When Aatish Taseer first came to Benares, the spiritual capital of Hinduism, he was eighteen, the Westernized child of an Indian journalist and a Pakistani politician, raised among the intellectual and cultural elite of New Delhi. Nearly two decades later, Taseer leaves his life in Manhattan to go in search of the Brahmins, wanting to understand his own estrangement from India through their ties to tradition.
Known as the twice-born — first into the flesh, and again when initiated into their vocation — the Brahmins are a caste devoted to sacred learning. But what Taseer finds in Benares, the holy city of death also known as Varanasi, is a window on an India as internally fractured as his own continent-bridging identity. At every turn, the seductive, homogenizing force of modernity collides with the insistent presence of the past. In a globalized world, to be modern is to renounce India—and yet the tide of nationalism is rising, heralded by cries of "Victory to Mother India!" and an outbreak of anti-Muslim violence.
From the narrow streets of the temple town to a Modi rally in Delhi, among the blossoming cotton trees and the bathers and burning corpses of the Ganges, Taseer struggles to reconcile magic with reason, faith in tradition with hope for the future and the brutalities of the caste system, all the while challenging his own myths about himself, his past, and his countries old and new. (From Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
For a long time, I had a recurring daydream of the ancient Indian city of Benares, superimposed onto the geography of New York. From my open window on West Eighty-Sixth Street, my mind's eye followed the westering sun over a roofscape cluttered with heat pumps and slim steel chimneys. In the distance, the curved blades of a turbine vent glinted in the late-afternoon light. A sign on the exposed flank of a building read SOFIA STORAGE CENTER.
Beyond, out of view, was the Hudson.
I imagined it, like the Ganges in Benares, taking a deep bend north and flowing toward its source in the high Himalayas. The traffic on the Henry Hudson Parkway was stopped, and on the steep escarpment of Riverside Park were acres upon slanting acres of humanity. Bathers and pilgrims, Columbia University students, and old ladies with coiffured blond and copper hair watched the glittering river with vacant intensity. Ghats went down in two-hundred-yard flights, like stone bleachers, to the edge of the river, where long wooden boats rocked gently in the bilge water. Corpses, wrapped in their gold brocade, lay on bamboo biers, awaiting cremation.
The sky darkened, and silhouettes appeared in the yellow rectangles of the tall apartment buildings on Riverside Drive. The air was high with clouds of incense, the crashing of bells, and frantic chanting in Sanskrit. The people of two cities, and myriad systems of belief, poured out onto the riverside.
The liminal hour stretched out. A daytime darkness silvered the city. Thousands watched through special glasses; thousands more stood waist deep in water, their heads lowered, muttering prayers. Old men with knotty hands leaned on their wooden staffs; women carried babies on their hips. There were farmers and labourers, bank clerks and UPS deliverymen. A party of schoolchildren observed the changing shape of the sun through a steel colander. As its disk went dark, some cried, "Beautiful!" Others stood in solemn terror as Rahu, the eclipser—a demon riding a chariot drawn by eight black horses — swallowed the sun.
From The Twice-Born by Aatish Taseer ©2019. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.