By Aatish Taseer
Picador India | 304 pages | Rs 405
Aatish Taseer’s much-awaited first novel, The Temple-Goers, explores the tensions around religion and class in a rapidly changing India. In this exclusive extract, 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.”
“Yes, of course,” my mother said, covering his small, firm hand with her jewelled one.
“Good, good,” he said.
My mother, intercepting me on the way to the bar, sent me to take her place and dashed off into another room to call Chamunda. An urgent exchange was faintly overheard. She emerged a few minutes later, with a strange, nervous smile. She took the writer’s wife aside, and in Punjabi rapidly recounted the outcome of her conversation. The writer, who had been talking to me, now let the conversation between us die and turned his attention gravely to the women. His eyes looked dead, he must have hardly understood the language they spoke, but he seemed to drink in every word. His lower lip quivered and his expression became so dark that his wife could not continue listening to my mother. She turned to her husband with a large, prepared smile and said, “Darling, Udaya is just telling me that Chamunda, her school friend whom you like so much, the Chief Minister of... Where is it?”
“Jhaatkebaal,” my mother offered.
“Jhaatkebaal! Is coming to dinner tonight.”
“Oh, good,” the writer said coldly. “When?”
“Darling,” the writer’s wife said, agitation thick in her voice, “she’s had some problem in her state, the discussion in the Assembly has gone on longer than she expected. Bas, she’ll be here any minute.”
“The temple-going Indian, he knows this country backwards. For him, it possesses a sacred topography. He knows it through its holy places, from the mountains in the north, from the rivers.”
“Amrita, I’m not a child. If I get home past a certain point, if I am forced to drink too much, the following day is ruined. Ruined.” The room fell silent.
It was nearly nine-thirty when the front door swung open and a mobile phone conversation, complete with bouts of wicked laughter, was brought leisurely to an end behind the stained-glass doors that separated our tiny hall from the drawing room. For a few seconds, everyone’s eyes watched the double doors, the wicks of candles burning through their coloured panes. Then they flew open, coughing out Raunak Singh with his great moustaches and gold earrings, and his boss, still, at this time of year, in chiffon. And what chiffon! The colour she wore was hardly different from her own, a chocolate brown, with tie-dyed diamonds of reddish-orange. She wore little bits of gold in and on her ears, nose and fingers, her straight black butt-length hair was open, her giant eyes dropping over her face.
Chamunda, who moments ago had been late and rude, was now like a girl of 16, biting her lip from shyness at facing a room full of people. An amazing change came over the writer. He had watched Chamunda’s entrance carefully, seeming to record every detail, and, as she went over to shake his hand and apologise for being late, deciding in the last instant to give him a brief hug, the old writer began to laugh. A deep, asthmatic, rolling laugh rose from his depths, and like those whistles that only dogs can hear, diffused the tension in the room. “Beautiful, beautiful, all beautiful,” he muttered to himself as Chamunda, after Sanyogita and I had risen to touch her feet, took my place next to him.
Dinner—shami kebabs, baby aubergine, cumin potatoes, lentils, raita, okra and chicken curry—was served very soon after. On the way to the table, Shabby pushed her way up to Chamunda. “Where...where were you?” she said, prodding her. “Not at a prayer service for yourself, I hope. The divine Chamunda,” she sniggered, as though wishing for the writer, still finding his place on the table, to hear.
“Shabby, I don’t know if TVDelhi considers this news, but there have been bombs in my state...”
“One bomb!” Shabby interjected. “And that also a very small one.”
“There has been an encounter, a man from Sectorpur was killed, there are rumours of a backlash.”
“What about the two young boys who were killed?” Shabby demanded. “What about that backlash?”
“They were terrorists, Shabby.”
“Terrorists, my foot. Show me the evidence. Where’s the evidence? Just two poor Muslim boys framed by your police because they’re too incompetent to catch the real guys.”
Chamunda gave my mother a look as if to say, “Put this woman far away from me or I can’t be held responsible for the consequences.” As my mother was in the process of seating everyone, it was easy to separate them. The writer went between my mother and Chamunda; the Sikh gentleman in the yellow kurta between the writer’s wife and Sanyogita. With three men and four women, it was a difficult placement, and though Chamunda and Shabby could have been put further apart, any further and they would have been face to face. And so my mother, counting on me and the curvature of the dining table to ease the tension, put them on either side of me.
Shabby, perhaps sensing why the placement had been made the way it had, let drop her conversation with Chamunda and picked it up in a different tone with the writer.
“What do you think, Mr Vijaipal, of this dastardly situation we’re in here in India?”
