Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Book Review: Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer

I just finished reading Aatish Taseer's "Stranger to History" (subtitle: A son's journey through Islamic lands). I read it over two nights, and it got more and more gripping as it went along.

I won't waste space discussing what the book is about. Amazon has a good description of it. And Amazon's reader reviews can give you more insights.

By the way, the young man on the cover is not the author. This is what Aatish Taseer really looks like:

Here are my impressions from the book.

This is a book from which I think Western readers especially can learn a lot about Islam, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. [I come from the subcontinent myself and I believe that I have a better understanding of many of the things the author is talking about than most Westerners, and there was a lot here that was new to me.] In many ways, reading this book was like wading into a real-life soap opera, and I enjoyed the many thrills of recognition that it generated. Although the author never mentions his mother by name, I learnt from the web that she is none other than the famous Indian journalist Tavleen Singh, many of whose columns I have read off and on over the last twenty-odd years. And his father Salmaan Taseer has recently taken over as governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab. [Update 04/01/2011: Salman Taseer was assassinated by his own bodyguard for opposing the death penalty for a Christian woman accused of blasphemy.] What better soap opera background than for the author of a book to have parents from two traditionally "enemy" countries?

As I ploughed through the first few chapters, I formed the unfair impression that the author was something of a "Western person's Muslim", telling them what they wanted to hear about himself and about the Muslims (the equivalent of what African-Americans call an "Uncle Tom"). However, those early chapters were about countries alien to both the author and to myself. And I hadn't learnt to trust him enough at that stage. By the time he came to Iran and then to Pakistan, I began to understand him much better. I realised that like me, he was at heart a Westernised Indian with liberal-humanist sensibilities. He may be Muslim by virtue of having a Muslim father, but his sensibilities are every bit progressive, modern and intolerant of sham and injustice. As I warmed to the author, I began to enjoy his style and to see things from his point of view.

The chapters on Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia left me somewhat cold. That's not the author's fault. I guess I'm just too emotionally distant from those countries to care very much. My interest picked up when he described Iran. And the excitement reached fever-pitch when he began his travels through Pakistan. I couldn't put the book down from that point. I therefore won't make apologies for concentrating the bulk of this review on the latter part of the book.

There are two currents that this book deals with through the mechanism of the travelogue, and one can take them with a feeling of despair, triumphalism or sorrowful resignation.

One is the larger dilemma of the Muslim world vis-a-vis the world as a whole, the latter now being dominated by Western thought and Western invention. If I may crudely paraphrase what the book tries to say, Islam enjoyed a seemingly inexorable rise since the 7th century, constantly conquering and advancing. But five centuries ago, that growth faltered. Europe took off from that point on, and its power and its reach grew to eclipse that of Islam. So today, the overweening theme of the average Muslim's reaction to the modern world shaped by European civilisation is one of dismay. The conquering hero has been cheated of his prize. World domination by Islam, which once seemed inevitable, now seems equally inevitably never to be. Islam's glory is all in the past. This is not an easy reality for many Muslims to accept.

The second is the subcontinental drama of India and Pakistan (and to a lesser extent, Bangladesh). Again, to crudely paraphrase the book, Pakistan in its own eyes is the un-India. It defines itself in terms of what it is not, which is perhaps why the resolution of the Kashmir dispute will probably not address the core problem in the relationship. India's success will always be seen in Pakistan as Pakistan's failure. For Pakistan to succeed, India must fail, or if it does not do so on its own, must be made to fail. One may bluntly call such attempts terrorism or cloak this in Islamic terms like jihad, but it is essentially a cry for relevance. But the age has passed when violent attacks on India were condoned by the world. That option is no longer available. And so Pakistan is left to drink from two bitter and poisoned chalices, its own spiralling destruction and the growing success of its self-characterised enemy. This is not an easy reality for most Pakistanis to accept.

Intentionally or otherwise, Aatish Taseer has done an effective hatchet job on three groups of people - (1) His father and father's family, (2) Pakistan and Pakistani society and (3) doctrinaire Muslims in general.

(1) From Aatish's description, Salmaan Taseer does not come across as a nice person at all. Even if we take Aatish to be biased, we have the incontrovertible facts of Salmaan's behaviour. A married man with children who cheats on his wife with another woman only to turn his back on her and her child, can't be anything but a schmuck. And the comments of Aatish's siblings about "little black Hindus", "ugly Indians" and how they hate them shows them up as colour-conscious racists. It's a pity Aatish must have burnt his bridges with his father and paternal relatives with this book. But from the picture we gain of them (as bigoted individuals), I don't think he's worse off for it.

(2) I don't think anyone has done as good a hatchet job on Pakistani culture since Om Puri in East is East. With anecdote after anecdote, Aatish exposes the deep insecurities of a society that arrogantly set out to be better than India and ended up being far, far worse. Perhaps understandably, the attitude of those who left India for Pakistan at the time of Partition is even more hardline than that of people who were always there. They seem desperate to avoid buyer's remorse. The reported conversation with a muhajjir in Sind is pathetically funny. The poor man tries hard to tease out every way in which India could possibly be worse than Pakistan. The attitudes of educated people don't seem very different, regrettably.

(3) I hope no outraged cleric issues a fatwa against this young author whose only crimes have been honesty and candour. He has clearly exposed the problems of various types of Muslim societies. The desire for purity in those that went by the book (no pun intended) has led to ugliness and violence. And authoritarian states have abused the religion to consolidate political power, robbing people of the spiritual comfort that it could give them. The Muslim world seems to suffer from a deep inferiority complex. They must rule the world. They cannot coexist as equals with other cultures. It's going to be a long and painful adjustment process for them to accept the fact that equality is the best they can ever hope for. If the failed and failing states across the Middle East and South Asia are any indication, Islamic civilisation is self-destructing before our eyes, thanks to unbending pride and ideological rigidity.

