When Aatish Taseer first came to Benares, the spiritual capital of Hinduism, he was the Westernized teenager of an Indian journalist and a Pakistani politician, raised among New Delhi's intellectual and cultural elite. 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, the Brahmins are a caste devoted to sacred learning. But, for Taseer, Benares is the window onto an India as fractured as his own identity. At every turn, the seductive, homogenizing forces of globalised modernity collide with the insistent presence of ancient customs amid a rising tide of nationalism, driven forth by a brutal caste system, cries of "Victory to Mother India!," and vengeful anti-Muslim violence.
Hindus' struggle to reconcile modern life with age-old traditions is at the heart of this ruminative study of India's identity crisis. Indian novelist and journalist Taseer (Stranger in History) visited the holy city of Benares on the Ganges River to meet members of the priestly Brahmin caste who study ancient Sanskrit literature. These "twice-born" students and professors embody, as Taseer sees it, India's cultural contradictions, as they are devoted to Hindu spirituality, but are aware of its distance from the scientific, materialistic Western worldview that India must pursue to achieve progress and economic development. Resentful and uncertain, they savor stories of magic and miracles, gravitate to Hindu nationalist politics, and cling to the caste prejudices that give them social prestige. Taseer probes his own deracination he's gay, agnostic, and the illegitimate son of an Indian woman, details that he doesn't discuss with his Brahmin subjects as part of a Westernized, English-speaking, subcontinental elite that's increasingly isolated and precarious. (He stoically recounts the assassination of his father, a liberal Pakistani politician, by a Muslim fundamentalist in 2011.) Taseer sets these meditations against a gorgeous, sinister portrait of Benares "the river was flat and oily; beggars circled... there was a darkling energy abroad in the city" with its religious fervor, funeral pyres, and floating corpses. The lengthy conversations about Hindu philosophy sometimes drag, but Taseer's wonderfully atmospheric rendition of landscapes and gnarled social psychologies make for an engrossing dissection of India's discontents.