Being born to an Indian mother and a Pakistani father, puts ex-Time magazine journo and first time author, Aatish Taseer in a unique situation. As Indians or Pakistanis, one normally assumes one clear identity, one culture and one kind of relatedness. Aatish, unenviably, needs to straddle two very different worlds and cultures, which were, ironically, the same at one point in history. Truly, midnight's chosen son.
When the author published an article on British Muslim, Hassan Butt, the suspected 7/7 bomber, his philosophy of a 'literal Islam' and his efforts to recruit other young Muslims to fight in Afghanistan, he received an angry letter from his father in Pakistan, politician and businessman Salmaan Taseer, about how he had failed to understand the 'the ethos of Islam and Pakistan'. Not wanting to meet his father without an understanding of 'being Muslim' and the current moods in the Islamic world, he sets out travelling in search of a grounding, right from fiercely secular Turkey through to Syria, Oman, Iran and Yemen, with the final port of call being his father's Pakistan. The deeper and more personal question being, how his father, a non-practising Muslim could feel so strongly about his article, without actually being a 'believer' in the conventional sense. The question I kept asking myself," Taseer writes, "was how my father, a professed disbeliever in Islam's founding tenets, was even a Muslim. What made him Muslim despite his lack of faith?"
The book is clearly divided into two parts, which run parallel to each other, merging at the end. One part is the travelogue through 'Islamic lands' as the larger title of the book suggests, and the second is the author's telling of his estranged relationship with his father. And it is here that Taseer's writing really shines through. Elegant and mature, his prose allows us an embarrassingly front-row view of a poignant tale of a home broken by the redrawing of a map. While father and son never do make their peace, there is hope that they at least understand each others' motivations and purposes.
The journey itself is unremarkable and provides no deeper insight into already existing notions or knowledge of the countries he visits. There is the secular Turkey, where a more traditional and literal expression of Islam is almost abhorred . Then comes Syria, the current hot bed of radical Islamic thought, where interestingly he witnesses the burning of the Danish assembly on the Prophet-cartoon issue. He then travels to Iran, where trivialities of the Holy Book and its arbitrary interpretations are used to police the State into an almost schizophrenic straight-jacket. His journey remains a personal one, and while we wait for something fantastic to happen, our hopes built up in the initial pages, nothing really does. We will him on to meet some fascinating characters, but sadly, all we have to make do with is a bunch of Iranian Hare-Krishnas, a telling result of the hardline Islamic stance of the State and its corrupt and powerful moral police.
Things tend to get a bit of a move-on in Pakistan, and Taseer is back to what he writes best about, the subcontinent and the pain of partition. He makes an interesting observation in Pakistan - as the nations get younger, he says, they drift more and more apart, as the younger generation shares none of the hybridity that the older generation had about them. This was an interesting takeaway, as I would have thought that the baggage of old would have stopped weighing down the populations of today. Taseer gets a feeling that this is not the case with the youths of both countries charting entirely different paths, making them even more difficult to find common ground. It is in Pakistan where we meet another interesting character, the wealthy and feudal mango exporter, whose life is the telling of another kind of dichotomy in Pakistan.
Overall, a fine first book, heartfelt and poignant. It might not go down well with his father nor indeed in the Islamic world as well, but every attempt is made to be genuinely objective and his effort is praiseworthy. It challenges notions of identity, belonging and cultural roots. I would be very keen to see him write about India as well, in all its white, black and grey. I hear he's working on it.
In the meanwhile, 'Stranger to history' will do just fine.