In his first novel, Aatish Taseer tells the story of Aatish Taseer, a young Western-educated Indian with an absent Pakistani father, a famous journalist for a mother, and a deep hunger to be a writer. Taseer inhabits a world of privilege whose compass points include the laburnum-lined crescent of Amrita Shergill Marg, the marbled depths of the Oberoi, and lamplit dinner parties that feature “politicians, journalists, broken-down royals and perhaps an old Etonian lying fatly on a deep sofa”. Taseer’s friends know London by its trendy restaurants; their childhoods are collectively marked by the pastry shop Chocolate Wheel in Jor Bagh.
Into this milieu, Taseer introduces a representative of that protean, heaving, endlessly explorable but impossible to pin down world: the new India. Aakash Sharma lives in a drab satellite city of Delhi called Sectorpur and works as a trainer at Junglee gym in the heart of town. He wears red and black religious threads around his neck and a diamante band on his wrist. To Taseer, Sharma’s beautifully shaped body “seemed somehow to imply a knowledge of the world: of the internet and TV serials; of protein milkshakes and supplements; of Shakira and Beyonce; of drinking perhaps and sex before marriage.”
Though Taseer has a girlfriend—affectionate and supportive if somewhat infantilised in a rich girl way—the real romance at the heart of this novel is between the would-be author and his trainer. Sex with the girlfriend is a desultory affair, at times “vaguely disgusting”. But even the most casual interaction with Aakash is charged with pent-up passion, with the promise of bathtub intimacy and the homo-erotic bliss of sharing a fat Nepali whore in a tiger-print slip.
To his credit, Taseer controls his material deftly. Aakash may be an object of desire, but he is also much more. He opens a world to a serious and sensitive man craving cultural wholeness. With his delight in Western brands—Marlboro and Dunhill, Nike and Reebok—and his casual, Brahminical ease with religious rituals, Aakash is Taseer’s passport to his own country. All along, the reader has the premonition that the outcome of this unlikely passage won’t be pleasant.
Taseer is clearly influenced by Naipaul. The book’s homo-erotic charge, love for Urdu poetry saves him from charges of mimicry.
Throughout the novel, the not-so-subtle influence of V.S. Naipaul on Taseer is clearly visible. Not only does the Nobel laureate appear in the book—felt-hatted, wielding a shooting stick and a scowl—as “the writer,” but the prose and its preoccupations both carry a distinctly Naipaulean cast. There’s the careful yet distanced style of observation, the division of the world into the settled and the unsettled, the idea of the half-made man, the contempt for the English-speaking class’s shallow understanding of Islam’s largely unpleasant collision with India. Taseer is too honest and earnest a writer to attempt to disguise his debt to the older man. Nonetheless, only the book’s homo-erotic charge and the author’s regard for Urdu poetry save The Temple-Goers from the (Naipaulean) charge of mimicry.
In the end, though, a first novel can do much worse than bear the imprint of one of the great writers of our time. Taseer has produced a novel both subtle and arresting, a rare book about the new India that manages to be deeply curious without ever slipping into hyperbole. It deserves to be read widely.