I found this piece on Iran cute, funny and sad at the same time:

"On certain nights cars would collect in a line along the avenue and car-flirting would begin. It was a Tehrani activity in which carfuls of boys rolled past carfuls of girls, looks were exchanged, smiles, paper chits, and if the bearded men showed up, the scene scattered."

There seems to be a pattern with many Islamic societies. In practice, Islam in these societies seems to be all about "bearded men" interfering in people's personal lives and telling them what to do and what not to. It's the very opposite of a free society that I (and the author) believe in.

However, my impression of Iran from this book is one of hope, of a country on the edge of a new chapter in its history, a more tolerant and modern chapter. The next generation is waiting in the wings, and they are as far from Ayatollah Khomeini as can be imagined.

I have wondered about how Iranians identify with Islam, when Persian culture pre-dated Islam and was so obviously rich and proud. I also wonder about whether Egyptians take similar pride in their ancient (pre-Islamic) civilisation. This book doesn't talk about Egypt, but does compare Iran and Pakistan in this regard.

I was gratified to read that Iranians do take pride in their pre-Islamic culture and are aware of their identity as something more than just Muslim.

It's a reasonable question the author asks - Why don't Pakistanis take similar pride in their ancient Hindu past (with its many achievements since the Vedic age)?

There's a telling statement by a Pakistani:

"If all India became Muslim, we might have been able to identify with the Hindu past. We would have modified something. But since it didn't happen that way, we can't choose something that goes against our taste. You won't wear a T-shirt you don't like."

In other words, the very presence of Hindu (or more correctly, multicultural) India hangs in front of Pakistan like a taunt, preventing Pakistanis from seeing themselves as being from the same culture. They would rather identify with Muslim invaders who converted their Hindu forefathers (at swordpoint) than admit their real ancestry and heritage. The loss is theirs, as it is with all those who attempt to rewrite history to make it more palatable.

It's a sad point the author makes that the youth of India and Pakistan have drifted further apart than even their grandparents. The reason is that Pakistanis have not known diversity for two generations now and have been indoctrinated against India and Hindus from their childhood, whereas Indians grow up with diversity in their subconscious.

[I can't help thinking wistfully of a South Asian Utopia, one where Partition never occurred and where the Muslims of undivided India adhered to the mild Sufi brand of Islam rather than the hardline Deobandi or Wahhabi strain. This India would be the world's most populous country, larger even than China. It would not have known its four internecine wars. Perhaps it would have been militarily softer and weaker as a result. Or perhaps not. At any rate, things wouldn't be the way they are today. If Pakistanis can swallow their collective pride and admit that the basic idea of Pakistan was wrong, they can still enter into a mutually beneficial relationship with India, even if not outright union (I don't think India now has the appetite for union with Pakistan, anyway!) Bangladesh can do the same, and South Asia will be an economic and geopolitical powerhouse to rival China. But I'm not holding my breath. Pakistani pride will never let it happen. To paraphrase Z.A. Bhutto, they will eat grass but never accept a subordinate role to India.]

To return to the book, the writing is good, although not great. I can think of greater writers and thinkers who could have moulded these experiences into a white-hot narrative with far deeper insights. But it is still authentic. The personal angle is interesting in itself. The study of Islamic societies is topical. The two when intertwined make rivetting reading. I think this book deserves recognition through an award (the Booker, the Pulitzer, anything) for the much-needed light it shines on Islamic societies and the fresh angle from which it shines it.

I like the way the author intersperses chapters. The narrative periodically takes a break from the present journey to either talk about something that happened much earlier, or to muse about a concept. It gives the reader an opportunity to pause and digest what the author has experienced.

The moral of the book seems to be simply this: Diversity is difficult to handle - diversity of religions, cultures, thought. But the nations that nonetheless manage to nurture diversity evolve into rich, beautiful and tolerant societies. The ones that shun diversity in favour of ideological purity, whether Islamic, Marxist or any other kind, end up with a grotesque, ugly and violent society that is hell on earth.

Islam in the Indian subcontinent was once capable of synthesising cultures, of morphing to a gentler form (Sufism). But in recent times, that trend has withered in favour of a harsher, purer strain (Wahhabism or the Deobandi school). The loss is that of the societies that have taken this path.

The author's impression of Pakistan at the beginning of his very first visit says it all.

"We drove away from the border in his air-conditioned car. The country that opened up, of mud chimneys, canals full of bathing children and small, congested neighbourhoods, with bright-coloured Urdu writing on the walls, might have been a Muslim neighbourhood in India. It seemed so familiar that one expected the diversity of the Indian scene to reveal itself. And when it didn't, it was unsettling. It really was an India for Muslims only."

Aatish Taseer went to Pakistan with a positive attitude, but for all the Pakistanis' sense of cultural superiority, India's soft power ultimately prevailed. Pakistan may have fascinated him, but could not win him over. And no wonder. India's mongrel culture, much as its detractors may deride it, is in fact its greatest strength. Pakistan's (aspired-for) purity is in fact its downfall. In Harry Potter terms, India is a mudblood country; Pakistan is a Slytherin ideal of purebloodedness. If that makes one shudder, that was my reaction when I read this book. And I believe that's the impression the author intended to convey.