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'

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test