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Re-imagining King Lear in today's India

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Preti Taneja has been described as a writer to watch. Her novella, KumkumMalhotra, won the 2014/15 Gatehouse Press New Fiction prize. This summer Galley Beggar Press will publish her first novel, We That Are Young, and she will be speaking about the book as part of the Cambridge Series at the prestigious Hay Festival in June. She has been named in the 'Hay 30' people to watch as part of the festival's 30th anniversary celebrations.

Preti's novel re-imagines King Lear in the context of the huge social and economic developments in contemporary India, their impact on individuals and on underlying political issues such as the situation in Kashmir.

The focus is on five young characters, who each tell their story in their own voice. For one character, Jivan, returning to India after many years in America she was inspired by the capitalist critique in Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, among others, which captured a culture of misogyny and greed in the US during the 1980s.

“Jivan has this nostalgic idea of India and he feels left behind by the economic changes. The opening brings the reader into this new world of metropolitan India through a troubled outsider’s gaze,” says Preti.

The layers of narrative build a complex picture of human relationships. Preti wanted to explore the ways we perceive the world and the world perceives us as well as the contradictions this can throw up. The linear yet circular structure brings together both western and eastern concepts of time.

Preti, a Fellow Commoner at Jesus College, uses techniques such as having key scenes refracted through video footage to show how so much of our lives is now mediated through what we watch and how this allows for interpretations of all kinds.

One of her main interests as a writer is to explore the constraints that keep people locked in certain patterns of behaviour. She adds that women in India are often mediated through the gaze of others. “In India women are always being monitored and are socialised into monitoring each other,” she says.

The continuing relevance of King Lear

Preti first studied King Lear at school where her teacher inspired her to see the relevance of the play to her own life.  She says: “I began to feel that Shakespeare had somehow been in my house, in my family, had seen what damage despotic uncles and an enforced sense of honour, shame and the upholding of the family name could do.” She highlights, for instance, the play’s opening scene where the daughters are under pressure to obey their autocratic father and perform filial loyalty in public and the fraught issue of dowry/inheritance.  

The fact that the play opens with the partition of a kingdom also appealed to her, given India’s history. “In my family we didn’t speak about partition when I was growing up, but it was an underlying tension,” she says. “It was the reason we were living in England. It was always under the surface. My grandparents didn’t want to come here. They had lost so much.”

The play’s final scene on the cliffs of Dover is transplanted in Preti’s novel to Kashmir. “It is the state where Partition is still being reckoned with so was a natural fit,” she says.

Rights and writing

The novel is the result of Preti’s PhD in Creative Writing which she finished in 2013. Research for it included a trip to Delhi and Kashmir in 2012. Preti’s background is in journalism and she has spent many years working in minority rights advocacy. She turned to creative writing after covering Iraq and other conflicts and began a part-time masters in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway University of London in 2010 which led to her PhD. Since finishing her PhD Preti has been named an AHRC/ BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker, and is on Jesus College’s Works of Art Committee. She has collaborated with her partner film-maker Ben Crowe making films on issues ranging from workers’ rights and Iraq’s refugee crisis to Rwandan survivors of the genocide.

 From 2014-2016 she was a Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Global Shakespeare at Queen Mary, University of London and Warwick University, studying interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays around the world in relation to human rights abuses over the period leading up to the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death.

Since then in addition to her work at Cambridge, she has been working on a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship at Warwick University where she also teaches a master’s module on writing about human rights abuses in a range of different literary formats.

As with her novel her academic and advocacy work brings together literature and pressing contemporary issues. “Gathering first-hand testimony for human rights reports is very important. Fiction gives a whole other set of ways to think about human desires and how they play out,” she says. “It allows me to explore the bars of the cage that constrain our behaviour; that is what interests me.”

 

Preti Taneja's new novel uses King Lear as a framework to explore political and social changes in today's India. She will speak about it as part of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival.

Fiction allows me to explore the bars of the cage that constrain our behaviour; that is what interests me.
Preti Taneja

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