Viking, £12.99 (297pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Temple-Goers, By Aatish Taseer

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'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum