We That Are Young is set in contemporary India, but borrows from King Lear

Preti Taneja's novel concerns the serving of justice – who gets what, as opposed to who deserves what.

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“I’m just doing my best to keep my family together. Keep the Company tickety-boo.” Even if Preti Taneja’s ambitious debut novel wasn’t modelled on King Lear, such an earnest, chipper presentation of well-intended efforts to take care of both family and business invites scepticism, if not pity. Indeed, immediately after saying this to Jivan, a long-time friend and potential lover and business adviser, Gargi, a young business magnate, questions her own sanguine phrasing: “Tickety-boo, she thinks, who says that?” She is someone who is doing her desperate best to make a good show in the midst of a difficult, even dangerous situation.

We That Are Young is a sprawling family story set in contemporary India. Its many interlocking private and public tensions find their origin in the decision of an ageing patriarch, Devraj, to hand over control of the business empire he has built up since the late 1950s – high-end hotels, golf courses, grand gardens, alongside assorted consumer goods – to his three daughters. Around them orbit any number of would-be counsellors, courtiers and competitors, their movements causing confusion and chaos that exploit and exacerbate long-standing tensions between the sisters.

Devraj does not go quietly but instead “resurfaces where they least expect him: on every front page across the country”. The raging old dynamo restyles himself as an anti-poverty activist and pseudo-holy man who launches a high-profile campaign against his own company and its new leaders – his children – whom he accuses of the gross corruption typical of the Indian elite. Because this is a novel that borrows from King Lear, it’s not clear how much of his self-implicating effort is sincere or strategic, how much owes to resentment, and how much owes to madness.

Taneja spends less time on establishing those ratios than on exploring how Devraj’s three daughters, alongside two childhood friends – wealthy half-brothers who are sons of Devraj’s closest adviser – deal with his decision and subsequent actions, and with each other. They negotiate their way through lines of connection that run messily through their personal and professional lives, which dazzle them with extended parties, luxury resort trips, habitual cocaine use, regular champagne drinking, frequent affairs, necessary boardroom violence and, on occasion, even mortal violence.

The great appeal of the novel concerns the serving of justice – discovering who gets what, as opposed to who deserves what, and how the author opens and closes the gaps between these. So, in addition to the short first-person prologues that feature throughout the novel – which can be precious – Taneja provides each of her five main characters (the three sisters and the two half-brothers) with extended segments that introduce their respective backstories and advance the main story.

She begins with Jivan, who has just graduated from Harvard University and lost his mother and is now returning to his cold, wealthy father and the gilded New Delhi world of his youth. Both cocky and insecure, he reconnects with his half-brother, Jeet, a flashy, semi-closeted gay man who is prone to extremes, and also with the ambitious, uncertain Gargi and the more sensual Radha, two of the three Devraj girls who suddenly find themselves in control of the “Company”. That shorthand, used throughout, smartly conveys both the business’s outsized presence in India and the easy presumption that the reference would be understood among its upper-tier members. Meanwhile, the third and youngest sister, the mercurial Sita, has disappeared, running away from the marriage that her doting father has arranged for her.

Although a monsoon serves as a subcontinental storm on the heath and a loyal retainer’s eyes are gouged out behind a luxury resort rather than in a castle, the novel’s references to King Lear are never overly studied or deferential. Taneja treats Shakespeare’s play as source material for making sense of how power, privilege and poor judgement can break apart a big, colourful family and a massive company in a time and place – contemporary India – in which the consequences can affect millions.

Very loose, very baggy, We That Are Young is nonetheless sharp, cogent and evocative, as in, near its end, Taneja’s long-delayed introduction of Sita, the absconded daughter: “And all of them are still waiting for her to say sorry. Sita lights her cigarette.” What matters most, however, is the push and pull of family. The sisters and the half-brothers come together and struggle with culminating revelations of love, sacrifice, self-destruction and betrayal. They need to commemorate the recently deceased. They need to keep the Company going.

In the end, one character emerges, more resolved to action than the rest. Decisively balancing the personal and professional imperatives that generate so much of the book’s considerable energy, he declares, “The first thing we must do is to announce that I am joining the board… Then we can mourn appropriately.” 

We That Are Young
Preti Taneja
Galley Beggar Press, 503pp, £9.99

This article appears in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia