The Temple-Goers | Aatish Taseer
Within a day of completing Aatish Taseer’s debut novel The Temple-goers, I found myself in the eerie position of living out an episode from the book. Staying in a borrowed apartment in New York City, Taseer’s protagonist—also called Aatish Taseer—steps out and lets the door slam shut, only to realize at that precise instant that the keys are inside. Minor details aside, my drama in real life ended in much the same way, with brass flakes flying, the lock’s components giving way one by one under a powerful drill, finally leaving a hole in the door.
It was coincidence. But fresh off the novel, it was yet more evidence that the lines between fiction and reality are very, very blurred in The Temple-goers. By itself, this is not a new phenomenon in Indian writing in English: When Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy appeared in 1993, Kolkata society spent many merry hours identifying the inspirations behind the dramatis personae. More recently, Marrying Anita (2008), journalist Anita Jain’s account of a groom-hunt in New India, offered its only pleasures in the guessing game.
In the first half of The Temple-goers, it seems like Taseer is going the same way. Given the conceit of the same-name narrator, and the author’s well-publicized antecedents—the son of senior journalist Tavleen Singh and Pakistani politico Salmaan Taseer, he recounted his life story in the 2009 memoirs Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands—it’s next to impossible not to imagine, say, Vasundhara Raje as the original for Chamunda, “my mother’s best friend….”.
The Temple-goers: Picador, 297 pages, Rs495.
“She had been married into a small princely state, but her husband had deserted her just months after their marriage. She had joined politics as a young bride, defeated her husband in his own constituency and risen steadily... Then four years ago, she had gone back to the state as its chief ministerial candidate and won.”
The almost-complete absence of humour—one of the rare instances is the nomenclature of Chamunda’s “small breakaway state on the border of Delhi”, the deliciously wicked Jhaatkebaal—the reportage-heavy, Naipaulesque writing (V.S. is another of the “isn’t-that…” characters here, this one credited with titling the book) and, most of all, the liberal use of recent headlines keep alive the fact-or-fiction conundrum for the longest time. Patience is a prerequisite for The Temple-goers, for the novel begins to come together about 100 pages in, and it is much later that the thinly veiled autobiography reveals itself to be a literary device.
Perhaps more than any recent Indian novel in English, The Temple-goers doesn’t only talk about life on the edge, it lives there as well. Recognizing the precipice that is India’s much-touted moment, Taseer weaves a tale of entitlement and aspiration that precludes happy endings with the same easy violence that has Aatish, the protagonist, reeling in shock outside his violated New York apartment.
Balancing Aatish—at home in Lutyens’ Delhi, on first-name terms with the drawing-room culturati—is on-the-make gym trainer Aakash, who lives in a squalid government colony in Jhaatkebaal’s Sectorpur and is constantly on the look-out for the “upgrade”. If Aatish is representative of the effete elite, cocooned in the knowledge of where he comes from, Aakash symbolizes the seething ambition of the cash-rich middle classes, hungry for a destination just out of sight. Aatish’s obvious pedigree wins Aakash’s obeisance, yet, it is Aatish who finds himself envying Aakash, the temple-goer, rooted in the certainties of a religion and a destiny that he himself is denied.
India lives in this maelstrom of pent-up energies, in the stories of Zafar, the Urdu teacher; Megha, the overweight girl who has to be “lipo’d” for a suitable match; the senior superintendent of police who conjectures in a crowded room that a girl was murdered because she was found “in an objectionable but not compromising position”.
In The Temple-goers, Taseer holds up a meticulously crafted mirror to reality. You might not like what it reflects much, but try looking away.
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