It’s his life story that gives Aatish Taseer that extra edge and much fodder for his trilogy of tomes. Having drawn on it already for a debut in the world of writing with a travelogue and a fictional novel, it might be nonplussing to find that he lets a similar motif thread though his latest novel, Noon.
The love child of the recently assassinated Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and Indian journalist, Tavleen Singh, Taseer has been writing for some time now about his estranged father. So if a certain sense of engagement with his father comes through in all his writings, you would have to keep it in mind that Salman Taseer, one of Pakistan’s most important newspaper proprietors, was a glamorous personality. He was a defiant liberal who had requested a pardon for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan’s blasphemy law for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad — it led to his assassination in January this year by his own security guard.
But then the author deems Noon as his final instalment of coming to terms with his ‘personal entanglement’ with religion and identity.
“I have had this feeling of fatigue with Pakistan ever since my father’s killing. It was disturbing to sense the carnival-like atmosphere there following his death and the way the clerics deemed him ‘wajib al qatal’, that is fit to die, even before he was killed,” points out Taseer who divides his time between travelling to London, New York and staying the rest of the time at his mother’s pad in Delhi.
Lounging in his mother’s apartment — it has an enviable Lutyens Delhi address and exudes an old world charm (read: stained glass doors) yet with contemporary touches through paintings by young artists like Zack Yorke and Salman Toor – it is not surprising therefore to find Taseer at home with talk about the embryonic cord between his books and his various relationships.
“I believe that you have to start a journey near yourself and make it ahead from there,” notes the young author (he’s in his early 30s) who started off his career as a journalist with Time Magazine in London. Now he writes articles occasionally for the magazine and the Wall Street Journal.
Taseer has had the spotlight trained on him ever since he wrote books about his high-profile father. Of late he has been at the receiving end of strong reactions when he wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal that claimed in its title that his father ‘hated India’. On the personal front too, it did not do much to improve equations.
“My relationship with my six brothers and sisters who live in Lahore is in a state of frost. The last time I met them and my father was in 2007 when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated,” he acknowledges. It is a strange state of affairs, yes, but Taseer takes it in his strides as he stresses that he will brook censorship from none.
The novel Noon itself is set over two decades in India and Pakistan and starts with the narrator, a young Indian, traveling to Pakistan to meet an estranged father. His tone in the novel is that of awkwardness and a sense of dislocation. The novel ends with a blog on a jagged note.
“The end is left open deliberately as a kind of a comment. People keep thinking that Pakistan will collapse any moment. But in reality a society just rots away. It all began with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, my father and then subsequently minister Shahbaz Bhatti getting killed. The cycle of calamity just continues,” adds Taseer.
Noon is also marked by thinly veiled characters who might just put you in mind of personalities such as industrialist Ajit Gulabchand (Tavleen Singh’s partner), Maharani Gayatri Devi, textile expert Martand Singh, and Salman Taseer who however figures as a shadowy presence.
You even read an incident that Taseer senior related to his son about a time when he was arrested by the military regime of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq and which clearly made an impression on Taseer. He writes: “I remember he once said they put him for a long, long time in a little cage with leather over it in the fierce heat and they dehydrated him. I said: ‘Why didn’t you sign the confession?’ And he said: ‘They made a small mistake. They tortured me for too long – and once you realise you can survive it, you won’t give in. If they’d asked me in the first 12 hours, I might have signed.’
But Taseer is no boy wonder. His first book published in 2009, Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands, that is a memoir of his travels though countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran before it ended in Pakistan, was not his first attempt at being an author.
“There were at two unsuccessful novels between the ages of 19 and 26. That was the phase of cutting my teeth before I hit upon the material for Stranger to History,” says the author who has a well-received translation of Manto to his name.
In fact Stranger to History came about as a response to a letter from his father accusing him of ignorance when he wrote an article about radicalisation of British Muslims. The book, because it spoke openly about Salman Taseer’s absence from his early life, earned him a permanent rift with his father since it also came out at a time when Taseer senior had become the Governor of Punjab.
“I have heard of how my books have been used by my father’s detractors even after he was killed. But there are things that are out of my control,” he says.
In his second book, a novel called The Temple-Goers that was published in 2010, he addresses his issues with his identity as a Muslim and an Indian. While it was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, it was endorsed by an author no less than VS Naipaul, according to whom, Taseer is a “young writer to watch”.
A man with model good looks and a regular on the London hi-society circuit ever since he dated Gabriella Windsor, the daughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, Taseer is a fitness freak. He runs 10-12 km and makes sure he spends an hour on daily workouts. Besides which, he is returning to his interest in Sanskrit – he has spent 6 months studying the language in Oxford University.
As if on cue, he takes out some personal notes on a Sanskrit text of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Taseer reads extensively. He says: “While I have grown up reading V S Naipaul who I credit with a huge technical influence on me, I loved writers such as Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Guy de Maupassant and Munshi Premchand.”
And if you do wonder if through exploring his identity to know himself better, he has discovered an individual style of writing, the man signs off saying: “The weaving together of Urdu poetry, Sanskrit literature and English prose – that is my inheritance.”
(A version of this story was published in The Telegraph on August 28, 2011)
Photographs by Jagan Negi