Once, a man I know, a nice man for all practical purposes, said to me with a sense of pride, “I went and shouted at those people in the mosque.” He was offended that the Muslims could make so much noise in his Hindu country, and not expect anyone to feel annoyed. What do you do when you have already established a relationship, only to find out the person is intolerant of a great many things? Maybe you hide from him the things he would disprove of, and carry on a diminished relationship.
I couldn’t tell him that what he called noise was a source of great comfort to me. I spent a significant part of my childhood in Kuwait, and it was an idyllic childhood in a very textbook way. This noise was to me a homecoming. It reassured me, and it felt like a hug from a time machine. It brought back memories of carols being sung to mark Christmas, and one spectacular year in which Diwali and Eid fell within days of each other. This childhood also left me with a curiosity for all things Islam, even if sometimes simply to stir up nostalgia.
Aatish Taseer, author of Stranger to History, is the child of a fractured relationship between a Sikh woman and a Muslim man from neighbouring countries. It is a relationship redolent of the fault lines that tore apart the subcontinent. He does not identify himself as Muslim – is he one simply because his father is one? He undertakes a journey across Islamic Asia in an effort to discover what it means to be Muslim in the present world. He starts his journey in Istanbul, travels through Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and finally arrives in Pakistan, hoping to reconcile with his estranged father. Stranger to History is a book that is deeply personal yet wide in its scope. It touches on politics and its uneasy commingling with religion; it takes short detours to the past so that we understand better the present. It asks difficult questions and allows us to learn of the impulses and beliefs that drive the people he encounters. It tells us of the great contrast that exists in the Muslim word: in Iran where the people are defiantly faithless as a response to the state forcing faith on them, and in Turkey where the people are defiantly radical in their faith as a response to the state’s fierce brand of secularism. He tries to probe into why there is a sort of unity that exists in the minds of many people, surpassing cultural and geographical limitations, and even lack of faith at times. There are no easy answers, but plenty of conversations with many kinds of Muslims – the believer, the extremist, the elite, the ordinary man, the non-believer.
This is an important book, in these troubled times, when the freedoms many of us take for granted are under threat in other parts of the world. It is a dangerous situation when a country founded on an idea, with The Book to guide it, turns more inward when faced with problems modern in nature. Instead of an open discourse, we have a situation where the ruling powers are more invested in controlling the trivial aspects of their citizens’ lives (‘trifles’, as the author says).
His writing is most moving when speaking of his experiences in Pakistan, which to his surprise, he finds to be very similar to India, except for the notable absence of diversity. And it is this diversity that the people seem to sorely miss, for they are now living in a homogeneous society and witnessing the slow erosion of a shared culture. His attempts to forge a relationship with his father do not end well too – on his last day in Lahore, father and son, strangers to each other, are left watching the assassination of Benazir Bhutto on TV; they have nothing left to say.
There are no neat endings in life, and this is true in the author’s case as well. His father, as well-known Pakistani politician and business was assassinated by his own bodyguard after he defended a Christian woman who was sentenced to death. We are left wondering if the book had a part to play in the disproportionate hate the author’s father faced in his country – the country he professed love for till the very end.