No more a “Stranger”…
Well, I am keeping my word (to myself :-)) and am reading more non fiction in 2014. Having completed reading Durbar, I was looking for a book that would deal with politics, governance, society culture, religion etc.. My aim was to pick up a book that would either deal with anyone of them or a combination of them. I was trying out my own random combinations and was searching on Amazon that somehow Aatish Taseer’s book “Stranger to History : A Son’s Journey through Islamic Lands” came up as a search result. The title was catchy and the name rang a bell (It was mid Jan and I had just finished reading Durbar back then), I quickly browsed for the reviews, read the endorsements from the likes of Amitav Ghosh, and yes, the book was on my kindle in say 5 mins.
Before, we get into the review, here is the blurb of the book.
“Aatish Taseer’s fractured upbringing left him with many questions about his own identity. Raised by his Sikh mother in
Delhi, his father, a Pakistani Muslim, remained a distant figure. Stranger to History is the story of the journey he made to try to understand what it means to be Muslim in the twenty-first century. Starting from Istanbul, Islam’s once greatest city, he travels to Mecca, its most holy, and then home through Iran and Pakistan. Ending in Lahore, at his estranged father’s home, on the night Benazir Bhutto was killed, it is also the story of Taseer’s divided family over the past fifty years. Recent events have added a coda to Stranger to History, as his father was murdered by a political assassin. A new introduction by the author reflects on how this event changes the impact of the book, and why its message is more relevant than ever.”
A father writing a letter to a son expressing his unhappiness over a few things might seem quite normal and insignificant to most of us. However, one such letter triggered a chain of events in which a son traveled thousands of miles, spent more than 200 days in travel, understood what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century and came up with a beautiful book that educates one and all about the lives of the people in the Islamic heartlands of the world.
Aatish Taseer, son of Salman Taseer (a politician in Pakistan) & Tavleen Singh (a highly respected journalist from India) had an upbringing that was unique and yeah, as the book says “fractured”. To understand his own religion, he takes up this journey. Well, what are the events that make him take this up ? Read them in the book.
He starts in Istanbul, a city that was the citadel of Islam at one point of time, from there he travels to the war-torn Syria, from there to “Mecca” and then to Tehran before going to Pakistan. He also travelled through Yemen and Oman but the book does not cover that part of the journey.
The journey was a quest to understand Islam and its followers, in a way the author wishes to find out what it is like
to be a Muslim in the 21st century. So throughout the book we see the author interacting with the people and trying to understand the society, the govt and the religion in all the countries. The Government, the religion and the society at large 3 important factors aren’t they ? All these 3 are very important to any common man and how all 3 of them interact with each other is key for us to formulate our perceptions about the world we live in. The author devotes good time in making us understand how govt, society at large & religion are interacting with one another in the heartlands of Islam. This helps us understand the thought-process of the denizens in these lands and we get to see how they react to the seemingly good, bad and ugly things of the world.
For example, as we travel to Istanbul with the author, we get to see how an otherwise very moderate and career loving person, an aspirant of higher education, a man who wanted to excel in commerce and markets, become a student of theology and exhibit right leanings, at times his words would sound slightly fearful. We feel pained when he explains that it all happened due to the inherent biases in the system. In Syria, we see how people perceive that news papers in the west are controlled by the State. How, the protests in front of the embassies turn violent and people do not buy the point that in the west, State and fourth estate are different. The author takes us to Abu Nour, a revered place of learning in Syria, where we end up witnessing how historical facts are distorted to suit individual interests and how people end up getting misguided due to the fiery sermons of a select few.
To me the author’s stay in Tehran is one of the most interesting episodes in the book. A seasoned man who was part of the Islamic revolution in Iran is now seen lamenting at the state of affairs in the country. According to him , “Under the
rule of Shah there was high dose of modernity but people were religious, there were pubs but the mosques too were full. With the modern govt, we see that the govt is enforcing religion but people are moving away from it. The mosques are empty“. This is one of the key takeaways from the book, isn’t it ? One cannot and should not force things on people what happens when you force stuff of people and commit non-religious acts in the name of religion? Well Iran and the angst of the people there serve as the perfect answer. Knowing about “the power of the State” via authors experiences @ Iran is definitely a fantastic reading experience.
As we enter Pakistan along with Aatish, we get to see more. The description of Pakistan and the troubles and travails of people there make it a must read. The author takes us to Sind, Lahore and shows us a day in life of the people there. The way the author meets his father and the conversation that follows is something you ought to read.
All in all an awesome work, the best part of the book is that it does not criticize the religion. It only depicts how people are viewing it. The State, individuals and groups have their own interests and view points, how does all this effect the commoner? do read the book for the answers. Two key take- aways for me from the book are
(i) forcing things on people in the name of religion and adherence might prove disastrous for any nation.
(ii) the experiences of people shape their views and hence gross generalizations based on religion are never correct.
This book is indeed an eye opener and the readers learn a number of things from Aaatish Taseer’s journey. Aatish might have been a stranger to history some time ago , you will not be one once you read his book. Do pick the book it’s a real good and educating one. You will be happy that you read it.