Salman Taseer – Tavleen Singh’s Son Aatish Taseer Hits Back
Aatish Taseer, the 29-year old son of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who is a journalist and lives in London, has written a book, a personal memoir, about his life story in which he has depicted his father in a manner that will shock and repel many of his Pakistani readers.
Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands”, is about to be launched in London, and in India a few weeks later. It has been published by the Picador India.
The book is a fictional version of Aatish’s dramatic life story. Briefly, the story is this: “A short, intense relationship between a Pakistani politician, Salmaan Taseer, and an Indian journalist, Tavleen Singh, produces a child. As the relationship founders, the father (according to his son’s account) abandons the mother and the infant in London.
They move to Delhi, where the boy, Aatish, grows up in an elite Sikh family, but with an awareness of being ‘different’ because of his Muslim and Pakistani ancestry. “Twice in his childhood, he makes long-distance overtures to his father, but is rebuffed. In 2002, at the age of 21, he tries again, by simply landing up in Lahore, and meets with greater success. Salmaan’s political career has waned — the military rules; his party’s boss, Benazir Bhutto, is in exile — but he is, by now, a wealthy businessman and a media tycoon, with an elegant third wife and six other children.
“Relatives and family friends, who have known about Aatish for years, help him find a way into Salmaan’s life. So begins a father-son relationship that is, by no means, easy. And so dies a novel.
“There is this extraordinary story, but what does it mean? It’s not everybody else’s, Aatish said, while looking back on his struggles five years ago to write that autobiographical novel.“Then came a turning point. In 2005, Aatish, now a journalist living in London, wrote for a UK magazine on the radicalisation of the British second-generation Pakistanis, making the unexceptionable liberal argument that it was linked to failures of identity on different fronts. Chuffed by his first cover story, he sent it to his father, to whom he now felt closer — and was shocked to receive a furious reply, accusing him, among other things, of blackening the family name by spreading ‘invidious anti-Muslim propaganda’.
“The accusations set off a storm of reactions in Aatish, from hurt and defensiveness to confusion and curiosity. How was his father, who (as he was to recount in his book) drank Scotch every evening, never fasted and prayed, even ate pork and once said: ‘It was only when I was in jail and all they gave me to read was the Quran…..(This portion of the text has been deleted as it was deemed unprintable.)
Defending his controversial decision to lay bare personal relationships and conversations, Aatish said it came from his conviction, after the letter incident, that “the personal circumstances contained a bigger story.” He, however, acknowledged that the writing of the book was also a way to overcome the despair he felt at having his relationship with his father suddenly run aground again — “a way to make my peace with that personal history.”
The memoir is a journalist’s engaging travelogue. But where the political and personal come together powerfully is in the last third part of the book, which finds Aatish in Pakistan among the Pakistanis.
Personal disappointment fuses with intellectual outrage in his searing final encounters with his father. And as a traveller trying to make sense of the broken pieces of his own ancestry, he takes political discoveries personally. He is wounded by reflexive anti-Indianism, which he encounters widely in Pakistan, and particularly among the youth.
The book quite clearly rejects the idea of Pakistan (while tacitly endorsing the idea of India), but Aatish still seems to be trying to keep the two. “I hope for this to be a book for Pakistan (though) I know that is a naive thing to say—Neither with my father, nor with Pakistan, was it written to settle any scores. I hope that despite what looks like a bleak look at Pakistan, it is possible to see a genuine concern and affection for the place.”
Salmaan Taseer, with whom he has had no contact for the past 15 months — though he hears he is upset by news of his book — has been resurrected in the topsy-turvy world of Pakistani politics. About six months ago, he became the Punjab governor. It is a ceremonial role, but since the dissolution of the Shahbaz Sharif government in the Punjab, the man wields real power — and controversially. “The timing of the book is slightly insane,” he said, laughing uncertainly. “I wouldn’t have wished for it. He was just a businessman, and that was good enough for what I had to say. He didn’t need to be the governor of the Punjab.”
Is he prepared to lose the relationship with a book like this, coming especially at a sensitive time? “Whether I wrote the book or not, I am definitely pretty much persona non grata,” he said. But then he added: “My father is a bright, intelligent man, and well read. I hope he understands some day.”
Following is an extract of the book: “I had begun my journey asking why my father was Muslim, and this was why: none of Islam’s once powerful moral imperatives existed within him, but he was Muslim because he doubted the Holocaust, hated America and Israel, thought Hindus were weak and cowardly, and because the glories of the Islamic past excited him.
“The faith decayed within him, ceased to be dynamic, ceased to provide moral guidance, became nothing but a deep, unreachable historical and political identity. This was all that still had the force of faith. It was significant because in the end, this was the moderate Muslim, and it was too little moderation and in the wrong areas. It didn’t matter how someone prayed, how much they prayed, what dress they wore, whether they chose to drink or not, but it did matter that someone harboured feelings of hatred, for Jews, Americans or Hindus, that were founded in faith and only masked in political arguments.”
“I rose to leave the room. It was if a bank had burst. My father and I, for the first time, were beyond embarrassment. I returned a few moments later to say goodbye to him, but he had left for the day without a word. The now empty room produced a corresponding vacancy in me that was like despair. I wanted somehow to feel whole again; not reconciliation, that would be asking too much, just not this feeling of waste: my journey to find my father ending in an empty room in Lahore, the clear light of a bright morning breaking in to land on the criss-crossing arcs of a freshly swabbed floor.
“As the crow flies, the distance between my father and me had never been much, but the land had been marked by history for a unique division, of which I had inherited both broken pieces. My journey to seek out my father, and through him, his country, was a way for me to make my peace with that history. And it had not been without its rewards. My deep connection to the land that is Pakistan had been renewed. I felt lucky to have both countries; I felt that I’d been given what partition had denied many. For me, it meant the possibility of a different education, of embracing the three-tier history of India whole, perhaps an intellectual troika of Sanskrit, Urdu and English.
“These mismatches were the lot of people with garbled histories, but I preferred them to violent purities. The world is richer in its hybrids. “But then there was the futility of the empty room, rupture on rupture, for which I could find no consolation, except that my father’s existence, so ghostly all my life, had at last acquired a gram of material weight. And, if not for that, who knows what sterile obsessions might still have held me fast?”