The past is a foreign country

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Aatish Taseer’s book deserves more than shock over his unusual family history, says Nisha Susan

Photo: Theo Wenner

IN SOME ways, Stranger to History was written before Aatish Taseer was born. It was written when Aatish’s mother, journalist Tavleen Singh fell in love with a visiting Pakistani, Salman Taseer, who already had a wife and three children. It was written when Salman Taseer met Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in London and became a great admirer. It was written even earlier when Singh’s family had to leave their Lahore home because of Partition.

Aatish’s journey through the Middle East — the backbone of his book — cohabits easily with this earlier narrative. Chapters that describe his parents’ brief and clandestine love affair, their split, his heartbreaking attempts to contact his father and his first ever meeting with his father as an adult are interleaved with the annotated lives of people he meets on the road. The nature of the book (helped more than a little by 29-year-old Aatish’s full-blown good looks) have already seduced the unwary into the minefield of discussing Aatish rather than his thoughtful book.

Stranger To History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands  Aatish Taseer Picador 323 pp; Rs 495
Stranger To History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands
Aatish Taseer Picador
323 pp; Rs 495

But following the moments of chance in the writing of this book is irresistible. A protracted editing process delayed the release of the book by one year. When the book was finally launched, Salman Taseer had just been elevated from businessman to Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province. Aatish’s parents split when Taseer chose his loyalty to the Bhuttos and his political career over his lover and son. In the last encounter the book records, Aatish met his father on the evening that Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. In Syria, he is on the spot when the Danish cartoon riots take place. These are coincidences that Aatish himself wonders at. But the book is grateful for the windows, not greedily claiming to be encyclopaedic.

The virtue of being an outsider as a writer is one that Aatish values without sentimentalising. “I looked at Pakistan through the lens of my deep relationship with India. It didn’t have the impartiality of the English schoolboy traveler but it was an important lens. Looking at India the same way would have smelt false.” He began the journey surprised but not rejecting the generosity of those who assumed he is Muslim because his father is one. “There was a ready warmth and openness, but later on I knew I could not feel what even some moderate Muslims feel: no passion for Palestine, any more than I would for Tibet, no feeling of a great and common Islamic past. I had to distance myself or let them down.”

The book sets its mandate as understanding ‘how Islam affects things in the present world’ but Aatish is a strong advocate of embracing a certain kind of historical fact. “Why shouldn’t we assess the arrival of those who are seen as invaders for its violence? Why should it be tied to the fate of 150 million Muslims in India?” For himself, Aatish says he needed to write the book to come to terms with his relationship with both Pakistan and his father. “As far as my mother was concerned, that part of her past which is about my birth, however unconventional, is still my past. I could speak about it like anyone else. She never let anyone talk about me in the oh, bechara iska baap nahi hai way.”

Like many writers, Aatish is deeply fascinated by points of historical confluence and rupture: the arrival of the Aryans, the Mughals, the sudden emergence of Sanskrit from liturgy to literature. In this book, a country leaps out to him as an object of interest when the borders between Islam and other cultures are visible or can be laid open. In Turkey, where the outer garb of Islam can only be worn in ghettos, believers lie uneasy in the secular state. In Saudi Arabia at Mecca, Taseer sees the blatant evidence of pre-Islamic tribal rituals. “You feel that Islam in Yemen, like Hinduism in India, is a religion that has grown out of the land, the history of the land,” says Taseer. It was a sophisticated decision then to leave Yemen out. In other ways too, for a first book, Stranger is astonishingly grown-up and self-effacing.

For instance, Aatish asserts that the quest for purity will only end in absurdity. Certainly the discovery of a highly secretive Hare Krishna cult in Tehran would have been ripe for comedy to a traveler with a low quotient for the metaphysical. But in Aatish’s hands the encounter reveals women and men in a faux-adolescent sulk, caught permanently in bitter rebellion against the state. The lighter moments lie elsewhere. Aatish’s grandparents, who quickly moved from shock to twinkly-eyed affection for their half-Pakistani grandson, sparkle in a book full of the depressed, martyred and nihilistic. So do Aatish’s warm-hearted stepmother and siblings.

IN HIS book, Aatish does not vilify his father’s deliberate and brutal rebuffs. Now, after his father has responded to his book with silence, after the small scandal has died even in Pakistan, Aatish says, “I think it was a strategic mistake on his part. It would have been liberating for him to come clean.”

Aatish’s earlier work was an extremely well-received translation of Manto, a distinct step away from his career in journalism. But it was through journalism that Stranger began. His brief rapprochement with his father was disrupted when Taseer disagreed violently with Aatish’s article about the radicalisation of British Muslims, accusing him of ignorance. And there began the journey of this book. But with his novel, The Temple-Goers (set in Delhi with a gym trainer and a poet from the old city as protagonists) eagerly anticipated in 2010, his writing career has only begun.

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