The writer, putting away small quantities of yellow dal with a teaspoon, wiped his lips. For a few moments, his mouth seemed softly to run over the words he was about to give Shabby, then as if finding them too complicated, he began more simply. “I think it’s a difficult situation, a unique situation in fact. Unique, yes, unique. I’ll tell you why. You don’t have a Muslim-majority population, like Pakistan and the Arab countries, but neither is your Muslim minority an immigrant population, like with the European countries and North America. This makes for a special tension....” He broke off, and as if articulating this tension directly was proving too hard, came at it from another angle. “I was in England when they had their bombings. I felt then that the great shock was not the bombings themselves, but the headlines the following day.” Making the shape of a lengthening rectangle with his hands to indicate a headline, he said, “They were all British!” The description had its impact. The writer, warming up, said, “The shock of being attacked by one’s own people, you know. Very hard.
“The English to some extent could distance themselves, knowing that the people who attacked them, though legally British citizens, were immigrants. That made it easier to bear. They had come to Britain no more than 50 years before. To undo that history would be no great thing. But in India we’re talking about that same feeling, the feeling of being attacked by one’s own, and the tension that arises from that, except in India we’re talking about a non-immigrant population that constitutes nearly 15 per cent of the whole population. And of course a thousand years of history, bad history, most of it obscured or not dealt with. That cannot be so easily undone. Any serious eruption along those lines would tear the country apart.”
This last remark concerning the tearing apart of the country was understood on the table in very different ways. Somewhat elated, Shabby said, “I know, I know. I keep telling these saffron types that this was never a country; the British made it a country. It can never be ruled as one country. It must be ruled in small, manageable portions.”
“You want it to be partitioned again,” Chamunda flared. “Do you see, Mr Vijaipal, what our so-called ‘intellectuals’ want?”
Raising his old lion’s face up to Chamunda’s, a comic gleam entering his eyes, the writer said, “I think they would like to make India destroyable. Isn’t that right, Chamunda?”
Chamunda clapped her hands like a little girl. She took the writer’s huge face in them, with their reddish orange nail polish matching, I could see now, the diamonds on her sari, and kissed it. “Now this is a writer!” she exclaimed. “Not a bit like our treacherous lot who feel that to be an intellectual means betraying your country.”
The writer purred contentedly. My mother laughed out loud. I caught Sanyogita’s eye and saw that she was embarrassed. In that instant, I wished for her not to be embarrassed and for her to be a little bit more like her aunt, not always so correct.
At the table, Shabby was far from defeated. “What country, what country?” she was saying, readily taking up Chamunda’s challenge. “That’s what I’m asking. You tell us, Mr Vijaipal, was India ever a country until the British came along?”
The writer, who after his mischief-making had retired to the affections of Chamunda, became interested in what Shabby was saying. “I’ve always been intrigued,” he said, “by how this bit of babble left behind by the British, and taken up by the Leftist historians, has survived in India till today. When people say India was not a country until the British arrived, what exactly do they mean? They could not really be saying that India wasn’t a nation-state. That would be absurd. The idea of the nation-state, even in Europe, is a relatively recent idea, a 19th-century idea. So what they must mean, then, is that there was not even an idea of India, the way there was of Europe, or of ancient Greece; that there was never in the minds of its people the notion of belonging to a land called India.”
“There wasn’t!” Shabby asserted. “You ask the average Indian, and he would not think of himself as an Indian. He would think of himself as a Gujarati, a Punjabi, a Tamilian, an Assamese. He wouldn’t have the faintest idea of India, ‘the land’.”
The writer seemed caught between the interruption and Shabby’s raised voice, and what he was going to say next. He lowered his head and muttered, “Not the temple-going Indian, not the temple-going Indian.”
Then raising his head and voice at once, he silenced Shabby. “Not the temple-going Indian. People like you perhaps, but not him. He knows this country backwards. He forever carries an idea of it in his head. For him, it possesses a sacred topography. He knows it through its holy places. He knows it from the mountains in the north where the rivers begin, and from where the rudraksh he wears around his neck come, to the special place from where the right stones for the lingas come. He knows the rivers when they widen and the great temples and temple cities, with their stone steps, that have been set along their banks. He knows the points where those rivers meet other rivers, and their confluence becomes part of the long nationwide pilgrimages he will make several times in his lifetime. In fact, it could be said that there is almost no other country where the countrymen are as acquainted with the distant reaches of the land through their pilgrimages as in India; perhaps no country where poor people travel more. They think nothing of jumping on a bus or train, for two or three days, to journey to Tirupathi in the south or Jagannath in the east. And in this way, the religion itself is like a form of patriotism.”
Shabby was nodding her head vigorously even before he had finished. She took a chopstick out from her grey bun and began playing with it in her fingers. An arch smile rose to her lips.
“Ah!” she said. “So you have a communal agenda. I get it now.”
“Communal?” the writer said, with genuine confusion in his eyes.
“‘Communal’ in India,” my mother explained, “means advancing the interests of a particular community or religious group; to be divisive.”
The writer chuckled happily.
It had been very affecting to hear him speak, very affecting to watch his distant observations coincide with smaller, more particular observations of my own. I had thought only of Aakash as he spoke and was feeling some relief that the appeal he held for me was not mere obsession, that there was something more abstract, more general, behind it. But it was an unstable feeling, edging on euphoria and hysteria, and what the writer said next broke my composure.
