Aatish Taseer was conceived of a whirlwind affair between a Pakistani Muslim politician and an Indian Sikh Journalist. And life can never be simple born on such fault lines of incompatible religious and political outlooks. This memoir is interesting because it shows in glaring light how an individual’s life gets affected by these societal constructs of statehood and religious identity. Aatish did a commendable job at documenting these fault lines in lucid prose and insightful observations while visiting Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan capturing how faith has affected the broader society. Another great writer, V.S. Naipaul did a similar journey across some of these countries and made more or less similar observations, but with Aatish it was more of a personal discovery whereas Naipaul’s observations were more of a neutral and unbiased spectator.
Aatish’s father left him and his mother when he was just 18 months old and he was raised alone by his Sikh mother in Delhi. All his childhood he lived with a ghost of an absent father and tried to make sense of his absence from his life. As a grown up he wanted to understand and decode these rifts created by ideological and political differences that are powerful enough to make a father abandon his own child and wife. For Aatish it was an attempt towards personal discovery, a pilgrimage of sorts. He wanted to understand how Islamic faith can seep in a society and trump familial bindings as well as moral and ethical values. He starts his journey in Turkey where he discovers how political regime is trying to keep faith at bay causing dichotomy in society. People attracted to faith end up creating their own ghettos, in spite of heavy censure from the state. They have built little glasshouses where faith can be planted keeping out the vices of modernity and state persecution. The young’s of the society are forced to learn secular values at schools by state but at homes they live within the shackles of faith introduced to them by their families and that is confusing to them. He observes that society has got divided among the faithfuls and not so faithfuls and is almost on cusp of open conflict between these two worldviews.
Next Aatish moves to Syria in search of a purer form of Islam but there he finds that regime is using faith to further their own agenda. All problems of governance are blamed not on an inefficient and corrupt government but on ‘world system’ that somehow is limiting the purity of faith. He finds that faithful from all over the world have congregated in Syria in search of the pure faith which they cannot experience in their native lands. This search for purity has made the society so finicky that they’re ready to kill and destroy for some cartoons published in a far away Norway, in the name of faith. Aatish observed that blaming outsiders for their internal problems is an attitude of a defeated civilisation which is stuck in the past long gone glory.
Aatish’s next stop is the headquarters of faith i.e. Saudi Arabia, there he performs Umrah at Grand Mosque but gets chided for wearing the articles of another faith on his body by the believers. Aatish laments the fact Islam is so exclusive that it can’t tolerate even a petty signature from a different faith on a believers body. But his own internal struggle with faith is more threatening to him than a verbal slight from a faithful. Aatish also observes that faith is in every aspect of life in Saudi Arabia and that stifles any progress or change. He questions this aspect of faith where it has to be everywhere in an individual’s life, in food, in clothing, even in bedroom. He observes that this was not always like this but is a recent phenomena when Sunni Wahhabism took hold in Saudi Arabia with the discovery of oil.
Aatish interested in seeing the other flavour of Shia Islam lands next at Tehran but there he observes that regime has used faith to criminalise the whole society. People have been booked and even beaten mercilessly for any petty misdemeanours like wearing a T-Shirt or putting lipstick, he calls it a tyranny of trifles. Interestingly he manages to meet a group of Iskon followers in Tehran who have left faith to go and start worshipping Krishna, Hindu god. He observes that regime’s brutality has disenchanted the whole society with mosques left empty and people openly questioning the basic tenets of faith. The highlight of this section is the heart rending story of a woman who has lost count of the times she has been booked and beaten, in particular one instance where she was beaten mercilessly for no reason et al by a group of plainclothesman. The regime finally got sniff of Aatish and he was questioned by security agencies and was not able to get an extension of his tourist visa forcing him to leave abruptly for Pakistan, his final destination.
For Aatish, Pakistan was not much different from India, he observed that though the country was created on the principle of faith but it is now anchored more on the negation of India than anything else. He visits a feudal lord in Sindh province and observes that feudalism is so prevalent in Sindh because of the lack of a middle class, society is made up of only haves and have nots. Hindus who earlier formed bulk of middle class in Sindh moved out during partition and Muhajirs who migrated to Sindh from India could not fill that gap causing a stunted society. He moves to Hyderabad next where he encounters a community stuck in the past, left destitute by the state. Faith has not been able create a cohesive society and he observes open enmity between Sindhi’s and Muhajirs communities causing widespread disaffection with faith and people waiting for the next big idea that can keep the society intact. Even the mighty Indus has been reduced to a thin stream of water not because of faith but degradation of faith in Pakistan is a good analogy for a river getting dry due to climate change.
Finally Aatish reaches Lahore where he meets his father after a long gap but could not get that closeness from him that he expected. He remains baffled why his father is still not ready to accept him as his own son, and how social constructs like faith and politics are still able to suppress the basic human emotions.
It’s a good book to understand the impact of faith on Islamic societies and how faith is being used by corrupt regimes to stifle freedom and enquiry in these societies.