Extract from Outlook
Aatish Taseer’s much-awaited first novel, The Temple-Goers, explores the tensions around religion and class in a rapidly changing India. He evokes, with comic flair, the world of Delhi’s power dinner. Some guests seem familiar enough to set off a guessing game.
Delhi drawing rooms. They were what I remembered of the city from my childhood. Perhaps it was Delhi’s fragmented geography, or that it had no real restaurants the way Bombay had—restaurants that were not attached to five-star hotels—or just that it was an old city, closely bound, with people who all seemed to know each other, but there was no setting, no cityscape more evocative of the city I grew up in than a lamp-lit drawing room with a scattering of politicians, journalists, broken-down royals, and perhaps an old Etonian, lying fatly on a deep sofa. And it was a dinner like this, with two blue-and-red glass fanooses burning in a corner, jasmine floating in a porcelain dish on a dining table draped in a white tablecloth, with white-on-white chikan-work flowers embroidered on it, and the over-strong aroma of a scented candle, that my mother gave for the writer.
He was annoyed even before we sat down. My mother had asked him for eight; he had arrived with his wife and shooting stick some 10 or 15 minutes past eight. Shabby Singh in a black-and-red cotton sari, her large red bindi fiery that night, her politically grey hair in a tight bun, had come by eight-thirty. She brought her husband, a small Sikh gentleman in a yellow kurta. Sanyogita and I were on time as well. But Chamunda was late, very late.
At nine, the writer, unaware that Chamunda was coming, but seeming to anticipate a general tendency on the subcontinent for late, drunken dinners, said, “Udaya, we’ll eat soon, won’t we? We’ll eat soon.
India's seamy underbelly, though hardly news to Indians, is a trendy subject for novels and movies, such as The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire. If you have seen Monsoon Wedding, you should have a fair idea of the milieu of The Temple-Goers, a first novel by Aatish Taseer. He was born in New Delhi of an abortive affair between a well-connected Sikh journalist mother and a philandering Pakistani politician, and now lives there and in London, where he has worked as a journalist. Like the film, the novel moves among Delhi's wealthy middle class in all its energy, brashness, pretentiousness, perversion and corruption, supported by a cast of thrusting, upwardly mobile hustlers and servants, all tinged with Bollywood-style romance.
The style, on the other hand, owes more than a little to VS Naipaul's non-fiction, with its combination of precise observation, analytical self-confidence and pitilessness. Not only is Taseer personally acquainted with Naipaul, who has praised him as "a young writer to watch" for his first book, the memoir, Stranger to History. Naipaul is also a lightly disguised character in the novel: a famous writer visiting Delhi from London referred to by the narrator in the Naipaulian grand manner as "the writer", complete with emphatic repetitions, shooting stick and adoring wife.