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Search for Identity

Stranger to History: A Son's Journey through Islamic Lands by Aatish Taseer (London: Picador), 2009; pp 323, £ 13.99.

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BOOK REVIEW

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Search for Identity

Veena R Poonacha

T
his many-layered story of a son’s search for his father and his history moves in ever-widening circles to explore the politics of religious identity. As this poignant story unfolds, it unravels the complex politics of a pan-historic c ultural and religious identity – an identity that he inherited from his father, but he cannot relate to. Set against the fractured history of the Indian subcontinent and wounds that have not healed after six decades, the story interweaves Aatish Taseer’s autobiography with the historical loss of partition: for the memory of this loss was part of his mother’s family history.

Absent Father

As a child Aatish Taseer grew up with a niggling longing for his absent father. He writes:

I had sought out my father because I couldn’t live with the darkness of not knowing him. If I hadn’t, all my life I would have had to cover it up with some idea of him taken from my mother on faith. I felt it would have limited me. History should never be taken on faith.

Growing up in Delhi, surrounded by loving adults, Taseer had a very privileged childhood; but there remained in him a nebulous longing to know his Pakistani f ather – separated by the historical divide between the two nations. It was only when he was 21 that Aatish was able to cross the border to meet his father. The relationship that developed between father

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
november 27, 2010

Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands by Aatish Taseer (London: Picador), 2009; pp 323, … 13.99.

and son was not easy. At the core of it was this complex question of identity. This seemingly simple question of “who am I?” articulated through the narrative raises difficult questions about Muslim identity and its trans-historical constructs. Can this imagined, homogenised identity erase the complex of cultural and historical divisions between nations as diverse as T urkey, Syria, Iran, and finally, his father’s homeland Pakistan? Does the mere accident of his paternity enable him to transcend the other influences that had shaped him to participate in this grand fiction of a homo genous religious identity? If so, what did this identity mean? Why did he feel alienated by its politics? Why did the imagined Utopian world among Muslim countries look back to a seventh century history of Arabia, far beyond their own national boundaries and histories, for validation of identity?

Stranger to History is this tantalising story of Taseer’s search for identity within the larger religious identity he inherited from his father. Part memoir, part travelogue, the book describes a search that b egan after his father criticised an article he had written about the alienation experienced by the second generation Pakistanis in Leeds. The book has a pictorial quality

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and the story that unfolds skilfully p ortrays characters and events through intricate details. More importantly, it confronts the politics of religious fundamentalism heads on, through a narrative that

interweaves the personal with the larger socio-political process in history. Its methodology for the understanding of s ocial history conforms to those suggested by writers like Mill (1970), Chesneaux (1976) and Collingwood (1994).

The Politics of Interpretation

I am, however, uncomfortable with its politics of interpretation and representation. In pointing to these shortfalls of the book, I draw upon the writings of Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and my awareness of the politics of Indian historiography. Said in his book Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World uncovers the politics of knowledge construction. He writes that historical knowledge is a human c onstruct based on judgments and interpretations. Undeniably, there are certain given historical facts, but the meanings imputed to them reveal the writer’s political and ideological affiliations. Interpretations take place in a specific time and space, and therefore, feelings, habits, conventions, associations and values are intrinsic to the interpretation. Since historical writing is not devoid of interpretations, it cannot be seen as value neutral and it also depends on the interpreter and the people he or she is addressing. He adds:

[interpretations are related] to what other interpreters have said either by confirming them or disputing them or continuing them.

BOOK REVIEW

No interpretation is without precedent without some connection to other interpretation. No writing is so new as to be completely original for, in writing about human society, one is not doing mathematics and therefore one cannot expect that radical originality is possible in that activity (Said 1997).

From this perspective, I would like to question Taseer’s interpretation of cultures as diverse as Turkey, Syria, Iran and Pakistan. From where does he draw his frames of references and who is his targeted audience? By focusing entirely on the rise of religious fundamentalism in these countries, is he missing the many voices and ideological divide that resonate in all nations and societies? No doubt, religious fundamentalisms of all colours and hues – be it Hindu, Muslim and Christian or Sikh – seek to colonise people’s minds by the creation of an imagined homogeneity and a trans-historical identity. But this does not mean that an entire community or religious affiliates will conform to one set of beliefs. It is untenable that entire nations and societies will conform to one set of belief systems in response to complex questions of history and polity.

