UPDATE: As you may have read, a few days ago, Taseer’s father Salman Taseer was assassinated for opposing Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. The gunman was a twenty-six year old religious fanatic. Aatish Taseer writes about his father’s death in this piece ‘The killer of my father, Salman Taseer, was showered with rose petals by fanatics. How could they do this?’
The protagonist of Aatish Taseer’s novel is a privileged, westernized young writer who comes to Delhi from London to revise his novel, and whose name is Aatish Taseer. Check, check, and CHECK; fact and fiction mesh tantalizingly in The Temple-Goers, and some readers will derive much pleasure in trying to prise them apart. But the more interesting feature of this blurring of truth and illusion is the sharp contrast it presents against the writer’s near-obsessive meticulousness in documenting his perceived reality.
But first, the story.
Aakash is a middle-class, high-caste gym trainer who aspires to the big time. When Aatish Taseer joins the same gym, the two men fall headlong into friendship, and something more. Aakash feels genuinely validated by a writer’s interest in his life, and besides, is eager to vicariously experience Tasser’s affluent lifestyle and to garner acquaintances amongst Taseer’s friends, who include prominent politicians and mediapersons. Aakash’s overfamiliarity is accepted by Taseer, who, in a typical instance of self-doubt, fears he might be holding on “to an imported idea of propriety.” Moreover, Aakash’s family history maps perfectly on to India’s socio-economic changes, and he seems to symbolize the “real” India Taseer wants to comprehend. The two men thus make use of each other for their own ends, but one is soon revealed to be considerably cannier than the other.
Taseer is an excellent observer, missing no detail in his chronicle of modern Delhi’s fault-lines, and his note-taking style works especially well in the first third of the novel, which focuses on the narrator’s attempts to understand middle-class Delhi. (In a key incident, Taseer dresses in Indian clothes for a visit to a Hindu temple, only to find that Aakash, who does not need to try, is in jeans and a T-shirt.) There are penetrating insights into Delhi’s rich and powerful, into gender imbalances and the sense of entitlement with which Delhi males belittle women, and most of all, into the city of Delhi itself. Here’s a description of a block of state-owned apartments: “In a country which couldn’t even standardize nuts and bolts, they were a rare achievement. Their squalor lay in their homogeneity and was not the Indian squalor, which was various and surprising.” Anyone who has been to Delhi is nodding appreciatively here.
But Taseer’s attention to detail results in digressions and asides being assigned the same significance as the essential parts of the story, and the result is an exhausting read. The author’s journalistic eye coupled with his over-weaning adherence to factual description results in the loss of a certain emotional warmth to the story — the reader is distanced further and further from the narrative, and inevitably questions the end towards which such hyper-observation is directed. The prologue mentions an interesting plot hook, but the incident in question takes place in the final sixth of the book, and may come too late for the reader, who has probably long lost patience with the narrator’s maddeningly-slow realization that he’s out of his depth in the India he seeks to grasp. In the final analysis, Taseer’s undeniable gifts as a writer don’t quite compensate for his lack of interest in the art of story-telling.
This review appears in The Asian Review of Books.