The first draft of We That Are Young, my debut novel, was written between 2010 and 2012. For much of that time I was in India, researching in New Delhi and Kashmir. It was after unprecedented anti-corruption protests had swept the country, and before the rape of Jyoti Singh became headline news around the world. It was before Narendra Modi, the current right-wing Hindu prime minister, came to power. However, it was some way into the growth of a fierce capitalism that began with economic liberalisation in the 1990s, changing the fabric of Indian society for better and worse.
In many ways 2012 was an extraordinary year. Fiction writers, including Aravind Adiga, were already exposing the nerves of what was coming—and I could feel it in almost every conversation I had. People at all levels of society had had enough of inequality and corruption, and were making their views heard. This was linked to a new sense of nationalism—that the time for India to take its place as a global superpower was not long off. There was a sense of things changing in other ways, too, and some seemed very positive. Homosexuality was decriminalised in 2009, for example, and a popular talk show called Satyamev Jayate was launched to tackle pressing social issues, from dowry deaths to transgender rights, with an Oprah-style format.
At the other end of the spectrum was Kashmir. The conflict there, sparked by Partition in 1947, has caused untold suffering and decimated generations. In 2012, Indian military presence was in evidence, but there was a brief window of decommissioning, and a feeling of normal life continuing under difficult conditions. In spring, the tulips were out; people picnicked in the Mughal gardens. There was a slight sense of tourism—local and international. Though the marks of conflict were everywhere, there was also a fragile sense of calm.
At the same time, local people I spoke to told me of the rise of radical Sunni Islam in the Kashmir Valley, strengthening its hold on young Kashmiri men coming of age. Shi’a artisans, responsible for generations for producing Kashmir’s precious artefacts, were feeling under threat from economic imperatives drawing their children away from traditional crafts, but also from a sense of increasing intolerance in the air.
We That Are Young
Shakespeare’s King Lear offered me a chance to think about all of these issues in India from a literary and epic perspective. As such, it formed the blueprint for my novel. Even…