This is reflected early on, in the book’s place descriptions. When the fictional Aatish writes about places like Jorbagh, Lodhi Gardens and Amrita Shergill Marg, he does it with precision and familiarity. But he’s on less firm ground with other parts of Delhi, including its growing satellite towns, and the novel is deliberately ambiguous and non-specific about those parts. Instead of Noida or Ghaziabad, they are given the abstract names “Sectorpur” and “Phasenagar”. The impression one gets is of a city map where the posh colonies of south-central Delhi – in a two-kilometre radius around Lodhi Gardens – are in sharp relief but the names start to get blurred as the map spreads outwards, until the satellite towns are anonymous smudges: unknowable and frightening places to someone who has led a sheltered life.
We are prepared, then, for the fascination Aatish feels towards the book’s other major figure, a fitness trainer named Aakash who lives in a lower-income-group flat in Sectorpur. “Double A like me!” Aakash exclaims when he learns Aatish’s name, the first time they meet at a gym, but gradually we will come to see how Aakash himself is something of a double, a doppelganger for our narrator. As a high-caste Brahmin, seemingly very sure of his place in the world, he is an object of envy too.
Their improbable friendship deepens: Aatish goes on a day trip with Aakash and his family to an ancestral village temple; later, he accompanies him to the home of a middle-aged prostitute where they share a different sort of intimacy. Aatish’s interest in his new friend’s life may suggest a novelist collecting material for his next book, but it’s just as likely that he is trying to understand himself and the country he wants badly to belong to.
This is where the story’s symbolic side becomes clear. Aakash is a developed character in his own right, but it’s equally possible to see him as a figure born in Aatish’s subconscious, threatening and attractive in equal measure. Aatish’s descriptions of him have a ring of awe and fearfulness (“His mud-coloured eyes narrowed; his darkish pink lips tightened; his small, powerful body hovered over mine, the rope of black religious strings hanging down like a noose...”). When he shows up – as a security guard – at an upper-crust Holi party where Aatish is a guest, and later, when he invites himself to Aatish’s flat, there is a hint of rupture, of one world intruding on another. And it’s significant that Aatish initially does his best to keep the trainer away from Sanyogita (“They both seemed in their own ways to be digging in an unspoken desire in me for them not to know each other”), almost as if Aakash were an aspect of himself that he is secretly ashamed of.
The Temple-goers is a carefully crafted novel in which even seemingly marginal scenes (such as a description of a writers’ meet where a young man reads out a short story that may or may not be a description of a real-life incident) become significant in retrospect. This carefulness can also be seen in its examination of identity, especially personal identity. On a meta-fictional level, this book is about the act of writing itself: how to write about people like yourself, how to write about people who lead very different sorts of lives. In one passage, Aatish and Sanyogita argue about compassion in writing and he says that plain honesty – depicting people as they are, without being politically correct or patronising – is a kind of compassion too. Is this what he himself is doing when he alludes to Aakash’s broken English and faulty pronunciation (“heavy” as havy, “bread” as brad)? Or is there a condescension – perhaps born out of insecurity – at work here?
But questions about national and communal identity run through the narrative too. In his first (explicitly non-fiction) book Stranger to History, Taseer – whose estranged father is a Pakistani Muslim – described his journeys through various Islamic countries to try and understand how the religion manifests itself in different places. The Temple-goers is, at least in part, a complementary examination of Hinduism, a religion that had pagan roots and was not founded on a fixed belief system; the repercussions – good and bad – of this fluidity; and the growing danger of it being overtaken by fundamentalist forces today.
At one point, Aatish’s Urdu teacher Zafar uses the word “vehshat” to describe India’s “history of animalism and sacrifice”, which he associates with the majority religion. “The land is stained,” he says, “It has seen terrible things: girl children sacrificed, widows burned, the worship of idols. The people in their hearts do not fear God. The law is not theirs, you see. It was first the Muslim law and then it was the English. And because the law is alien, they can always shrug it off and the vehshat returns.”
We are reminded of his words in a later passage set during a jagran, where the master of ceremonies cheerfully tells a story involving the sacrifice of a young boy – and still later, when a gruesome murder takes place in Sectorpur. But it’s also clear that this is just one perspective, and The Temple-goers offers us others. In one very entertaining passage, ideas of India are bandied about at a dinner party where a V S Naipaul-like figure – a writer named Vijaipal – holds centre-stage. Responding to the popular liberal-intellectual stand that India isn’t really a single country at all – that the common man from Gujarat, Assam or Tamil Nadu wouldn’t have the faintest idea of India as a land – this writer declaims:
Not the temple-going Indian. He knows this country backwards. He forever carries an idea of it in his head...He knows it through its holy places...there is almost no other country, certainly not one so vast, where the countrymen are as acquainted with the distant reaches of the land through their pilgrimages as they are in India...the religion itself is like a form of patriotism.Persuasive though this monologue is, the reader might well wonder whether this generic “temple-goer” really is a pan-Indian creature or if what we’re talking about here is again a very specific variety of north Indian religious chauvinism – the same chauvinism that legitimises “honour killings” when a girl marries out of her caste. But then, one of this book’s achievements is that it presents forceful ideas without necessarily throwing in its lot with any of them. The fictional Aatish may have a clear sense of what the future will hold for Indians like him – and for Indians like Aakash – but the real Taseer appears to recognise the pitfalls of making broad statements about a vast, contradiction-ridden country.
[An earlier post about Taseer and Stranger to History here]