A son's quest to know his father ends in an eight-month journey across nations coming to terms with a faith which, he says, has returned to its puritan roots.
On most days you can’t fault the menu at Jade, the Claridge’s Chinese restaurant, but my guest, who’s grown up in strolling distance from it and claims it as a favourite, is either a poor judge of a well put-together menu, or is oblivious to what others might like, for he quickly assumes the role of host to order his preferences. So, okay, it’s not chopsuey, but crispy spinach that’s deep fried might not be an appropriate choice for lunch, writes Kishore Singh.
But then, Aatish Taseer himself might not be everyone’s appropriate choice — his father, for one, isn’t likely to be pleased with him, he might be less than welcome in Pakistan right now, and Muslims could be thinking less than kindly about this Time journalist whose recently published Stranger to History takes a close, hard look at Islam from which it comes away with a sense of resignation. It’s the kind of book the West will love, and Islamic societies will censure. And Taseer is in the eye of that brewing storm.
But, there’s more to Taseer than just the book. At first, tabloids reported that this good-looking Indian was dating (Gabri)Ella Windsor, the true-blue journalist daughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent. But Taseer, the love child of journalist Tavleen Singh, born in London, growing up amidst cousins and an extended joint family in New Delhi before being sent off to a residential school in Kodaikanal, was more concerned with another identity. Born as a result of a tempestuous week-long affair, his father, Salmaan Taseer, was Pakistani. Did that make him, Aatish, a Pakistani Muslim?
These questions of identity would be the catalyst that would spur Taseer into undertaking an eight-month-long journey to write a book to lay to rest his personal ghosts, but they would test his relationship with his father — estranged throughout his childhood, and strained in his later years — further. For Taseer Sr had come to India that fateful 1979, already a married man and a father, to promote a book he had written on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and it was his fledgling political career that was the veil behind which he hid the illegitimacy of his relationship with Aatish’s mother. Later, he expunged politics from his life, but unfortunately for Aatish, the publication of this book coincides with the rise of his father as governor of Punjab, while his book examines the “cultural” Islam of his father with an excoriating indictment of that religion and of his father’s country.
If all this troubles him now, Taseer is not showing it. He seems to be enjoying his prawns, even though they’re over-cooked to the point of falling apart. “I’ve destroyed all bridges,” he says of any hopes of reconciliation, clarifying that the book has not been written from any “motive to settle scores with Pakistan or my father”. Salmaan Taseer had suggested Tavleen Singh keep the baby when she might have aborted it, and then gone AWOL. “I was aware at some level in school of an absent father,” he says, washing down his starters with a Japanese beer. “If he were dead, it would be some kind of answer, but I had a lingering sense of an absent nationality.”
He wrote to his father as a seven-year-old, but did not get a response; later, he called him from his boarding school, only to be rebuffed. Still later, when he worked in London as a journalist, a story he wrote on second-generation Pakistani estrangement of identity becoming the genus of Islamic extremism earned him his father’s ire, accusing him of even “superficial knowledge of the Pakistani ethos”. By now Taseer had been to Pakistan, met with his father, the extended family. “It had been emotional meeting my father and his family,” he says, “it made me shut down.”
But the letter made him think that he wanted to understand Islam and its inability to exist in a moderate environment. Part of the journey would take him back to his father’s homeland “to look at Pakistan in a way I hadn’t earlier”, but this would be the culmination of a journey that would begin in Turkey and wend its way across Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran before it ended in Pakistan, a trip that would take eight months and was financed “by some money that I had left over in England, paid for by journalism, and with a sum borrowed from my mother and her partner”.
Taseer had grown up accompanying his mother on election campaigns and her political beat — apparently the first words he spoke, he recalls, were “Indira Gandhi hai hai! — and experiencing the plurality of Indian society. “Pakistani society has no plurality,” he says. “There is the fundamental idea of freedom, of institutions, in India, no matter how chaotic, which in Pakistan are looked upon with great suspicion.” So while he hoped to work out his “personal problem on one level”, the journey, on another plane, “couldn’t ignore the problem of Islam”. He had worked out that “what I was dealing with was part of faith but they weren’t articles of faith. For instance, my father’s attitude to Hindu India, to pre-Islamic India couldn’t be explained,” even though Salmaan was not a practising Muslim. “Something bigger had happened in the 20th century to Islam that could be explained by the Partition as a quest for a new Islamic country. That original impulse in 1947 masked in genteel ways what seemed like a refined argument but concealed what an ugly thing it was.”
Taseer’s arguments are not academic but draw from his encounters that shed light on forms of extremism in country after country — as a non-believer and a journalist, his sense of fear is acute when he is put to the test that only just evades the truth. In Syria, he watches violent protests against the publication of cartoons of Prophet Mohammad in front of the Danish embassy; in Saudi Arabia he must conceal the Shiva tattoo on one shoulder and the sacred thread around his wrist; and in Iran, the moral police and interrogation by the “Displinary [sic] Force of the Islamic Republic” when he asks for a visa extension, lead to his deportment.
He’d come to Iran from Yemen, “a society of great backwardness, so the level of irreverence in Iran was like a breath of fresh air”. Even though religion there “was co-opted by the state, what I liked was that the cultural effect of Islam could be seen whole — the Arabic connection, the conquest, and their struggle to make peace with it — it was certainly a more hopeful approach. In Turkey too, people were contemptuous of religion but in a different way.”
He has, Taseer says over espresso and Chinese tea, “a sense of wholeness” but refuses to play pundit about his take-away from the book. What he does communicate is Islam’s need to be beyond (above) history, and a populist Pakistani view of “weak Hindus”, but says that the faith was once multi-polar “has now closed its doors to return to puritan roots”. His travels within Pakistan end with his return to Lahore that coincide with Benazir Bhutto’s assassination and his father’s return to politics — “the reason for our original distance” — but the journey, Taseer insists, throws light on why boys like the Beeston bombers “don’t go back to Islam but to the Book which is full of instructions, which can be ferocious”.
Having completed the task with “a kind of dispassionateness” and not a little “honesty”, he’s signed his next book, set in Delhi, a work of fiction, even as Strangers to History has already been published in Canada and Norway, and will soon be in Australia and Holland, followed by “10-11 language editions” including “Italian, French, German, Portuguese, Chinese”. Grappling now to find a job as a writer in India if only it would pay enough, he’s learning Urdu and Sanskrit and reading rather a lot.
What’s the nicest thing anybody has said to him after the book was published. “In Canada,” says Taseer, “somebody said I was brave, that I would be around for a long time.” And the worst? “That my mother filled me with venom,” he says, sadly. No guesses on the nationality of that critic.