The outsider's gaze

The outsider's gaze

Aatish Taseer in his debut novel The Temple-Goers writes what he could be expected to — a polished narrative fashionable in form and structure that will try to make sense of the great Indian juggernaut at a long tricky turn. Beginning with a quote from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot deriding the kind of liberalism that attacks the fundamentals of a nation, he lays out the ideas of his quest with the kind of neatness that can only precede a definitive thesis. 

Taseer takes his time over detailed descriptions of Lutyen’s Delhi and the setting up of plot and character before letting this thesis emerge. Structurally, the novel is tidy and exact — almost Bollywood-ian in the way things link up to each other in a seemingly vast canvas. The plot is lean and the story runs easily with the gradual end of the narrator’s love affair threading it through.  

The genesis of its larger thesis lies in Taseer’s idol V S Naipaul’s views on modern India and is mostly articulated by a character obviously modelled on him. Taseer’s narrator (also called Aatish Taseer) merely seconds the view, underpinning it with his own observations along the way. At the heart of it is the temple going Indian who is profiled to become a study of the aspirations of the Indian middle class and the tableau of traditions that loosely bind the amorphous idea of Hinduism.

Aatish, the narrator, travels away from the centre of the city to its oldest and newest manifestation — the mohallas near Chandni Chowk and the satellite townships of Noida and Ghaziabad — to make sense of the baffling journey of the great capital. He is the ‘outsider’ presenting himself as someone who does not ‘belong’ to India because he is not rooted in the rituals of its religions and takes for granted the position of privilege that is now open and inspiring to a much greater population of Indians than ever before.  

Of identity & belonging

Aatish’s self-loathing begins with seeking to find a way into the crux of India and a reflexive rejection of the trappings of his cocooned existence. He forms friendships with Zafar, a fading poet of the old world and Aakash, a Brahmin gym trainer looking to ‘update’ his status at any cost. Aakash, the more formidable among characters is underwhelming by himself but excellent for all representational purposes. His straddling of the different Indias without questioning himself becomes the germ of all that Aatish perceives is problematic with the country on the one hand and his own life on the other.  
He denounces the kind of ‘liberalism’ that destroys the fabric of a country’s integrity and tradition, but it is not clear in favour of what. His idea of belonging and cultural inheritance is mixed up with religious upbringing. The rest of it is lament and disenchantment. That is not to say Taseer tries to oversimplify the new idea of India — he is clearly aware of its multifarious manifestations and avoids stifling it keeping it personal and elusive. 

The metanarrative is then filled in with communal tensions, media hyped murders, political machinations, social interactions and a deliberation on the act of writing itself to sum up Taseer’s purview of India in the present day. And while clearly in its preoccupations, the novel is autobiographical, the hotter question is how autobiographical it is in its details. The answer in itself is insignificant but tells on Taseer’s half-hearted wielding of literary tools.  

In using his own name for the narrator, Taseer follows in the footsteps of eminent predecessors but fails to use its potential to push the boundaries of immediacy. The play between the real and fictional is about all this device manages, working up an appetite in the reader to consume the novel swiftly speculating on gossip about its thinly veiled high profile characters like Vasundhara Raje, Tavleen Singh and of course Naipaul and Nadira.
But titillation was never the ambition of the key tenets of post-modernism. The feeling is that Taseer is too well mannered, too tame to do justice to the wild possibilities of his material (except for a bewildering renaming of Rajasthan as Jhaatkebaal). His use of autobiography is more likely to get his ear twisted by his mother’s best friend (reproduced here as Chamunda) than hailed as the next Philip Roth, who incidentally once proclaimed that there is no room for discretion in a novel.  

Part of the straitjacket is cut from the near complete absence of humour. Taseer writes in substance as in style, like Naipaul — bone-dry unsympathetic observation, almost journalistic in tone. And he is good at it. The fallout though is that you care little for characters that come that way and wonder if the style is as suited to fiction as non-fiction.  

But for all its disappointments, The Temple Goers is not a debut that can be ignored. Taseer said in an interview recently that he grew up blind to a lot of the real Delhi. It is evident he has only just started looking and needs to see further. But he is looking in the right place. And the incredible need for Indians to tell their own story makes the wait worth it.

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