Rapid ruminating


INTERVIEW:From an impending cultural revolution in India to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, from the non-fictional crust of his first novel to the violent ends of his next, Aatish Taseer has a lot to say – and, writes LAURENCE MACKIN, it’s all worth hearing

ATISH TASEER SEEMS to be destined to live in two worlds. Born in London to Indian and Pakistani parents in 1980, Taseer grew up in New Delhi and was educated in India and Amherst College in the US. Now a successful journalist and writer, he splits his time between India and London. He has written controversial and acclaimed articles for Timeand Prospectmagazines, his debut novel, The Temple-Goers, was nominated for the Costa First Novel award, and he has a new book due in the summer.

When we speak, he has to tear himself away from India’s exploits in the cricket world cup, but it is not long before he shifts his focus on to the interview completely, and his lightning-fast diction is tumbling down the line in polite, rapid bursts of clinical information.

One of the central themes in The Temple-Goersis how India is starting to delineate a new, modern identity for itself, free of colonial baggage. Taseer most clearly demonstrates this with his two main characters: one an idle part-time writer, restlessly searching for a more traditional, spiritual India, who takes his wealth and his comfortable lifestyle for granted; the other, a Brahmin gym instructor constantly on the hunt for opportunities to “upgrade” himself, but secure in his traditional family and religious setting. Taseer feels India is at a crossroads, and he intends to be there to witness it.

“I feel a beginning, a certain kind of confidence,” he says. “I see people asking the right questions. You couldn’t say one bad word about India in the past and it’s not the case any more; a cultural self-examination has taken root.

“There has been a tradition of Indian writers becoming a success and then moving abroad and becoming émigré writers. But I feel you need to be here, and the danger is that you move away and write about India and then return to a country you don’t recognise. It might leave you behind.”

Taseer argues that, in India, there is a tendency “to just imitate and to copy”, in culture, in commerce, in identity. “It gives you the illusion of modernity,” he argues. “There is a spread of very low culture. One feels that if there is to be a significant Indian reawakening it would have to look to itself, it couldn’t continue to make a facsimile of the world; it needs something more profound.”

He doesn’t see this “cultural reawakening” as being a straightforward return to India’s heritage, in the manner of the cultural nationalism movement that took place in Ireland in the late 19th century. “India would have to remake its past, it would have to process its past; you don’t even feel a kind of narrative has come yet.”

But back to Taseer’s own narrative in The Temple-Goers– the main character is a writer called Aatish, of Pakistani-Indian heritage, and the novel we are reading is his work. Is it too simplistic to assume this is largely an autobiographical work, or is Taseer playing literary games with his readers, in the manner of Orhan Pamuk?

“Very little [is autobiographical] – it’s always a surprise to me that so many people say this. It such an old thing, it’s quite a traditional narrative, in the way that Proust has Marcel. It creates a non-fictional crust that falls away.”

This non-fictional crust has a bit of bite though, and keen readers will no doubt identify a famous author in one chapter, holding forth at a dinner party, as none other than VS Naipaul. It’s a flattering gesture, if unsurprising, given that Naipaul has praised Taseer’s work in the past. “I felt I needed that voice in there, a voice of authority especially at that dinner, which is sort of the philosophical heart of the book. But I don’t think the views are his views.”

Aside from such literary tricks, though, Taseer is a serious writer with an intricate background that, were it in a novel, would stretch most readers’ credulity. His Indian mother, Tavleen Singh, is a journalist who had an affair with his father, Salmaan Taseer, a senior Pakistani politician.

Taseer did not meet his father until he was 21, and they rebuilt their relationship. However, after the London bombings in July 2005, Taseer wrote a piece in Prospect magazine in which he described the British second-generation Pakistani as “the genus of Islamic extremism” in Britain. His father was furious, and a second estrangement ensued.

