My twelve-nearly-thirteen year old daughter Isha gifted me 'Stranger to History' for Mother's Day. Yesterday.
A book by Aatish Taseer, that is also dedicated 'For Ma'...
Finished reading it late last night. Am still awed. Which means, I went online and voraciously read all I could find of Aatish's early works - his articles in Prospect magazine as journalist. I read the reviews of this book. On Amazon. In the Guardian. In Independent. On blogs..
The one that captures my sentiments completely is a review by Gabrielle O, (scroll down) on the Amazon book site.
All that has to be said on his seeking out of Islam via a journey over eight months through Istanbul, Damascus, Tehran, Mecca, and finally Pakistan, and thereby, to knowing his absent father - has been said already by folks.
Let me add my two bits here.
Yes, this is a son's journey through ruthlessly all-male Islamic lands, triggered off by his absent from childhood father (Salmaan Taseer from Pakistan)'s supreme indifference... whenever the son tried to reach out to him (never ever the other way round).
But I was equally amazed to discover that the book is actually hyphenated and bracketed - between two women. Begins with a dedication 'For Ma' (Indian Tavleen Singh) and ends with a final acknowledgment to Ella Windsor (quote: 'whose love and friendship run silently through each of these pages' unquote)
And this is no mere coincidence. The women of his life are present in what I see as Aatish's comfort in being himself... never scathing, nor scornful as he tries to make sense of the other's version of the world. A quiet invisible love appears to prop him up. As he always tries to get to the root of all conversations, with a diverse bunch of Muslim - men. Across borders.
Yes, as Gabrielle (not to be confused with Aatish's girl friend Gabriella!) points out in her Amazon review, this is indeed a very male - focused book.
I agree. In the way women enter and exit it, it is in their role as nurturers only (mom picks him up after work from aunt's home; aunt feeds him; stepmother takes care of him; Anahita cooking dinner; grandmom... therapist... et al). The comments on Islam, the rigid beliefs - are always from 'men' (discounting Violet and Nargis in Iran, who are larger than life in their eccentricities).
Elsewhere he carelessly throws in little anecdotes of moments shared with his dad, such as in the story his father tells him of being tortured in jail - poignant in the need of a son to latch on to such father-son bonding moments. And yet, it is the cocooning influence of women, I expect, that cushions his writing. A mother who is non-judgmental ('go, my darling' she says at one point, as he sets forth on his journey).
Makes his point of view less angular or harsh, more holistic, imho.
What made the book attractive to me - and I expect all those who have ensured it is Number One on the bestseller list currently, is his openness to want to understand various perspectives. His control on language. His thoughtful insights. Yet, when I go online, i am shocked to see the vitriolic reaction in the Pakistani press. It is as if they have embraced their own son.. at the cost of the son's son.
The two reviews - in the Guardian as well as the Independent, are written by Muslim authors, who seem to find constant occasions to pan the book. Little realizing that they - in this way - ADD, rather than take away from his point on the rejection of composite culture by Islamists.
The Guardian reviewer Yassin-Kassab asks : How seriously would we take a cultural analysis of Britain written by someone who speaks no English? (in order to reject non-believer Taseer's seeking of Muslim culture and history)
All I can say is, I would always value and marvel at that traveler's comments who has gone down a path that I can go vicariously ,as a first time traveler, rather than one who has been-there-done-that, and believes he knows it all.
Similarly, Ziauddin Sardar in the Independent, makes sweeping statements re: the book (and quotes this as Taseer's description of the Kaba) : When he finally discovers it, he sees it as "nothing". It is solid, impenetrable and mute, he tells us; and its "utter poverty" expresses "cosmic contempt for the things of the world".
Which I think totally misses the point. It was Aatish's response to the awe it inspired. Were I to quote him, I would go with this line he writes re the Kaba : So silent and unrevealing a sanctum was this, that it implied faith, rewarding the believer with nothing, as if faith itself was the reward...
Elsewhere a phrase he uses in the book, like an ever present leit motif - violent purity signifies all that is left unsaid. After all the back page of Stranger to History has the large shadow of this phrase... and what it seems to read is this...
In the final analysis, a sharp indictment and perhaps anger? At dear daddy? Who elicits disgust - at 'the smallness of my father's world, the homogeneity of the place, in which people voiced ugly opinions without challenge: a safe area for casual hatred'.
Ultimately, as a reviewer points out : 'Uncomfortable reading for Daddy, certainly, but gripping for the rest of us.'
Going online also means that one cannot get away from the gossip that this celebrityhood will now bestow. One learns - sorrowfully - that his engagement with Lady Windsor is now off, for he wants to come back to India, and she - wary of what happened to Jemima when she married Imran Khan, says the article - does not...
This then is the truth after all. As postmodern history gets written : In an always on connected world, where information is just a breath away via cell phones, internet and text messages; where a geographical continent is a mere hours away by jetplane, truth is that boundaries are still massive - between cultures, religions.
And the genders. Even when men may live their lives bracketed between women.
Massive monolithic boundaries, far more potent - in its invisibility.