By focusing only on one aspect of religious identity, is he excluding the other interpretations and other possibilities of identities in these countries? Further, no attempt is made to understand the reasons for the rise of fundamentalism in these countries, for such questions would raise uncomfortable questions about neocolonialism. The rise of religious fundamentalism in these countries is a response by a beleaguered people to the o ngoing geopolitical tensions in the region; it is an attempt to resist what is perceived as w estern economic, political and cultural domination.

Taseer does not locate his search to u nderstand the construct of Muslim identity within these uncomfortable questions about western aggression on the Islamic world or the economic controls that it seeks over the region. By uncritically juxtaposing the seemingly “secular” west with Islamic theocracy, is he not feeding into the populist discourses of Muslims as religious fundamentalists and potential terrorists? As Chomsky writes, the spectre of Islamic terror looms large over the western media and in the speeches by political leaders after the events of 9/11 in the US. Seeking an excuse to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, President Bush on various occasions described Iran as the “axis of evil” (2003). These prejudices that often influence public policies gain credence through Huntington’s theories of the clash of civilisation (1996); such theories reinforce the old colonial agenda of colonisation as a civilising mission.

Thus, as Said elaborates, the knowledge of Islam and the Islamic world is constructed through the colonial lens of dominance. These interpretations are uncritically taken as the norm and today “Islam is negatively defined as that which the West is not” (Said 1997). Therefore, does Taseer’s representation of Islamic societies feed into the prevailing negative stereotypes of Muslims while ignoring the c omposite Islamic cultures?

Politics of Historical Representation

The contrasting images in the book of P akistan as a failed theocratic state with that of India as a strong and vibrant s ecular-democracy fail to address the discordant notes in Indian polity. By doing so, Taseer sidesteps the troubling questions about the growing dissonance created to the secular fabric of this country through the rise of identity politics. Having lived through the riots that followed the demolition of the Babri masjid and the Gujarat carnage, I would question why Taseer endorses India’s secular track record to the extent he does in the book.

History is a powerful tool of politics; its interpretations are located in a time and space (Said 1994). A case to point is the writing of Indian history and its use by Hindu fundamentalism to justify the demolition of the Babri masjid on the ground that it was a site of Rama’s birthplace. To an extent, this unsubstantiated truth propagated by the Hindutva discourse gains credence from the nationalist h istory in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The impetus for the nationalist writing of Indian history was the colonial historiography’s agenda for justifying colonial rule. In seeking to counter the negative construction of India’s past, nationalist historians described the glorious Vedic civilisation, without touching on such

november 27, 2010

i ssues such as the prevalence of slavery or women’s subordination. In their attempts to create this image, they implied that the perceived evils (of sati, child marriage and ascetic widowhood) were accretions that grew as a consequence of Muslim invasions in the medieval period (Chakravarti 1989). These historical images of people and communities are not innocent. They are the underpinnings of identity politics and have political implications.

My concern is about the reading of the book in the Indian context. Will the work, with its seductive charm and imagery, feed into the prevailing negative stereotyping of Muslims? It cannot be forgotten, in the wake of the repeated terror strikes in India, there is a widespread s tereotyping of Muslims as potential terrorists and such beliefs draw upon the global discourse on Islamic terror as well as some terror strikes in India. As Habib (2009) writes, the cartography of riots shows that the membership of radial o rganisations comes from areas where there have been riots. One must never forget that if there is in India a rise of Islamic fundamentalism, it must necessarily be seen as a fallout of the fundamentalism of the majority community, who in popular discourse, defines them as the other.

Veena R Poonacha (veena poonacha@yahoo. co.uk) is with SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

References

Chakravarit, Uma (1989): “Whatever Happened to the Vedic Dasi” in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (ed.), Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History (New Delhi: Kali for Women), pp 27-87.

Chesneaux, Jean (1976): Past and Futures or What Is History? (London: Thames and Hudson), pp 37-44.

Chomsky, Noam (2003): “Power and Terror: Post 9/11 Talks and Interviews”, John Junkerman and Takei Marakaru (ed.), (Dehra Dun: Natraj Publishers), pp 127-30.

Collingwood, R G (1994): The Idea of History (revised edition) (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p 228.

Habib, Irfan (2009): “The Secular State and the Geography of Radicalism”, Economic & Political Weekly, 6 June, Vol XllV, No 23, pp 33-38.

Huntington, Samuel (1996): The Clash of Civilisation and the Remaking of the World (New York: Samuel Schuster).

Mills, C Wright (1970): The Sociological Imagination (England: Penguin Books), pp 161-82.

Said, Edward (1994): Representation of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures (New York: Pantheon Books), pp 34-41.

– (1997): Covering Islam: How the Media and the E xperts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (London: Vintage), pp 162-65.

vol xlv no 48

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