Many times during the course of 'Stranger to History', I admit trying to find Aatish Taseer's Twitter profile (with no luck). The more I read this book, the more curious I became about the author whose life seems to be an extraordinary case of ironies. I sought inane little details – as a person is wont to give away on Twitter – about Taseer, if only to humanise, 'normalise' him a little. Because going by the book, internal and external conflict is all he has ever lived by. Picture a set of parents belonging to different religions, living in different countries and divorced. Picture a little child who has only just known shadows of his father, forever clutching at straws of identity. It all befell Taseer's lot, and 'Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands' is his story.
Born as a lovechild to a rising Pakistani political activist and an Indian political journalist, Taseer's destiny seemed to bear the fault line of the IndoPak border. While his parents got married for a while, they divorced soon after, owing his Muslim father's political ambitions in Pakistan. His Sikh mother raised him in Delhi, with help from a host of Sikh relatives. Once a young man, Taseer is driven by a need to know his father and to truly understand what being a Muslim is. He sets out on a journey that takes him from Turkey to Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran to finally his father's doorstep in Pakistan.
Taseer samples the unique flavours the religion of Muhammad travelling through these Islamic states. Through his journalistic lens, he shows you the undercurrents of radical Islam in the largely secular Turkey, the monied 'Sheikh' culture of the Saudi, the oppressive religious regime in Iran, the constant political unrest in Syria and finally, the imploding state of Pakistan. It's a great bird's eye view of the current state of affairs in these nations and an eyeopener for people like me who do not follow global politics; especially the politics of religion. Because he is a journalist, Taseer's writing is analytical, but it is also delightfully lyrical in places. Through the people he meets during his travels, he personalises the account, without ever getting emotional.
That's not to say the book is devoid of emotion. The book is an intensely personal account of a search for identity. It is hard not to be moved by Taseer's confusion, occasional jubilation and often, rejection. The point of strife between Taseer and his father is the question of identity, with Taseer being Indian yet not, Pakistani yet not, Muslim yet not. His father's reluctant acceptance of him after many years, and a fresh rift owing to difference of opinion are painful to witness.
It is hard not to feel sorry for him, for ourselves and for our Pakistani neighbours, who live in this milieu of political mistrust. Taseer's life could well be an exaggeration of the conflict all of us, who live in the post 1947 world, feel. Pakistan's children, are perhaps in a worse place, having rejected all their shared history with India. It can't be nice growing up with a big black void in the collective social consciousness. Reading this book causes one to ask many questions about one's religious and national identities. These are important questions that need to be asked and for that, I thank Taseer.