The Temple-Goers by Aatish Taseer

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The Temple-Goers by Aatish Taseer

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A harsh portrait of a modern India that is short on sentiment and heavy on ambition.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 304 Date: March 2010
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670918508

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Aatish Taseer is probably best known for his journalism, publishing regularly in the Indian press, in Prospect, and perhaps most prolifically in Time magazine. He has won acclaim for his memoir: Stranger to History in which he, raised by his Indian Sikh mother, traces his absent Muslim father across the border in Pakistan – and also for his translations of the short stories of Saadat Hasan Manto.

Naipaul has called him the Indian Brett Easton Ellis – though not all of us would consider that the compliment it's intended to be. Certainly, he has the same access and the same simple style of telling it as it is. His latest work, The Temple-Goers, leaves me in the same kind of quandary as Easton Ellis and his ilk. I'm not really sure what to make of it at all.

On the most basic level of all, Aatish sets himself at the heart of the work and only a trawl through his own website enlightened me as to whether what I'd read was another memoir, or (as per the said site) a novel. No doubt this blurring of the boundaries is the modern way, a deliberate conceit, to challenge the reader and their perceptions of the real and the fictional.

Maybe I'm just old-fashioned. I find it a tad irritating. It makes the reading of a book a challenge in ways perhaps unintended. The degree to which The Temple-Goers succeeds as a novel, is probably different than that to which it would as a memoir; not knowing which I was reading led me unable to suspend disbelief and enjoy it as much as I might otherwise have done on the one hand, or alternatively to unable to forgive the slow plot on the grounds of reality on the other.

In fairness to both author and publisher I should add that this is on the basis of an advance reading copy and the final published version may have those helpful words "a novel" succeeding the cover title.

In similar fairness to both, I'd like to suggest that they ditch a long quotation from Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot' from the frontispiece. It is too long and obtuse a passage to serve any useful addition to anything which follows. (If it doesn't appear in your version – perhaps they agreed with me.)

Caveats all dispensed…on to the work itself:

A young writer (Aatish) returns from a stint in London working on an American news magazine to his home in Delhi. His purpose is to revise his novel. His agent has suggested that the work is flawed but that the voice is worth retaining, and a publishing deal could be in the offing with an appropriate revision.

His first destination is his mother's flat – a place used by Chamunda as a hideaway for meeting her friends and, so rumour has it, lovers. Chamunda is a dear friend to our narrator's mother, the aunt of his girlfriend, and Chief Minister of Jhaatkebaal – a breakaway state on the border of Delhi. The flat speaks of all of the old world: his mother, Chamunda, politics, but especially his mother. He cannot wait to escape to the girlfriend's place.

Sanyogita has effectively followed him home from London. With writerly ambitions of her own, and a private income far out-shining his, she also seeks to nurture her man's creativity and literary success. She creates a study for him in her flat and furnishes it before she sees to her own basic domestic requirements. A gift, or a chain, one has to wonder.

The relationship between the two is at the core of the novel. Despite himself, Aatish finds that he still has respect and romanticism about the old ways: the ancient poetry, the hierarchical systems. Sanyogita would reject all of these for the western view of a world that owes a woman a right to independence, a right to work, a right to be free – even if she then uses that freedom to choose to spend her life in support of another's work. That is something that you can choose to do out of love, but should not be forced to do from respect or duty or any other outmoded concept.

Delhi itself is in a state of chaotic change, caught between the old India of poverty, one-room family homes housing over-large families, in joy and as little squalor as they can contrive, and the new India of gated communities, shopping malls, expensive jewellery, gyms, fashion designers and blatant ambition.

Aatish and Sanyogita belong firmly in the latter.

At least until Aatish joins a gym and befriends an instructor deeply rooted in the decayed glory of a Brahmin family fallen on hard financial times. Aakash is a native of Delhi and as equally large a mass of contradictions as the city. His ambition is all focussed on the world of the elite who patronise his work-place. His respect, however, slowly emerges as being focussed elsewhere. He takes Aatish across the boundaries into the underworld of prostitutes and bars, but also a parallel underworld of forgotten temples and ancient rites.

Thus a hesitant and unnerving friendship develops.

And along with it a cause for unremitting jealousy.

The story unwinds in typically slow discourse with many a side alley of no importance other than to further show us modern India. If any of us thought that some measure of equality might be possible post-colonialism, we missed the point. There will always be those who have (money, power, influence) exploiting those who have not (any of the above). The fact that the exploiters are now as Indian as the exploited really doesn't help at all. The cruelties and corruption remain. The civil service tries and struggles under its own weight. The media is the media: a supranational enterprise that plays by its own rules. And the politicians…are…well


An unexpected relationship is dropped into the mix, with relatively predictable consequences, including a murder charge, which pulls Aatish back from his explorations into other ways of being and has him falling back on the old ways: use what influence you can.

As pictures of India go, Taseer gives us one of the harshest and most judgemental I've come across for a long time. All sentiment is stripped away in favour of a cold look at a largely brutal and self-serving society. That any of the old ways survive is a miracle, that they retain even now a surprising measure of respect is confounding in a country where "the Temple-Goers" seems to be increasingly a term of condescension.

I couldn't recommend anyone to read this book for the story, which is slow to develop and largely predictable when it does. Read it instead for the moments when the author displays his journalistic credentials by allowing himself poetic free rein and produces sublime sentences of descriptive beauty. As a portrait of a country, it's quite possibly worryingly accurate.

The fictional agent probably has it right: the novel needs work, but the voice is brilliant.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For further views on how the subcontinent is developing and the legacy of some of its recent history try Animal's People or Listening to Grasshoppers by Arundhati Roy.

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