“There were certain things I would never have doubted about my father: his courage, for one thing, and his commitment to Pakistan,” says Taseer. “He would certainly have put that before anyone. When I met my father it was for me; I didn’t want to carry around this feeling of recrimination if I was seeking him out. I had no business to seek him out for hostility. I did it with an open heart.”

The last time Taseer spoke to his father was on the night Benazir Bhutto was killed – December 27th, 2007. It was to prove the last time they would ever speak – Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in a market in Islamabad in January of this year.

A member of the Pakistan People’s Party, chief executive of a major telecoms group and a media mogul, Salmaan Taseer was a liberal politician and strongly opposed to Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws.

While governor of Punjab, he filed a mercy petition for Asia Bibi, who is currently in prison, having been sentenced to death for blasphemy. On January 4th of this year, Taseer was shot and killed by a 26-year-old man, a member of his own security detail.

Outrage at the killing was, at best, muted. As Aatish Taseer wrote in an article published days after his father’s death: “Already, even before his body is cold, those same men of faith in Pakistan have banned good Muslims from mourning my father; clerics refused to perform his last rites; and the armoured vehicle conveying his assassin to the courthouse was mobbed with cheering crowds and showered with rose petals.

“On Friday every mosque in the country condoned the killer’s actions; 2,500 lawyers came forward to take on his defence for free; and the chief minister of Punjab, who did not attend the funeral, is yet to offer his condolences in person to my family, who sit besieged in their house in Lahore.”

The article is built on dignified fury, and I wonder just how Taseer was able to compose such a controlled, even calm, piece in the throes of what was happening. “I wouldn’t have called it calm,” he corrects me sharply. “For me it was as strong a piece as I’ve ever written. I didn’t intend it to be calm. I had a complicated relationship with my father, but as far as what his death means for Pakistan, for me it’s as horrific a thing as I’ve ever experienced.”

Still, to have the capacity to write a piece so close to such an emotive happening displays remarkable control. “I have to put myself out, I have a book to promote, there are things I can’t avoid doing,” he says firmly. “There was the actual event and then the reaction has been so ugly and so disturbing it chills your blood and it has gone on until literally just the other day. From the clerics who wouldn’t officiate over the funeral to the senate who wouldn’t offer condolences to my family.

“This was an extralegal killing of one of their own political class and it is happening [again] with Shahbaz Bhatti being killed. The country has absolutely turned its back on changing those laws.” Bhatti, the minorities minister, was assassinated on March 2nd – after publicly condemning the murder of Salmaan Taseer.

“It’s a really grim time in Pakistan, and for a certain kind of Pakistan I feel it’s game over,” sighs Taseer. “You have to remember that Pakistan is a country of 180 million, so if it goes in a dangerous direction, it’s not just a problem for Pakistan, or for India over its border, it’s a problem for everyone.”

Taseer’s next book, he says, is a very different work, and a very violent one, but it was written before his father’s death. “Its most important scenes are about a certain kind of exertion of power on an individual from Indian society that prevents him from being the man he intends to be, of people being forced to bend. It’s quite a violent book and you see in the last story it is full of the kind of violence that claimed [my father’s] life. I guess it was something that had lingered with me for a long time, after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto – this violence that is almost like euphoria, like a relief in society, and it came right into the open with my father’s death . . . When my father was killed I didn’t feel I had written a wrong book; it was still the book I wanted to write.”

When we speak, Britain is in the throes of royal-wedding fever, but Taseer should be more inured to it than most. After all, for several years he was in a relationship with Lady Gabriella Windsor, daughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, and 30-odd in line to the British throne. Despite the media’s fascination with royalty, he says media intrusion was never a problem. “It seems like such a long time ago,” he says airily. “We lived abroad a lot and were travelling so much. It was a kind of a tension but it was pretty short-lived.”

Our time is up and Taseer, who has been talking non-stop for a solid 20 or 30 minutes, seems surprised he can get back to the cricket so soon. India, Pakistan, cultural revolutions, royal families, political intrigue and literature – it feels as if we’ve stepped into enough worlds for one morning