Aatish Taseer’s The Temple-Goers (Picador India) takes you to a Delhi that is grappling with issues of religion and class that define and shape the metropolis in myriad ways. At the heart of the novel is an assimilation of two different worlds: those of Aatish, the narrator and an aspiring writer, and Aakash, his trainer at a gym in the city. Through their friendship, Taseer shows the socio-economic and religious divides that come in the way of developing a cohesive national and cultural identity. “We’re making a world in India that is unwelcoming of the man coming up. It is a place in which, if he is to succeed, he must give up many things about himself — ideas of language, dress, customs and religion — and fall in line with a very shabby modern ideal, one that will leave him a smaller man than he was,” says the author, emphasising the need for human awakenings which can happen only when we, along with the new prosperity, have a “cultural and historical renewal”. For Aakash, Delhi is a “city of temples and gyms, of rich and poor people, of Bentleys and bicycles, of government flats and mansions, of hookers and heiresses”.
Excerpts from an interview:
The Temple-Goers has some parallels with the real life. Does it also have some personal parallels?
Very few, in fact. There is a non-fictional cast, which falls away as the book progresses. And this is because it is, in part, a story about a writer finding his material, about him discovering how to write about the world he grew up in, a world that in many ways has been superseded by the changed city he returns to. But as his material clarifies, this non-fictional crust breaks to reveal a core that is pure invention.
It is unusual that you have given the narrator your own name, isn’t it?
Less unusual than it seems. There have been others well before me who have used narrators like this. Think of Proust’s “Marcel,” for instance, or Manto’s “Manto Saab” These narrators, as with mine, have a reality that seems shared by the writer, but it is in the end a superficial likeness. It is there for a reason, but I don’t want to give too much away.
The title is interesting, though the novel has less to do with religion. Did you want to explore the sacred?
No. I am always only interested in the attitudes and sense of self borne out of religion, not in faith itself. The “temple-goers” of course is a shorthand given the narrator by a character in the book. And it refers to a kind of person for whom the idea of India is very easy to apprehend, almost instinctive. It is not an idea of a nation state with fixed political boundaries, but of a land, and it is a very gentle and persuasive idea; it is bound to the actual physicality of India, to a geography made sacred, ritualised and re-enacted over and over again. This person, still with his religion, his language, his customs close around him, stands very far apart from the culturally denuded India I grew up in, where often a kind of boastful, national pride stood in for real learning and knowledge. Now, as you know from reading the book, its aim is not to put forward a romantic idea of the “temple-goers” and to run down the other India; that would simplify the picture too much; but yes, there is the pain of cultural and linguistic loss running through the book, and perhaps a longing for a wholeness that seems less and less possible.
The novel shows the city in a state of flux, though many things are changing for the worse. Do some of these changes bother you?
I don’t think of it as a change for the worse, but yes, there are things that concern me. I feel, for instance, that we’re making a world in India that is unwelcoming of the man coming up. It is a place in which, if he is to succeed, he must give up many things about himself — ideas of language, dress, customs and religion — and fall in line with a very shabby modern ideal, one that will leave him a smaller man than he was. We speak a lot of pride and self-confidence these days, but what do these things mean when every day we force Indians to forsake those things that should naturally be the source of their pride and self-confidence? Instead of enshrining our culture and history at the heart of our new modernity, we have cast it out in favour of something far shallower; a very drab modernity. We can try and hide it with bogus words like “aspirational”, but we both know that these are really euphemisms for more tackiness and imitation. It is important not to forget that only tyrannies can survive on science and technology alone; free societies need something more; they need human awakenings. And for that to happen, there must be, along with the new prosperity, a cultural and historical renewal.
The novel bristles with so much tension — social, sexual and, even, political. Was the mix essential for an engaging narrative?
I think it is as an aspect of the multiplicity of values, some old and decaying, some new and still forming, that have come into play in our cities. There is, at this present moment, an amazing level of particularity in each man’s idea of his self and worth. There are the old forces like language, region, caste and class. But these only give half the picture, for overlaying these things are a set of appealing, modern values that have changed the way we want to live, the kind of parents we want to be, the talent and hard work we wish to reward, the discriminations we want to prevent. All this makes for a special tension in which our deepest affiliations (and prejudices) come up against the reality of a society in which the old rules don’t fully apply and the new ones are yet to take firm shape. Aakash is a man made on the cusp of this change, a man who is many men to many people. But, in a sense, the city is full of men like Aakash, each an exquisite, highly particular configuration of different values. And the challenge is to bring into being a world where this vast spectrum of human possibility can find just fulfilment.
Your first book, a non-fiction, was a personal journey. And your novel, too, is some sort of journey for the narrator. Do you feel at home in Delhi?
Very much so. I adore Delhi. And slowly, as it has become part of my writing, I find its life richer and more varied than ever before. I’m also enthralled by the changes to its landscape, the new lines of communication being slung across its expanse, and the people being thrown up by the change.
Is it tough to deal with issues of identity and mixed parentage? How much has that difficulty shaped your sensibility?
Tough initially, but now easier and easier, almost a privilege. I feel that that initial confusion freed me from the desire or possibility of belonging to any one group. It helped make the world a bigger place. I do, in the deepest sense, feel Indian, but this is a very wide net and often, much to their annoyance, includes Pakistan.
Could you tell me some of your early influences, both in fiction and non-fiction?
I started by admiring the simple and direct writing of V.S. Naipaul. That ideal of writing has remained very close to me. But quickly I felt I needed to find writers in whose worlds I could recognise subjects similar to my own. For this the Russian writers — Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy — and their times, made available to me through the biographies of Henri Troyat, have been a great inspiration. I have also looked to French writers like Balzac and Maupassant. The latter was an important influence on Manto, from whom I was able to learn more about how I might write about my own world. But to tell you the truth, for a long time it all felt like a great muddle, and it has only now begun to clarify by degrees. It will never be a straightforward picture; it will always feel, as with so many things today, like an inheritance pieced together from odds and ends. There is no easy tradition to inherit, but you make your way from writer to writer, gaining, one hopes, a surer sense of what works for you. And then there is the Sanskritic world, which, though it is yet to feed into my writing, has had perhaps the most profound effect on my view of what our literary past contains.