28 May 2010

Book Review: The Temple-Goers

A book review, in Biblio:

Picador India, 2010, 
297 pp. Rs 495 
ISBN 978-0-330-51408-8


It is slightly unsettling to read a book that self-consciously sets itself up as fiction, while also deliberately naming its narrator the same thing as its author, placing Aatish-the-narrator in locales which the author occupies in reality, and then giving him a familial lineage, an educational background, even a social life that echoes Taseer-the-author’s.

Cleverness apart, it’s a narratorial device that seems disconcertingly to want to draw the reader into a game of catch-me-if-you-can, a guess-what’s-true-and-what-I-made-up game that has about it a whiff of the incestuous, upper-middle-class Delhi rumour mill.

It is more disconcerting to discover that Taseer is happy to cannibalise not just his life (which novelist doesn’t?) but also narrativised versions of it that he’s published earlier: specifically, a deeply personal introduction to his impeccable translation of ten stories by Saadat Hasan Manto (Manto: Selected Stories, 2008). That Introduction seeks to locate Taseer’s admiration for Manto, arguably the subcontinent’s greatest stylist of Urdu prose, within the biographical frame of Taseer’s half-Indian, half-Pakistani heritage (he is the son of Delhi-based journalist Tavleen Singh and Lahore-based businessman-politician Salman Taseer), his lack of knowledge of Urdu and his adult desire to acquire it. More crucially, it embodies the contemporary crisis of Urdu — a language whose literary “infrastructure” has collapsed around it — in the impoverished if shabbily defiant figure of Zafar Moradabadi. A poet and publisher from Old Delhi’s Sui Walan neighbourhood who comes to Taseer through the Ghalib Academy and agrees to teach him Urdu, Zafar Moradabadi lies at the core of the Manto Introduction. It is odd, then, to find this person who has already been precisely mapped in non-fictional terms, down to his clothes, his turns of phrase and the heat sores on his head, turn up almost entirely unaltered in a different book—now presented as fictional.

But there is another connection between that Introduction and The Temple-goers that is stranger still. In a passage describing Manto’s occasional use of a narrator called Manto, Taseer writes: 

"It is hard not to come to feel a great affection for this narrator. He is mischievous, compassionate, funny, a listener, a drinker, sceptical and without prejudice. His Bombay is a city of motor cars and bicycles, of chawls and mansions, of hookers and heiresses, of Sikhs and Parsis, of depressives and lunatics, and he asserts his nativity by moving freely between its varied lives, making it seem like no less his right than sitting on a bench at Apollo Bandar, watching boats and people go by."
(p. xxiii-xxiv, Introduction to Manto: Selected Stories)

Manto, the narrator, who “should not be confused with Manto, the man or the writer” [writes Taseer], “is like the narrators used by Proust and VS Naipaul, and though travelling under the writer’s name, he is, if anything, a more forceful creation of the imagination”. Taseer goes on to suggest that such a narrator is “not a gimmick”—he fulfils a particular sort of fictional need: “In an immigrant city like Bombay, where no cultural knowledge can be assumed, where the landscape if often foreign and various, Manto, the fictional presence, declares his outsider’s perspective and becomes a kind of guide to the new terrain... his discoveries become part of the narrative.”

Given that we now have before us an Aatish-the-narrator, Taseer’s comments on Manto-the-narrator are interesting. Especially so because one of the most obvious characteristics of Aatish-the-narrator is his outsider-ness — having been away from Delhi (and India) for several years, he returns to a city to which his privileged, highly sheltered childhood barely gave him access, a city that is his in name only.

All he lays claim to knowing, with the unselfconscious conceit of a child’s memory, are Jorbagh and Sunder Nagar and Amrita Shergill Marg, genteel residential neighbourhoods that mark the boundary between Lutyens’ city of government bungalows and tree-lined avenues and the burgeoning vastness that lies beyond—so removed from his reality that they are deliberately referred to by the made-up names of Sectorpur and Phasenagar. And while the narrator may describe Jorbagh and Sunder Nagar blandly as Delhi’s first “post-independence colonies” (which is a historical position they undeniably occupy), these are also areas marked out within the contemporary city for their association with old money, with a cultured elite so much at home with its wealth that it scorns the ostentation that increasingly surrounds it. Aatish’s Delhi is a network of drawing rooms: “there was no setting, no cityscape more evocative of the city I grew up in than a lamplit drawing room with a scattering of politicians, journalists, broken-down royals, and perhaps an old Etonian, lying fatly on an deep sofa.”

