Picador Rs 405 pp 304
Towards the middle of Aatish Taseer's debut novel, The Temple-Goers, there may come a point when you stop, wonder where the story is going, and wonder if you want to follow it to its end.
If that happens, go ahead and put the book down. Make a cup of tea. And then return to the book. Because it gets better. After this, it becomes too gripping for you to even move.
But the build up is slow. At times puzzling, even though the subject of the story is made clear from the first chapter. The Temple-Goers is about a born-to-privilege Indian (coincidentally named Aatish Taseer, though the story itself is fiction) who returns to Delhi after some years abroad to find his homeland has produced a new kind of person — the want-the-privileges Indian.
He meets one of them, a gym trainer named Aakash Sharma who's trendy, image conscious and speaks perfect English. Brought together (beyond the gym, that is) when Aatish rescues Aakash from potential social embarrassment at a Page 3 party, they become friends. So Aatish, who, like many Indians of the upper classes, has that uncomfortable feeling that he isn't really part of India, enters the world of Aakash, a man born to Indianness with all its history, myth and culture, a man who is determined to get into a world like Aatish's without losing his own.
Aakash's world is not easy for Aatish to inhabit. Especially since he continues to live in his own circle at the same time. Though he is fascinated by Aakash to such an extent that the reader, just like Aatish's girlfriend Sanyogita, wonders if there's more to their relationship than friendship; though he is willing — in fact, even determined — to alienate Sanyogita and his other friends to immerse himself in Aakash's world as deeply as he can, Aatish is sometimes put off and often confused by the contradictions Aakash personifies.
Trendiness and image consciousness live together with Islamophobia and homophobia — both definitely untrendy in Sanyogita and Aatish's lives. Love and loyalty live together with an ambition that is everything.
Still, once he's in Aakash's world, he can't bring himself to get out. Which brings Aatish into contact with Aakash's girlfriend, Megha, from a wealthy Marwari family, and a Bollywood-like situation in which she is killed, presumably for daring to love Aakash, and Aakash is accused of the murder.
Is Aakash the killer? Or could it have been someone from Megha's family? Or someone else entirely? The chief minister of the state where the murder occurred, a small former princely state on the outskirts of Delhi, is Sanyogita's aunt, Aatish's mother's best friend. And elections are coming up. The case has to be solved — or seen to be solved. Born-to-privilege India and want-the-privileges India merge. Life's nastier realities are dealt with in the most practical, strategic, convenient manner possible, never mind any claims of principles, never mind who gets hurt.
To say that The Temple-Goers is a book that was waiting to be written is to wildly exaggerate. But it's a glimpse into a real, existing world of highly ambitious people that's often referred to in the media as an explanation for, or a cause of, new lifestyle trends, but has never really been explored.
Sacred Games: Vikram Chandra's celebrated work takes us into the dark side of Mumbai's underworld with all its cultural cliches and slangs. Truly desi.