“You know,” he began, looking deeply into the room, where illuminated foliage could be seen beyond darkened windows and the orange coils of an electric heater burned steadily, “they say that Benares is a microcosm of India. Today, most people take that to mean that it contains all the horror and filth of India, and also, loath as I am to use these words, the charm, the beauty, the magic. But Benares was once a very different kind of microcosm; it was a very self-conscious microcosm. The streams that watered the groves in its Forest of Bliss were named after all the rivers of India, not unlike the avenues in Washington, DC, being named after the American states. All the princes from around the country had their palaces along the river. And they would come and retire there after they had forsaken the cares of the world. The Indian holy points, the places of the larger pilgrimage, were all represented symbolically in Benares. It was said you could do the whole pilgrimage in miniature in Kashi. And Kashi too was recreated symbolically across the country. It wasn’t a microcosm; it was a kind of cosmic capital.
“And on certain days the moon would appear in the afternoon and the water from those symbolic Indian rivers would run through the groves and flood the Ganga, which at one particular point curls around the city. The ancient Hindus, with their special feeling for these cosmic changes, would gather at high points in the city to watch, like people seeing a fireworks display. That was how people, common people,” he added pointedly, “were brought in touch with the wholeness of the place, in just the same way as someone crossing a street in Manhattan might feel when, looking to one side and seeing the sweep of the avenue, he says, ‘I’m in New York!’ It’s my dream to see that wholeness restored in India.”
There was an interruption from an unexpected quarter. “This thing you describe,” Shabby’s husband asked urgently, receiving a dirty look from his wife, “can one still see it in Benares?”
“No. What is there to see now?” the writer replied sadly. “No one has seen it since the thirteenth century, since.... They destroyed it six times, you know, the invaders. Six times, over hundreds of years, they smashed its temples and carried away its stones until they had broken its orientation.”
The writer’s descriptions had perturbed everyone on the table; Chamunda had tears in her eyes. “No one knows any of this. No, Udaya?” She reached past the writer and held my mother’s hand. “That’s our problem in India, no one knows any of these things.”
Shabby had also fallen silent and played thoughtfully with a large silver ring on her finger.
“Chalo,” my mother said suddenly, alarmed perhaps at the mood that had fallen over her dinner party, “let’s sit soft.”
I had meant to keep many things to myself, but the vision of completeness that the writer’s descriptions had inspired, as well as a thought about the city beyond, smouldering from some of the tensions that had arisen that evening, forced me to ask, “How do Indians who aren’t ‘temple-going’ participate in this Indian idea?” I was thinking in part of myself, but also of non-Hindus, men like Zafar, whom I had arranged to see in the old city sometime over the next few days.
The writer, perhaps thinking I was being political, coldly dismissed me. “It’s more difficult for them,” he said. “If you mean Muslims, perhaps they should begin by thinking of themselves as converts to Islam and not invest themselves so emotionally with the invader. If you mean the green-card folk....”
It was too much for me. I burst out with the story of Aakash. I spoke in disjointed sentences of this Brahmin trainer I had become friends with, and how he was many men to many people, now a trainer, excited about brands and malls; now a Brahmin, performing the ancient rites of his caste. I spoke of his hunger, his ambition. In my excitement, I also let slip the story of Aakash’s affair with an industrialist’s ‘healthy’ daughter. And of her brother, who was determined to break her love for Aakash. I said all this, without thinking of the consequences, without thinking of who might be listening, and there was some agitation in my voice. The writer listened enthralled; he seemed to see that I was trying to get something off my chest. And when I had finished, when I had told him how Delhi for Aakash was a city with temples to Saturn, how the weeks now for him were jam-packed with religious observances, fasts, shopping for new kitchen vessels, a great jagran that he and his friends had put together in their colony....
“A jagran?” the writer asked.
“It’s a kind of wake,” I said. “I’ve never been to one, but people sit up all night listening to religious stories, watching passion plays, singing devotional songs, I don’t know.”
When I had said all this, the writer stopped me, and with great sympathy in his voice, asked, “Do you envy him? Do you envy this trainer?”
“Envy?” I laughed.
The whole room—my mother, my girlfriend, Chamunda and Shabby—was watching me.
“Do you envy how simple it will be for him?”
The writer had seen with an astrologer’s vision to my depths; to lie now would have been an act of self-destruction too great. “Yes,”” I said bitterly. “I envy that terribly.”
The writer said, gently, “I see very well. What you feel you lack when you see this trainer...Aakash, you said his name was?”
“How difficult it must be for you,” the writer said, his tone so full of sympathy that I thought he mocked me.
The women had begun to smoke Dunhills. More whisky sodas arrived. Chamunda put her legs up on a footstool and hitched up her sari to her knees, revealing two gold anklets dropping from her dark legs. Her toes, also with fine gold rings on them, fanned forward and back, suggesting deep relaxation.
“Now stop being so serious, all of you,” Shabby said. “Let’s have some goss.”
(The Temple-Goers will be published on March 5, 2010.)