Journey of the Self: Aatish Taseer’s Stranger to History

“I had sought out my father because I couldn’t live with the darkness of not knowing him.”
Absent fathers make for haunting presence. Think of Hamlet, Ghosts, and The Glass Menagerie.
Aatish Taseer’s first book: Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands is a young man’s search for his father who like the father in The Glass Menagerie is for many years just a photograph in a browning silver frame.
As young Aatish grows up, he starts realising that there is something that sets him apart from his Sikh cousins. Later a therapist in a boarding school impresses upon him the fact that he should try and contact his father, the Pakistani politician, Salmaan Taseer, and form an opinion of him himself rather than simply relying on the recollections of his mother, the Indian journalist, Tavleen Singh. The young boy gets hold of his father’s number and gives him a call. From then on begins an on-off relationship with his father.
Things come to a head when Aatish publishes an article on the growing Islamic extremism amongst second-generation Pakistanis in Britain. Since it is his first cover story, he sends a copy of it to his father and eagerly anticipates the latter’s reaction. His father’s letter shakes him up as he accuses Aatish of spreading invidious anti-Muslim propaganda. This leads Aatish to think of his own Muslim self, of his father who never followed the tenats of Islam but called himself a Muslim, of his great-grandmother, who never recovered from the horrors of partition, and whose first comment on seeing the infant Aatish was: “Yes, he is lovely, but Muslim nonetheless.”
It is in search of his own identity that Aatish sets out on a journey thru Islamic countries. The book chronicles the journey thereof. In Turkey, he sees people turning away from the almost militant secularism of Ataturk; in Syria, he watches the enflaming of passions over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammad; in Iran, he has an experience of a ‘police state’ but also realises the resentment of a few against the ‘arabinasation’ of Islam. He also finds cults like Hare Rama Hare Krishna! And finally to Pakistan which was made for an idea, and which had broken with history for that idea.
Interspersed through all this is his own discussion with self and surroundings as also a glimpse into his personal history. There are some heart-felt passages, where he realises what he has missed out in his life:
Through the whole experience, I watched a small boy, sitting at my feet in a white skullcap. He fiddled, then fell occasionally into the prayer position, then got up and looked around. He had beautiful light-coloured eyes. Seeing him near his father, in the all-male environment, it was possible to see how visiting the mosque could become a special rite between father and son.
However, the one passage that resonated with me is the one where he describes his grandfather’s longing for an undivided Punjab:
His face came alive as he’d tell me the story of how he had called my father from London to inform him of my birth. When the operator on the Pakistani side spoke, and my grandfather heard the music in his accent, he gasped, ‘He spoke my Punjabi!’
I can well relate to the sudden sense of belonging that arises when one hears the Raavi-paar Punjabi.
Stranger to History is easily available in bookshops and can also be purchased online. I bought one from a shop at South Ex, Delhi.
Entered for the Book Review Party hosted by Cym Lowell every Wednesday.

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