The international journalist and author of The Temple-Goers travels to India to study the nation's highest caste, the Brahmins, in the holy city of Benares, where he discovers a mix of inspiring tradition and bigoted nationalism.
Taseer’s discovery of India results in a detailed, learned and highly readable tour of Hindu history, noting many of the positive contributions of the centuries of Muslim rule and dwelling at some length on the degrading and demoralizing effects of the British Raj. But along the way, the saffron scales seem to fall from his eyes as he describes the rise of Hindu nationalism, with its anti-Muslim violence, and the failure of liberal Hinduism to apply more than an ineffectual Band-Aid to the deep, septic wound of the people once called Untouchables, now known as Dalits ... He is particularly eloquent when he bemoans the weird claims that have been made for Indian (that is, Hindu) science, including the assertion that ancient Indians used nuclear weapons and mastered air travel ... Despite his sharp-eyed condemnation of the evils of Hindu nationalism and caste, Taseer manages to salvage his admiration for the Brahmin world by making a rather artificial, though quite common, distinction between two aspects of religion, spirituality and magic.
... The Twice-Born becomes a moving, if maundering, riff on what it means to be modern ... Taseer attempts to focus the book on his interactions with Brahmins, Hinduism’s priestly caste. (They are the twice-born of the memoir’s title, because they are considered to be born a second time upon their scholarly initiation.) But Taseer is foremost a wanderer, and the roving form of the book echoes his penchant for circularity. He writes as though Benares, in all its many dimensions, can be apprehended only through overlapping, fractal perspectives, one of which is his own ... [Taseer's] His is a search for identity and narratable experience—indeed, for him the two are indistinguishable. But, by the memoir’s close, he has only circled the sense of clarity that he sought.
By being familiar with Benares while also being a spectator on the sidelines, [Taseer] proves to be adept at chronicling the city’s various fractured selves. Although the book’s nebulous goals (is it about Brahmins, the first Modi election, the clash between modernity and tradition, or all of the above?) threaten to muddy the narrative, the city nevertheless takes shape through profiles of Brahmins who share their views of the cultural and political landscape. Benares is especially sacred to Hindus as a place to make peace with death. Curiously, it is this aspect of the city that really comes to life in this meandering but engaging account.