A question of identity

tracking CHANGEAatish Taseer   | Photo Credit: Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Aatish Taseer's debut novel The Temple Goers talks about belonging, corruption, power, and more…

Just the author with his book on the stage, and a smattering of silent listeners.

That was the scene at the launch of Aatish Taseer's debut novel The Temple Goers at Landmark, where for close to three-quarters of an hour, the author simply sat and read long, descriptive passages from his book.

No interaction or discussion on the themes of the novel with a Chennai personality. No chatty interludes by the author himself. Even the post-reading audience interaction was brief, with the author not really going out of his way to engage the admittedly sparse audience.

Relaxed reading

It made for a rather subdued event (unusually so for a Landmark reading). But what it did do — and one might argue this is after all the point of any book reading — is give that small group of listeners a clear feel for the prose itself — emotional, and vividly evocative of the many facets of Delhi. The relaxed reading of unbroken segments from the novel allowed one to get under the skin of The Temple Goers, feeling the narrator's urgency, for instance, as he searches for the old poet, Zafar Moradabadi, and seeing Old Delhi — in all its decaying magnificence — come alive through his eyes.

“ The Temple Goers came out of my passion for Delhi, the place I grew up in until the age of 14, and then moved away from,” says Taseer, who worked as a journalist in the U.K. (where he was famously linked to Lady Gabriella Windsor), and still splits his time between Delhi and London. That time away gave the author a new perspective on the changing face of Delhi when he returned three years ago. “You tend to see any place you grew up in instinctively, with a kind of blindness as long as you remain there,” he comments, “but going away gave me fresh eyes for Delhi. I wouldn't have written the same book, if I hadn't.”

The novel tells the story of a young writer (also named Aatish) who returns to Delhi while struggling to revise his first novel, and strikes up friendships with Aakash, a young gym trainer, and Zafar, an Urdu poet as he gets reacquainted with the city of his childhood.

Hmmm. Autobiographical much? “Very, very little… you'd be surprised actually,” smiles Taseer, who has written for Time, Sunday Times and India Today, and is the author of the critically acclaimed non-fiction work Stranger to History (2009) and the translation Manto: Selected Stories (2008). “There is an autobiographical crust at the beginning, but it falls away very quickly — in books about writing and authorship, this blurring of the line creates a sense of immediacy, I think.”

But, he does say that Aakash is modelled on a young man he met. “His father was an accountant, his grandfather a priest who ended his life in a magical way — he has all these stories contained in him,” he says. “But, he's a new kind of man in Delhi, and many things had to come together to make his world — of gyms, of the hunger for a certain look — possible.”

New energy

This fascination with the convergence of influences is a common theme running through the book. “Delhi has always been very fragmented geographically — the Old City, the Southern suburbs, the newer Delhi in Gurgaon,” says Taseer, son of Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer. “But now, newer roads and trains are sewing together the huge sprawl, and that makes for a new energy.”

That energy throbs through the pages of The Temple Goers, filled with urgent questions of identity and belonging, communalism and corruption, power and politics. And, some of it did come through during the book reading as well, in spite of the otherwise lacklustre atmosphere.