Friday, May 07, 2010

Navel Gazing

Sunil K Poolani

The Temple-Goers
Aatish Taseer
Picador India
Price: 495; Pages: 297


We don’t know whose brainwave the title of Aatish Taseer’s debut novel is. It could be the publisher’s, but more likely it could be the author’s himself, given that Indian writing in English is often vanity publishing under a fashionable rubric. Be that as it may, Temple-Goers smacks faintly of Orientalism, its hyphenated condition only adding to the original unease.
Of course, the hyphen as an existential situation offers lots of creative possibilities. And, to give him due credit, Taseer has fairly gorged on it. His non-fiction book Stranger to History explored his split identity as the only son of a Sikh mother and Muslim father, a condition aggravated by the fact of his parents’ long separation and that they live in neighbouring countries partitioned by religious animosity.
Taseer who travelled through Islamic lands to discover his paternity, so to speak, ended up disowning it. Not his father’s fault, anyone who read that book would say, considering that the writer had religiously followed a conducted tour of the Islamic capitals but only after leaving his mind and heart back in Delhi where he grew up.
Which is where he returns to with Temple-Goers. Being the political capital of an evanescent India with imperialist ambitions, the city is of course replete with shakers and stokers. Even the geography in the novel is ditto Delhi, (Sectorpur and Phasenagar — Noida or Faridabad for you), and Taseer does hold a candid camera to the changing nature of the capital city — sophisticated on the outside, but murky within; perfumed on the periphery, but rotting inside.
The main protagonist, however, comes across as brittle and seriously confused. In due course he encounters two characters who totally change the way he thinks, lives, behaves and even shaves. Aakash Sharma, the gym trainer, later in his life becomes more of his sex trainer; even taking our hero to an obese Nepali prostitute.
Through Aakash, the hero discovers his own self; though his sexuality (remember the gay bars in Damascus and Istanbul in Strangers to History?) sometimes treads the narrow line of homo-eroticism. Then, there is Zafar Moradabadi, Urdu poet and ghost-writer of PhD theses. Zafar saab’s job is to teach our hero Urdu so that he can read some great poets in the original.
There’s the familiar cast of politicians too (chief minister Chamunda, for instance, clearly modelled on Vasundhara Raje Scindia), and of course, the women. Sanyogita always gives the hero vicarious pleasures even if he is in no mood for it, though sex between them mostly looks like an incestuous relationship between mother and son. Then there is this heavy Megha, who whizzes past his life like a tornado.
The plot, minus any real suspense, is predictable and the narrative nothing really to write home about. Even the Orientalist red-herring finally comes to nothing. Temple-Goers, at best, is a diary about a city and its inhabitants, written unhurriedly.