Aatish Taseer must make up his mind. Is he going to allow his good manners to kill his ambition?
In the Ghost Writer, Philip Roth describes the writer Abravanel in an undisguised portrait of Saul Bellow: “[During his lecture], we might have charged the stage to eat him up alive if he had been any more sly and enchanting and wise. Poor marvellous Abravanel”. In The Temple-Goers, Aatish Taseer describes the writer Vijaipaul in an undisguised portrait of VS Naipaul: “It had been very affecting to hear him speak, very affecting to watch his distant observations coincide with smaller, more particular observations of my own.” The difference in literary paternity — Roth uses it for performance while the latter uses it for self-esteem — seems emblematic of all that’s wrong with Taseer’s about-to-behailed, turgid first novel.
“Note-perfect prose.” “Silver wit.” “One of the most accomplished talents of our times.” Taseer’s book jacket has lots to deliver. And he invites comparisons with Roth when he bestows his firstperson narrator the name “Aatish Taseer” and his own history and circumstances.
Expat writer returns to Delhi and moves in with girlfriend, Sanyogita. The novel begins by presenting his agent’s letter saying she was “mightily impressed” with his writing. Thence it is about how “Aatish” joins a gym, gets an Urdu teacher, Zafar, becomes close to a gym trainer, Aakash, and how this estranges him from Sanyogita. Eventually, the expected happens in this untenuous triangle. This is Taseer’s big ‘break-up novel’.
The cartoon plot is belied with ponderous descriptions of the grubby “new” Delhi as “Aatish” discovers the old city and suburban badlands, areas previously invisible to him. Taseer obsesses with plantlife descriptions in a way only a first novel has stamina for. His addiction to chewing the scenery is marketed as incisions into a changing India.
Some of the cartoonishness is because Taseer either writes with or for a firang sensibility — as when noticing how children learn to say “jai” without being taught it, or when Aakash’s father stands next to his ancestor’s statue: “Then an unexpected sorrow, like that of the red rose against the black background in his flat, passed over his face”. If you saw such reaching in journalism, you’d giggle.
When the agent eventually dismisses his novel, “Aatish” says, “I hadn’t found a way to write about my situation. I had the disarray of my situation to show me why.” This silly creed, where the writing will neaten the life, might explain the book’s Disneyland aura. Add to this the rheumy idea of giving one’s own name and life to your character without it adding any immediacy; clumsy punning such as calling a state “Jhaatkebaal”; deploying stale tropes like the Aarushi murder; basing some characters upon celebs like Vasundhara Raje for frisson — all done without originality, Taseer lands you in artistic dudgeon.
Why has no one told Taseer that literary gamesmanship and good manners are a disastrous mix? He writes with joyless ennui, in a voice that wants to catalogue tidily but has no amplitude — we get no humour, irony, anger or even scattiness. Characters sit in an observational hive but their internal lives never flare up. Crucially, all the hints about Aakash’s hidden menace go nowhere.
“Aatish” explains his glazed submission to Aakash: “My belief that Aakash could rescue me from being an outsider in India had led me into a kind of self-effacement.” Poor “Aatish” has a rough time of it all around. There is one grace note in his novel — it’s dedicated to no one.