If you move around, you could find many cities in Delhi. There is the old city, once home to poets and refinement but now a dump of filth and squalor. There are the suburban sprawls cut neatly into sectors by broad roads, tall buildings and men and women in a rush. There are giant-sized bungalows with lovely boulevards, roundabouts and large trees. Then there are scandals, power brokers, beautiful people and ordinary folks who live in quarters scarcely bigger than pigeon holes. Aatish Taseer’s debut novel is a snapshot of this Delhi, the current-age Delhi — aggressive, sad, scandalous, roguish, yet likeable.
Taseer deftly plays with two characters, one is his trainer at the gymnasium and the other teaches him Urdu at home, to tell the story of two communities that, some think, can never stay together. Not for long without holding a knife at each other’s throat, in any case. The trainer, who is a Hindu, is strong, assertive, ambitious, ambivalent about his sexuality and full of hope for the future. The teacher, a Muslim, is weak of limb and his house is in tatters, but he has an air of dignity about him. Don’t you get the larger picture? The two could easily represent the state of their communities in Delhi today. That, one chooses to think, is the crux of Taseer’s story.
The resemblance is too stark to miss. The trainer, a Brahmin, has a history that he can boast of, though it is all just a myth. The whole family swears by a miracle performed by an ancestor. His speech has none of the old world charm; he is reasonably moneyed and gets what he wants. The trainer forces himself on Taseer. Thus, Taseer is at his home, out with him and his girlfriend, on a trip to his village. Together, they visit a brothel. And when it strikes the trainer that he needs to compete with Taseer’s girlfriend for his attention, he doesn’t hesitate in assaulting her.
The trainer has a girlfriend who is obese but rich. The two want to marry, though they come from different castes. The girl’s family thinks that he is after her money, and will dump her soon after marriage. The trainer decides not to displease his family by marrying her. She gets killed anyway. He can be in trouble. The chief minister of a state, which is not far from Delhi, decides to help him after he has trained her for an hour or so. Not only does she get the police of his back but also paves the way for his entry into politics.
Though he gets lesser space in the book, the Muslim teacher comes out as a better sketch of character. He lives in a cramped part of the old city, works for a newspaper nobody seems to have heard of and still nurtures dreams of excellence in a language fewer and fewer people want to read. He has none of the gadgets that the trainer flaunts. And there is no ray of hope for his large family. In fact, their future appears very bleak. Yet, there is an unmistakable elegance about his way of life. His manner is soft and self-effacing. His sadness and resignation is almost poetic. His refusal to sit down when he is put in a police lockup is almost Gandhian. He is obviously out of cash, yet he puts on a shervani and his wife prepares a feast for Taseer on Eid. His wife and daughters, of course, have eaten earlier so can’t join them in the meal. Or is there not enough biryani for all? The teacher comes out real tall at the end.
That Taseer has a way with words and is not afraid to tell the truth, uncomfortable and embarrassing though it might be, came out very clearly in his first book, Stranger to History, a travelogue in the Muslim world. The Temple Goers shows that he has the skill to tell stories. He leaves loose ends here and there, which could be a ploy to keep the reader guessing and read more intently. He brings well-known faces into the text under a thin veil. Thus, there is the quirky expat writer with strong views on the virtues of Hinduism. His wife forever fawns over him. Who is he? Your guess is as good as mine. There are other well-known Delhi people too in the book. Some could be a mix of more than one person.
Taseer has a keen sense of observation too. After a schoolgirl was found dead in a suburb along with the family servant from Nepal, and the needle of suspicion swung towards her parents, a police officer had remarked that the girl and the servant were seen in an “embarrassing but not compromising position” by the father! In a city where scandals happen every day, most people may have forgotten it. Not Taseer. The statement finds a mention in the book. The Temple Goers is a delightful smorgasbord of Delhi stories which will haunt you long after you have turned the last page.
THE TEMPLE GOERS
Aatish Taseer Pacador India
297 pages; Rs 495