriarchy and the ending of the book.
We that are young is a book I probably wouldn’t have read without it being the choice for my university’s book club. Not only is it very long (my copy was 553 pages) but it is cited as the ‘modern-day version’ of King Lear, a Shakespeare play I haven’t read. However, funnily enough, neither of these factors impaired my thoughts on the novel at all. Yes, a few of the issues I had were around the structure, which ultimately leads to me wishing the book was slightly shorter, but I could not say the book being so long was a major reason for my disappointment.
Let’s start with the positives! As I’ve mentioned Taneja’s themes are spot on, she tackles the patriarchy brilliantly in the sense that she picks up some key aspects of the mechanisms that underpin oppression. However, as I’ll mention later, beyond this she fails to execute the characterisation of said mechanisms. Yet, what struck me most was her exploration of India’s varied culture, in a way, I can, only assume is accurate. WTAY sets itself in a range of locations ‘ranging from the luxury hotels of New Delhi and Amritsar, the Palaces and slums of Napurthala, to the beautiful, broken city of Srinagar, Kashmir’ as the blurb explains. Taneja in presenting so many aspects of India, for me creates a much more holistic view of the East than I’ve personally seen written before. On top of this, she seamlessly integrates various local dialects into the dialogue, which yet again creates a realistic portrayal of a culture so often fitted into a neat little box for the western gaze.
Another point of positivity is that Taneja’s descriptive writing is stunning. I simply cannot pretend that I don’t like the way she writes, it is subtle, at times enchanting and beautiful. Her first few lines for example- ‘It’s not about land, it’s about money. He whispers his mantra as the world drops away, swinging like a pendulum around the plane.’- is a perfect illustration of the ability Taneja has to materialise the people and places that make up her narrative. In my opinion this prevented her plot appearing static, yet it, was also fast-moving but never felt rushed because Taneja manages to make a boring plane ride feel like the most important journey of an individual’s life through description alone. In other words, I felt able, in a way I usually wouldn’t manage in a longer novel to visualise the locations, the people and the plot.
Yet (and we’re going on to the negatives now), WTAY’s structure, ending and portrayal of the patriarchy, unfortunately overshadow all of these positives, for me.
Each character is given one large section of the novel, usually ranging from around 50-150 pages. Jivan is given the first, I’d argue that this makes sense as his character is literally arriving into the location of the novel (he is returning home after living in the US for several years.) When reading it felt natural to start the novel like this, he provided a much-needed exposition for a long novel. His set up was welcomed, yet beyond this, the structure felt like WTAY was delaying any chance there was of getting invested in other characters. If we take Sita (his cousin) for example, we spend the majority of the text, hearing about her and in particular her ‘rebellious’ nature, to the point that when we finally hear her perspective it loses gravity. Personally, I don’t mind numerous perspectives, in fact it often actually makes for a much more nuanced novel, yet, I can’t help feeling that this would have been an easier read if the characters were given multiple sections all of which were switched between more rapidly.
In part, this structure is why I feel so strongly about the ending. The end section actually takes on board this idea of intersecting, naming itself- ‘We that are young’- and giving each character a few pages. Not only is this a bittersweet reminder of how the novel could successfully have been structured but it is also quite difficult to become invested in. Due to how the rest of the book has been put together by the time we get to the ending all momentum is lost- some characters seem like they have disappeared as we have not heard from them for around 300 pages and some feel like they’ve only just arrived. We know physically and mentally how they relate, but it’s difficult to fully appreciate the full breadth of their interrelations as we do not see this in a realised way until this point.
The characterisation of the patriarchy also comes to fruition within the context of WTAY’s ending. Throughout Taneja’s book, the patriarchy is caricatured. Undeniably, this is the point of the book, we are meant to understand the full extent of the atrocities society undergoes as a result of patriarchy, yet it is done in a way that feels uncomfortable. As I previously mentioned Taneja effectively points out the elements that make up this society- dowry, grooming, job opportunities, violence, sexual abuse etc- but the way this is written leaves a lot to be desired. These elements appear gratuitous, almost like a very unnecessary tick box exercise. For example, in one section we hear repeated references to the sexual abuse Radha suffers at the hands of her uncle. These references are graphic and do not leave a lot to the imagination. But they are left alone, no expansion is given. In a novel so clearly aiming to tackle the problems of issues like this it left me wondering why this was not explored. Instead, Radha was painted as one dimensional, she was given the same issue to deal with time and time again rather than her being given the space to grow or articulate the abuse that so clearly occupied her headspace.
But, in terms of the ending, the way the patriarchy appears seems even more problematic. The entire book seems to be arguing for the financial, sexual, physical and emotional emancipation of women, yet our final thoughts from Gargi and Radha are centred around their desire to be with Jivan. To me, this felt like the ultimate betrayal of a book that wished so clearly to illustrate the complete opposite of what it finally achieved. Taking this further, this thought sums up the whole novel for me- the elements were there but carried out disappointingly.