Monday, March 29, 2010

REVIEW: The Temple Goers

The Temple Goers
Aatish Taseer
Rs 495
Pp 297
ISBN: 0330514083

A young man returns home to Delhi after several years abroad and resumes his place among the city's cosmopolitan elite - a world of fashion designers, media moguls and the idle rich. But everything around him has changed - new roads, new restaurants, new money, new crime - everything, that is, except for the people, who are the same, only maybe slightly worse. Then he meets Aakash, a charismatic and unpredictable young man on the make, who introduces him to the squalid underside of this sprawling city. Together they get drunk and work out, visit temples and a prostitute, and our narrator finds himself disturbingly attracted to Aakash's world. But when Aakash is arrested for murder, the two of them are suddenly swept up in a politically sensitive investigation that exposes the true corruption at the heart of this new and ruthless society. In a voice that is both cruel and tender, "The Temple-goers" brings to life the dazzling story of a city quietly burning with rage.

A fact-fiction puzzle Mint
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.

Questions of identity Hindu

The narrator of Aatish Taseer's debut novel is a young man named Aatish Taseer, and some of the details of his life appear drawn from the author's. The device is guaranteed to raise questions about exactly how “autobiographical” The Temple-goers is (as if such things are neatly quantifiable), but that would be to miss the wood for the trees; this is a book that encourages us to ask subtler — and more interesting — questions about identity.

The fictional Aatish is a young writer born to privilege. After a few years studying and working in America and England he's just returned to Delhi to revise a novel, and he has access to two apartments — his mother's and his girlfriend Sanyogita's — in the high-end colonies that border Lutyen's Delhi. A citizen of the world, Aatish is estranged from non-cosmopolitan India, and always conscious of — and uneasy about — this estrangement.

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