May 25, 2020
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Present In Our Memory Games

A self-identifying, dispiriting tour of Islam's extremities inlaid with personal history

Present In Our Memory Games
Present In Our Memory Games
Stranger To History: A Son`s Journey Through Islamic Lands
By Aatish Taseer
Picador Pages: 338; Rs. 495

If both your parents are Muslims, that is no problem: you are Muslim. If one parent is Muslim and the other not, you have the choice of opting for the faith of one or the other. However, if the father is a Muslim of one nationality, and the mother is a non-Muslim of another nation, the child is all at sea, not knowing what faith or nation he or she should opt for. That, in short, is the case of Aatish Taseer: his father Salman Taseer is presently governor of Pakistan’s Punjab. His mother Tavleen is Sikh and a well-known journalist who writes regularly for The Indian Express. His parents separated soon after their short-lived liaison, met up briefly in London and then went their own ways. Aatish was brought up by Tavleen’s parents and spent his childhood with his Sikh cousins. The discovery of his being different from them makes amusing reading. One afternoon playing with his cousins he went to a quiet corner of the garden to empty his bladder. A cousin who joined him to do the same stared at Aatish’s penis with awe and wonder. He came back to announce to his assembly of uncles and aunts: "Aatish ka susu nanga hai!" They broke into hysterics. He was the only boy in the family who had been circumcised. He was Muslim.

Stranger to History is a personalised study of Muslim identity in different countries: Britain, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, India. The only thing they have in common is the passion to restore Islam to what its founder Prophet Mohammed had in mind by destroying its enemies today as they perceive them, notably the US, Israel and Britain. Their methods of achieving this end are determined by their own internal problems. In between analysing responses given to him, Taseer interposes his own problems with his father betraying his mother’s trust. The reader should know something about their family background.

Salman Taseer’s father was a minor literary celebrity in pre-Partition days. He married a Scandinavian (or maybe English). As often happens in cases of mixed marriages, Salman turned out to be a very handsome young man who had no problems seducing good-looking women. He was also a great admirer of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and hitched his wagon to the rising star in Pakistani politics. He wrote a highly laudatory biography of his hero and came to Delhi with his publisher to promote his book in March 1980. They stayed at the Oberoi Hotel where Tavleen met him.

Tavleen is the granddaughter of Sardar Bahadur Bajamber Basakha Singh, one of the principal builders of New Delhi, including the North Block of the Secretariat. He lived next door to us on Jantar Mantar Road and was my father’s closest friend. We saw him almost everyday. He also stayed with me in London. When Tavleen met Salman, she was in the prime of her youth and extremely attractive. A fair game for our Lothario from Pakistan. Though married with children, he had no compunction in seducing Tavleen. They hit it off and spent the whole week together. Tavleen became pregnant. She wrote to him in Lahore and toyed with the idea of aborting her pregnancy. He dissuaded her from doing so. He rented a flat for her in London. He joined her for a while. But his ardour had abated. He had more affairs, including one with an Indian film star whose name is not revealed by Aatish. Tavleen sensed the romance was over and returned to Delhi much embittered by her experience. Some of it washed on her son. Salman was unfazed and remarked that he had left his foreskin in India but brought the body back to Pakistan.

As might be expected, Aatish had a disturbed childhood. At school in Kodaikanal he spelt out his view of his father to his counsellor. She asked: "How do you feel about your father today?" He replied: "Nothing. I mean the man is obviously a shit. He abandoned my mother with a baby to bring up on her own. Everyone has shitty people in their lives."

Meanwhile, Salman Taseer had his ups and downs. Under Bhutto he prospered. He turned to business and made a tidy killing. He acquired a large house, yet another wife, drank Scotch, ate ham, bacon, pork and lived it up. When Bhutto fell and was hanged, General Zia-ul-Haq put him in jail. The only book he was allowed to read was the Quran. He admitted he read it front to back and back to front but found nothing in it for him. When General Musharraf was forced to resign and Zardari took over, his fortunes were again in the ascendant. He is now governor of Pakistan’s Punjab. His son Aatish met him before that. He was welcomed by his stepmother and step siblings but his father remained aloof and cold. He never wanted to see him again.

Aatish Taseer’s account of his meeting the new generation of Muslims makes depressing reading. In England he met British-born young Pakistanis wearing skull caps and sporting beards to assert their Muslim identity; in Turkey, a group of people who regretted Kemal Ataturk’s attempts to modernise them. It was the same in Iraq and Syria and worst in Ahmadinejad’s Iran. He performed the lesser pilgrimage (Umra) in Mecca carefully hiding the tattooed image of Shiva on his arm and the steel kada his Sikh grandmother had given him. In Sindh he was disappointed to see its age-old Sufi Islam give way to Wahabi bigotry. However grim his portrayal of Muslim communities in countries he visited, his account is honest, perceptive and makes riveting reading. I will look forward to reading his personal exploits which got wide coverage in the world media, Inshallah, another day.

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