QUEEN'S ROAD: Aatish Taseer straddles many worlds within one. The legacy of being an Indian, the son of a Sikh mother and a Pakistani father, and a writer who draws his material from pluralism and divides, from two nations that though hacked in two bleeding halves share a strangely collusive relationship with each other, from people who belong everywhere and nowhere. Even though his first book (Stranger to History) proclaimed otherwise, Taseer is no stranger to history and how it is made, discarded and redefined in real time. The historical is also personal to him. His father Salmaan Taseer’s assassination in a way turned the observer and chronicler into a man who could no longer just write about the heart of a storm but live through it.
Taseer was in town sometime back for a session at the SAP Book Club post the release of his new book, The Way Things Were, and responded over email to a few questions about the book and his impressions of Bengaluru, his place in history and beyond it.
On India and Pakistan: Let me say categorically that there is no comparison to be made between India and Pakistan. In India, the idea of a modern nation — though it may be an imperfect articulation of that old fluid idea of India — is a reality; the state has held. It is a credible thing; it carries out legal transfers of power; it supports a free press; its political system responds to the needs of its people; there has been the emergence of a substantial middle class. The idea of India is strong and well. The same cannot be said of Pakistan. Which, founded for a bad ideology, has followed it to the edge of ruin. One cannot compare incidents of chauvinism and prejudice in the Indian discourse — something, by the way, that happens everywhere — to the calamity that is Pakistan, where the writ of the state itself is wearing thin, and violence and fanaticism are in the lymph nodes. No; to do so, displays a complete disregard for what has been achieved in India, but it also trivialises the nightmare Pakistan is going through.
On his place in history: I don’t know if I ever see myself in these broad abstract ways. My sense of self is a simpler thing, more specific. I see myself principally as a writer. I live and work, as so many people do today, between societies. I have interests that I pursue; people I like to meet; things I like to eat and drink; activities I enjoy. Isn’t that much more of what life feels like? An engaging but prosaic cycle of cups of coffee drunk, of books read, and — if you’re lucky — written...Is there really time to stand before a mirror and ask yourself, where do I fit in? And what kind of answer would really be satisfactory? Probably better to live closer to the ground, no?
The Way Things Were: It began, as all novels do, with a powerful image taking hold of me—one that I suspected was laden with a story. I knew from the little experience I’d had that if I stayed with this image it would eventually offer up its story.
And this is all that one has in the beginning: an image that is tense from containing within it a story bigger than itself. Soon other elements become attached: the reasons for Toby’s disenchantment with India, the weight of the past on Skanda, the nature of Uma’s compromise...Soon I was able to recognise why the image had held such power for me. Prose narrative is a slow and instinctive process, but if you stay with it long enough, you might end up with a nice big novel.
Intolerance and freedom of speech: Look, I don’t know which country you live in, but I don’t find India intolerant at all. There may have been some recent ugliness from the lunatic fringe—and they, no less than anyone else, have the right to be heard—but the pushback was strong too.
India still feels as big and free and noisy as ever. I was in Sri Lanka in 2013 and there one could sense the fear among journalists; people were afraid to talk. Down the road, in Pakistan, my father was killed for what he said and believed, and the society came together to celebrate his death. That doesn’t happen here.
Only the other day, I said in a public forum, ‘When the Prime Minister sees the face of Mohan Bhagwat, he sees the face of a fool.’ Nothing happened; no one tried to silence me. The trolls on Twitter can be unpleasant, but they’re not exactly the Stasi. Look at PK.
The fringe made as big a fuss as they could, but in the end they were powerless to prevent Indians from going in their millions to watch the film. No one was cowed, no one fell in line. So, no, I don’t share the anxiety behind your question; I feel no fear to speak out.
On Bengaluru: Sadly I know very little of it. And it’s a hard city to form a cohesive sense of; it feels disjointed and sprawling, the traffic oppressive.
What I like is its youthful unclouded energy; the vitality of young people working; Delhi is darker and more cynical in comparison.