India's seamy underbelly, though hardly news to Indians, is a trendy subject for novels and movies, such as The White Tiger and Slumdog Millionaire. If you have seen Monsoon Wedding, you should have a fair idea of the milieu of The Temple-Goers, a first novel by Aatish Taseer. He was born in New Delhi of an abortive affair between a well-connected Sikh journalist mother and a philandering Pakistani politician, and now lives there and in London, where he has worked as a journalist. Like the film, the novel moves among Delhi's wealthy middle class in all its energy, brashness, pretentiousness, perversion and corruption, supported by a cast of thrusting, upwardly mobile hustlers and servants, all tinged with Bollywood-style romance.
The style, on the other hand, owes more than a little to VS Naipaul's non-fiction, with its combination of precise observation, analytical self-confidence and pitilessness. Not only is Taseer personally acquainted with Naipaul, who has praised him as "a young writer to watch" for his first book, the memoir, Stranger to History. Naipaul is also a lightly disguised character in the novel: a famous writer visiting Delhi from London referred to by the narrator in the Naipaulian grand manner as "the writer", complete with emphatic repetitions, shooting stick and adoring wife.
Indeed, this pivotal character provides The Temple-Goers with its title, when he provocatively exalts the "temple-going Indian" for having the truest sense of Indian culture. Truer, certainly, than the New Delhi drawing-room intellectuals and liberals whom the writer condemns for their confused colonial mindset.
Naipaul's praise is rare enough to be notable; and Taseer lives up to it. This is an impressive, if circumscribed, debut - among the sharpest and best-written fictions about the country created by the economic boom of the past decade or two. Anyone who wants to look behind the magazine headlines to grasp contemporary India, Delhi in particular, will feel amply rewarded.
Money, consumerism, religion, caste, politics, terrorism, the media, literature, sex (including the gay scene) and relationships all jostle for attention within an elaborate plot. The book opens with the narrator watching on a news channel the sensational re-enactment of a murder of a woman he knows. The drawback is that almost all of the characters, including the narrator, a would-be novelist narcissistically named Aatish Taseer, are such unlikeable individuals that one is never moved by their predicaments. While I know that Delhi is a pullulating, cynical and dangerous metropolis, it has more redeeming features than Taseer offers the reader. In a lengthy scene, the narrator's best friend - his trainer and an avid temple-goer who is supposed to represent cultural rootedness as opposed to the outsider status of the narrator - takes him to an ageing whore. As some kind of weird rite of passage, the gym trainer has sex with her in front of his friend. Afterwards, she feeds him, observed by herself and the narrator. "His self-absorption was that of a man who would have been truly amazed to learn that either of us had any plans other than to watch him wolf down a post-coital omelette."
The narrator is equally self-absorbed, if more self-aware. Defending the famous writer's overbearing treatment of his wife, over dinner with his critical mother and girlfriend at a swanky hotel, Taseer tells the two women that the writer has a vocation, which licences his bad behaviour. His wife's vocation is marriage to fame: "Some men need that and some women are made to give that." Immediately, he regrets his words, but not too surprisingly his troubled relationship with his girlfriend breaks up.
What lifts the story, at times, is the narrator's bond with his impoverished old Urdu teacher, Zafar, a family man surviving in the decay of Old Delhi. The real-life Taseer has translated the stories of the Pakistani writer Saddat Hasan Manto. Urdu literature clearly matters to him, and this shows in the sympathetic portrayal of Zafar. For all the squalor of his surroundings, exquisitely described, the dignified Zafar is a breath of refinement exhaled by Delhi's long history. Unjustly detained during a curfew while trying to reach home, he refuses all day to sit down in the police station with the riff-raff. After his release through the narrator's influence, the sub-inspector curses the stubborn old man to the narrator as a "bloody Gandhian" with a mixture of irritation and respect that briefly reminds us why Delhi, once upon a time, was a great city.
Andrew Robinson is the author of 'Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye'Reuse content