22 September 2010

The Temple-goers by Aatish Taseer

Oh no - not another one
DSC Limited, an Indian infrastructure-development company also promotes literature as one of its "key initiatives". DSC has been one of the principal sponsors of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival in the five years over which the event has grown to become the largest and most spectacular literary event of its kind. The company has now instituted the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, with a prize money of USD 50,000 and the winner will be announced in Jaipur, at the annual festival, in January. A longlist of 16 books has been announced and I was quite astonished to see this one on it!
The Temple Goers just happens to be the only book I've ever reviewed for two different publications: Sunday Mid-day on 4 April 2010 and also the May 2010 issue of Marie Claire. Both times I did not like it. Though it's well written, the story is tedious and pointless.
I've pasted here what I said in Sunday Mid-day:
This is Aatish Taseer’s first novel. A year ago he wrote Stranger to History, an autobiographical account of his travels “through Islamic lands”. It was also a quest to find his father, a Pakistani businessman and politician he has never known and who, despite all his efforts, has never really acknowledged him. It was a well-written book, filled with vivid descriptions and keen insights; I enjoyed and recommended it, and was looking forward to this new one which was supposed to be different, and very funny.

When I started reading The Temple-Goers, however, I felt confused and after a few pages decided that I must have misunderstood and here was another memoir. It’s written in the first person; its hero is identical in tone and manner to the hero of the first one – and it was surely not a coincidence that even his name was Aatish Taseer! Could there possibly be two Aatish Taseers, both of whom have studied abroad, have high-profile single mothers and appear to be struggling endlessly with identical identity crises?
The first indication that yes, there possibly were, were the names of the places in this book. This New Delhi has suburbs called Sectorpur and Phasenagar and a nearby state called Jhatekebal. Hilarious? Hmmm. Later, there’s a bomb blast and the group that claims to have done it calls itself the Indian Musthavbin.
Even more lame, along comes a famous writer whose name coyly rhymes with a certain brilliant but unpopular Nobel laureate who apparently said about Stranger to History, “A subtle and poignant work by a young writer to watch.”
The looking-glass Aatish has a girlfriend, Sanyogita, privileged, talented, vulnerable, patient and forgiving, who calls him Baby (“Baby’s hard,” she said with laughter and surprise). Other characters are Aakash, a gym trainer, Megha, a businessman’s “healthy” daughter, and Chamunda, the Chief Minister of Jhaatkebaal who happens to be Sanyogita’s aunt and Aatish’s mother’s best friend. Half way through, I decided to stop wasting my time and not read any more. The book was meandering and I found it tedious. Did I really need to read a book written by a talented but self-indulgent young man who has travelled the world and commented on it with discernment and wit – but wants to do a “Welcome to the zoo and please don’t feed the animals” number on the country he grew up in? This book had been written for a specific reader, one who would enjoy from the outside, and in a supercilious way, a view of the community it was set within, and that reader was not me. But duty called and I soldiered on to the end and can now step back and comment wisely that this book does a good job of describing certain middle-class Indian values, in particular certain primitive attitudes towards the female body – but without acknowledging that they are the same primitive attitudes that prevail globally. It also touches on how Indian politics is steeped in crime – and shows clearly that the system is held securely in place by a conniving class to preserve its own advantage and position, all the while preening as superior and virtuous – sadly enough, the class to which you and I belong.

And now please read the Marie Claire thing, if only to see how hard I tried to make them both responsible, accurate reviews which did not plagiarize each other in any way ...
Aatish Taseer is still trying to get his father’s attention.
In his first book, Stranger to History, he wrote about his travels “through Islamic lands”, and about his search for his father, a Pakistani businessman and politician, who had abandoned him and his mother when he was a baby. Aatish tried to make out that he was an “Indian-Pakistani” though those who read the fine print found out that he was in fact only British.
In The Temple-Goers, the locale shifts but the quest continues. Though this is supposed to be a work of fiction, some characters are familiar from before. The hero himself is one Aatish Taseer, who by an amazing coincidence has a brave, longsuffering, high-profile mother. In a moment of mock annoyance, she makes a joke about the “fictional” Aatish, shaking her head and withholding a smile: “It’s the bad Pakistani blood. It’s from the father. I’ve done what I can to improve it, but still it remains.”
The temple-goers themselves are a crude lot – noisy, greedy, superstitious and none too clean. Aatish mingles with them and watches, judging through eyes that must please Papa. They are people in the grip of rapid change and their new opportunities bring them a new affluence and new choices. And the choices they make often show them as shallow and cunning. There’s also a streak of fanaticism in them that simmers below the surface and could – and later does – prove troublesome to one main character, not a temple-goer, who provides a counterpoint, representing grace, dignity and culture. He does not ask “prying Indian questions” about how much money Aatish earns or spends. On one occasion he foolishly dresses in his best, which clearly marks him out as different. This is a big mistake as it leads the temple-goers to make mincemeat of him. Even the leaders of the land are slimy, corrupt temple-goers.
It’s only by ignoring the wailing “Papa, please Papa, look at me Papa” undertone in this book that one can appreciate its literary merit. It is well written and strewn with insights into thought processes and relationships. Writes Aatish: “Because my mother had brought me up alone and our closeness was almost embarrassing since I was now technically a man, we played at being offhand with each other.” And so even after not seeing him for months, she gives him a brief hug, says he’s looking skinny, and falls into the arms of his girlfriend instead, doing what many of us might if we shared a similar pain because we have not the awareness to notice, or the skill to describe it so well.

The other books on the DSC longlist do look promising though:

Upamanyu Chatterjee: Way to Go (Penguin)
Amit Chaudhuri: The Immortals (Picador India)
Chandrahas Choudhury: Arzee the Dwarf (HarperCollins)
Musharraf Ali Farooqui: The Story of a Widow (Picador India)
Ru Freeman: A Disobedient Girl (Penguin/ Viking)
Anjum Hassan: Neti Neti (IndiaInk/Roli Books)
Tania James: Atlas of Unknowns (Pocket Books)
Manju Kapur: The Immigrant (Faber & Faber)
HM Naqvi: Home Boy (HarperCollins)
Salma: The Hour Past Midnight (Zubaan, translated by Lakshmi Holmstrom)
Sankar: The Middleman (Penguin, translated by Arunava Sinha)
Ali Sethi: The Wish Maker (Penguin)
Jaspreet Singh: Chef (Bloomsbury)
Daniyal Mueenuddin: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Bloomsbury)
Neel Mukherjee: A Life Apart (Constable & Robinson)

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