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.
"A detailed, learned and highly readable tour of Hindu history . . . [and] a sharp-eyed condemnation of the evils of Hindu nationalism and caste."—Wendy Doniger, The New York Times Book Review
"Moving . . . For Taseer, Benares incarnates a curious quality of modernity: the city makes anthropologists of the devout and believers of the skeptical. The book’s charm resides in the way the author orbits this tension between faith and rationality."—Shaj Mathew, The New Yorker
"[The Twice-Born] doesn’t sit squarely in the camp of memoir, travelogue, or long-form reportage. It hovers among the three—but with such lilting grace as to make that limbo feel like a lovely hybrid . . . Taseer grew up in cosmopolitan, postcolonial New Delhi but has spent much of his adult life in the U.S. and Europe. The result is an alienation from the India he considers both his homeland and a foreign land . . . [The Twice-Born is] a poetic quest to bridge that gap or at least better understand it.”—Chloe Malle, Vogue
"A gorgeous, sinister portrait of Benares . . . Taseer’s wonderfully atmospheric rendition of landscapes and gnarled social psychologies make for an engrossing dissection of India’s discontents."—Publishers Weekly
Reviews from Goodreads
FOREIGNERS IN THEIR OWN LAND
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...