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Tender and curious
on 18 May 2014
I came to Stranger to History, Taseer's debut work after being thoroughly impressed by his piece on Sanskrit where he bemoaned the loss of a whole body of linguistic structure and culture thanks to colonialisation. It was personal, curious and his sentences encased within them a quiet tragedy that had me in thrall at his talent.
In this unusual part-biography, part-travelogue, he turns a journey of meeting his politician father in Pakistan who had estranged him in his childhood into an odyssey that would inform him about what being a Muslim in the current world entails. This decoding of contemporary Muslim identity and reality by virtue of travel and interviews in key Muslim nations (Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia Iran, Pakistan and other undocumented detours into Jordan and Yemen), would in his tentative plan, help him bridge the gulf of empathy for a father who is a warden and defender of an Islamic republic for decades. It would also, he hopes, help him complete his own sense of self as a Muslim: a name and a religion that has been little more than a nebulous patrilineal label from an absent father owing to the effect of having grown up in affluent, secular India and received further education and moorings in the world in more liberal societies.
This quest for personal actualisation and an ethnic understanding are both deep and compelling journeys and they ground this sometimes meandering, but never short of insightful book. Except for the novelistic flourishes in which Taseer waxes a sentence almost always too long on describing appearance of real people and the rhythms of landscape, he is in his element. Drawing upon his formal training in politics and journalism, his continuous mission to pin down the present and future aspirations of the hoi-polloi and spokespeople in Islamic lands leads to searching conversations and informed conclusions. He might just offer his reader glimpses, but his subjects are chosen with care and the wisdom yoked from interactions is articulated with pragmatism. I enjoyed how his clear-headed, direct questioning on the idea of the ideal Islamic way of life always met with an impasse as the answering man (from a Syrian cleric to his father) entered into a rhetoric constructed totally of convenient historical retellings and amorphous utopian dreams. Without being sensationalist, Taseer manages to make the reader see the fallacies of such utopias in the everyday corrosive realities within inward-looking and self-serving Islamic states with defined borders: Pakistan and Iran, both struggling with the modern "world system".
Punctuated with these socio-political musings, his personal journey tore into me, both in how earnestly he pursued his imagined redemption and how he fielded the rebuffs and snubs with absolute decorum. For his sake, I felt myself punching in the air as the bittersweet realisation in the denouement dawns on him as he sits next to his father watching Benazir Bhutto's funeral on live television. Like all journeys, he is a different man at the end of his. He sees things and people differently. The veil has dropped. He has gained in knowledge and lost in innocence, but it feels right. This is how things usually are. Life for rational thinkers is filled with many such obstacles of ossified structures and mind-sets. But the journey to reason must go on.