Stranger to History
Picador India | Rs 495 | PP 323
Take a secret secret relationship, denial and desertion across ‘that moody frontier’. Throw in one of India’s most well-known journalists, a flamboyant Pakistani politician and their son, and you expect a soppy Bollywood story. What you get instead is an alluring memoir-cum-travelogue, told with just a touch of poignancy, refreshingly honest insights and oodles of idealism.
Stranger to History, by first-time author Aatish Taseer, son of journalist Tavleen Singh and the Governor of Pakistani Punjab Salmaan Taseer, cuts across the life of a young man coming to terms with his ‘unique patrimony’. The book has its roots in that eternal question: ‘Who am I?’But Taseer bravely broadens its scope to traverse the tricky terrain of what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century. The result is a delectable patchwork of places, people, ideas, and musings, but one which sometimes stumbles in its attempt to cover too much ground.
At one end is Taseer the journalist trying to comprehend the political radicalisation of Muslim youth in London. On the other, is Taseer the son, looking at family photos in his father’s house, from which “a kink in time and space” seems to have “air-brushed” him out.
Connecting the dots between the two is Taseer the author trying to comprehend the history that he shares with a father who is upset over his journo son’s “attack on Pakistan and Islam”. What is it that qualifies a pork-eating, Scotch-drinking man to stake an exclusive claim on the faith’s “violent purities”? What is it about Muslims in distant corners of the world that binds him closer to them than to his own flesh and blood? These questions take our author on a quest to understand his absent father’s world, spanning the ghettoes of London and Istanbul and the streets of Damascus, the mosques of Mecca and drawing rooms of Tehran, ending in Lahore.
Taseer writes to understand his own perplexity, but his multi-coloured palette is sometimes missing greys. But he manages to skim the thin line between religion seen through the lens of history and history viewed through the prism of religion and gives us a taste of both. For instance, how for some, despair lies in Islam being “nothing but a history written by victors”, while for others, there’s hope in a religion “above geography”.
Playing all this out is a motley cast of characters. From the insular ghettoes of liberal Istanbul, to the liberal oases in intransigent Iran, are young people “hooked on dissent”, up against the “tyranny of trifles”, perpetrated by a State where “people’s deepest allegiances were used to subdue them?. At the same time, there are others, including Marlboro-loving critics of the West, who seek an elusive “vision of Islamic completeness”.
Taseer’s tale mirrors the confusion of an entire generation trying to come to terms with “a past that was once not a bad present but today showed its backwardness”. We feel the derisive despair of those caught in a warp where “for the faith to remain in power” it had to beat down the bright and rebellious members of that society with its simplicities?
Yet, amid all this, we also feel his detachment from a larger world he’s not sure he is, or wants to be, a part of.
But his writing flows easily, barring some detailed descriptions that cheat the reader of an anticipated crescendo. Just when you think he has lost the plot, he comes back with a flourish that sends a shiver up your spine. He is in his element while writing about encounters with his father and on Pakistan, which he finds “carved into ghettoes of faction”.
Amid the swirling politico-religious debates, what touches a chord is a son’s oscillation between valiantly feigned nonchalance to the idea of a father as a “social construct” that “never took root at all”, and his painful discovery that his father had ‘lived’ while he had been ‘elsewhere’.
So, even as his journey opens up an even wider chasm between the two, the effort manages to free Taseer from “sterile obsessions”, enabling him to make his peace with the history of “a unique division” of which he has “inherited both pieces”.
In the end, he manages to cleverly fuse the two together in a book definitely worth reading.