But while the drawing rooms seem filled with “people who all seemed to know each other”, Aatish seems to recognize how limited that that world really is. And set against this anglicised upper-class drawing room world, an island floating uneasily over a sea of real life, is the effortless inhabiting of the city by Aakash, a good-looking fitness instructor whom Aatish befriends (and becomes increasingly obsessed by). "His Delhi was a city of temples and gyms, of rich and poor people, of Bentleys and bicycles, of government flats and mansions, of hookers and heiresses, and he asserted his nativity by moving freely between its varied lives. He made it seem like no less his right than taking one of the new green buses, riding the metro, seeing the sound and light show at the Red Fort or renting a pedal boat at India Gate and floating over the reflections of dark trees and pale sky in its sandstone water tanks." The careful reader will have noticed that the passage echoes Taseer’s earlier description of Manto the narrator, for whom “it is hard not to come to feel a great affection”. What does it mean, one wonders, for Aakash to be a reimagining of the narratorial Manto? For Aakash, [whose] “versatility was like a confirmation of how authentic and robust his world was”, is clearly an insider. But weren’t we told before that Manto-the-narrator — like Aatish-the-narrator after him — is a self-proclaimed outsider, whose “discoveries become part of the narrative”?

Clearly there is a tension here, and it is a tension that takes us to the heart of The Temple-goers. What Manto exhibits is not in fact outsiderness, but an enviable facility with multiple worlds, all of which he has at his fingertips. Returning to Taseer’s Manto Introduction, one finds the admiring words: “Given the extent to which Manto inhabits his material, there is something miraculous... that his range should have been so vast. And also, “The writer seems to be writing from deep within his material so that none of this is added externally...”. The reasons that endear Manto the narrator to Taseer the writer are precisely those that make Aakash an object of such fascination for Aatish the narrator — and, one fears, also for Taseer the writer.

This fascination is the book’s dominant motif: the aristocratic but deracinated Aatish apparently spellbound by the not-particularly-classy upstart, but self-consciously upper caste, “culturally whole” Aakash. “To see him twice in the same day, and in such different ways, a hero among the people he grew up with, made me feel again the power of his position. His versatility was like a confirmation of how authentic and robust his world was.”

What is stunning, though, is how starkly Aakash’s authenticity is identified with his Brahmin-ness—and how much that Brahmin-ness is encoded in the physical. The very first time Aatish sees Aakash, he has “an intuitive sense of high caste”. Even though “his skin was dark, dark to his gums”, Aatish apparently, can see that “a paler second skin ran under a dark patina”. Later, during a temple visit, watching Aakash “effortlessly assume his caste robes” makes Aatish “feel all the horror of [his] removal”. But there’s more: Aakash’s body “seemed to have a kind of aboriginal power, as if issuing from the deepest origins of caste and class in India.”

This bizarre conflation of religion, caste, class and race into an uncritical, garbled notion of Indian-ness inflects Aatish-the-narrator’s view of just about everything. All things in contemporary India are seen — and understood — through the ahistorical lens of civilisation. Religion is simply assumed to be of hoary antiquity, such that when a jagaran in Aakash’s Sectorpur colony turns out to be a rather recently invented tradition, the narrator is shocked. “The Hindu way of life” does not mean only the pilgrim’s knowledge of the land as a network of temples (a long exegesis on which gives rise to the book’s title) but extends to everything, from the plants in Aakash’s garden to the spoiling of children (“With us, children are everything,” says Aakash.) 

Hindu-ness is, in Taseer’s Naipaulian vision, simultaneously cause for wide-eyed admiration and an irrational fear of the exoticised Other. Even “motiveless” urban crime — the Nithari case, the Arushi murder — feeds into an idea of “a vehshat deep within this country”, because “the people in their hearts do not fear God,” declares Zafar Moradabadi. “The law is not theirs, you see. It was first the Muslim law and then it was the English. And because the law is alien, they can always shrug it off and the vehshat returns.”

The word ‘vehshat’ is never eventually decoded for us in the pages of the book. Aatish ventures to translate it as ‘savagery’ but is dismissed as inaccurate by Zafar. In a recent interview, though, Taseer has said he likes to think of it as “‘horror’ in the Conradian sense”. It is a good word, a word that comes close to encapsulating the narrator’s gaze as he looks out at a country that seems to seethe with suppressed violence. But horror — not in a Conradian sense — is also one’s primary emotion as one comes to the end of the book and realises that Taseer the writer has never once questioned the garbled worldview so eloquently articulated by his narratorial namesake.

Published in Biblio: March-April 2010.

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