Aatish Taseer's first book, Stranger To History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands, a travelogue of sorts, came out of his quest to understand his father, Salman Taseer's identity and heritage (the Pakistani politician and governor of Punjab was assassinated in 2011). Ironically, it led to his estrangement from his father who did not take well to some of the things he wrote in the book. Taseer's brutal honesty also threads his next three books – The Temple-goers, Noon, and The Way Things Were. All three are works of fiction but the milieu, the events, and, most importantly, the characters are so easily recognisable that a lot of his family and friends have taken less than kindly to his writings. With time his prose has only gotten better, but it is this ability he has to distance himself from what is deeply personal and write about it with acute clarity that makes him truly remarkable. His latest book, The Twice Born: Life and Death on the Ganges, marks his return to non- fiction. It is another travelogue of sorts, but this time one of his motivations was to make sense of his father's assassination in Pakistan.
In this interview he talks about why he decided to go into the world of the Brahmins of Benaras and what he came away with.
Given that the fiction that you write also cuts close to the bone of both truth and facts, how do you decide whether the book you are writing is going to be fiction or non-fiction?
I think it is decided by whether I have the material already or whether I need to go out into the world to get it. In this case, I had this memory from years ago, of seeing these Brahmins in Benares having a discourse about this rather esoteric subject called sphota - which is the study of the relationship between sound and meaning. I felt I was witnessing something almost Homeric and that drew me back. I thought I would like to speak to those people.
What made you want to study Sanskrit and explore the world of the Sanskritists of Benares?
I had a strange history with this city where when I was going off to college, my mother was suddenly filled with a kind of cultural panic and wanted me to see Benares. I went out of a sense of duty initially, but over the years I kept going back to the city, because I was curious about what it was that she had wanted me to see or find. In Benaras, I was surprised by my own incuriosity. I had grown up with a sense of wonder for the classical world in Europe, but not for India. We use words like colonisation, which often obscure meaning, but it is only when one is confronted with something as simple as incuriosity that one sees how colonisation dulled our minds. All this had been down the road from me the whole time as I grew up, but nothing in my education had steered me towards it. In fact, it was the opposite. There was a strong prejudice against it. I saw myself as somebody doing intellectual work in India and, whether in the case of Manto or the Sanskrit writers, what I simply wanted was literary antecedents; people who did similar work in the same place before me. In other countries that is so readily available. It would not seem at all strange for somebody writing in England – in fact, it would seem necessary to not only go back to, say, Chaucer, but also to the Latin world to enrich oneself. But in India this stuff was not only blockaded by a series of historical events, there was this intellectual prejudice directing you away from it.
How has this journey of discovering Sanskrit and a way of life rooted in it impacted you as a person and as a writer?
The most important discovery for me was that all the questing after India was a prelude to moving more honestly away from it. I had earlier been embarrassed and apologetic about my distance from my place and craved authenticity. And although I’m still vulnerable to people who claim to have a monopoly over real India, by the end of the book I had begun to feel very protective about my distance. It allowed me to see myself against this background and to know that the break that had occurred, which separated me from India’s continuities could be fertile too. The second element of surprise was how much people who seemed rooted in tradition were also living with a sense of homelessness, exile, and of a world grown strange. And so, this quest that began as something borne out of my own historical situation turned into something deeper—that same historical process that had put me at a distance from my place was still at work, creating more and more people who on various levels were responding to an identical feeling of the door of tradition having closed behind them.
Somewhere through the course of this journey I became convinced that my reasons for travelling were felt among the people I was traveling amidst. They understood what I was in search of and they shared my anxieties. I had not expected that.
How different would The Temple-Goers have been had you written it post this journey?
I think that my writing has benefitted from many years of having read along a vein, adding to experience with knowledge, which I definitely did not possess at the time of writing The Temple-Goers. I think my writing is less showy now. I don’t feel the need to make it perform. I am able to be simpler and more direct, not necessarily because I feel more accomplished as a writer, but because I have a kind of fatigue that comes with age.
You write that your father was killed partly because he spoke out for what he believed was right, but also because of a sense of immunity that he felt because of the class he belonged to. Is it really possible for an average Pakistani elite to remain isolated from what is going on on the ground in the way that the Indian elite can?
I would say even more so than the Indian elite. Pakistan is still very feudal. Even their appointees, diplomats, ministers, governors – men like my father – can still come from that old feudal world of the ‘drawing room,’. That doesn’t happen in India anymore. Indian institutions reflect the massive class transition that has occurred in the society. In Pakistan, Islam can often become the face of class struggle. It is their way of striking out at
the English-speaking elite; they use the religion to expose the elite’s inauthenticity and irrelevance. I feel like something similar might now be happening in India too.
Over time you have become very good at writing clinically about what is deeply personal. Is there any zone of discomfort? For example, in this book, you write unsentimentally about your father’s murder. Did it come easily?
I am able to separate myself from events through the act of writing. I find the idea of a no-go zone for a writer fascinating. If I felt that if there was some part of myself that I was afraid to face, it would automatically stir curiosity and become my material. Sexuality, for instance, is a good example. I have had a very mixed sexuality; I never fitted into the simple classifications of gay, or straight; and, as such it was never a political identity for me. It was more closely aligned with pleasure but that is not the case now. In Returning to Reims, Didier Eribon was surprised that even though he wrote about sexuality, he had never written about class. It struck me that it was the opposite for me. I have been writing about class all along, but I had never written about sexuality. I would like to now.
I have often heard people romanticise writing as something that might be a way for writers to deal with personal trauma. Writing has never done that for me. Has it for you?
Writing is far too difficult to be cathartic. There are far simpler ways to achieve catharsis than breaking your balls writing a book. But what I feel is that certain preoccupations do go cold for me after I have written about them.
You are writing about Benares, which is old and fascinating, but also a cliché. So many writers before you have written about it from so many different perspectives. Did you read them before you went in?
I like to go in clean the first time round almost using use my ignorance as an asset, with the hope of having a fresh experience of a place that others have already written about. I read only once I have come home. It becomes a way of testing my experience of a place against those of others. And often I find that there is an originality in my relationship to a place, and that has to be drawn out. Our history has left us in a unique situation, in which we can travel in our own country as outsiders. One must not will away one’s outsiderness; one has to be honest, hard-headed, and careful not to romanticise our experience of a place. It is our privilege to travel the invisible distances that history has wrought. I’m writing about aspects of the Brahmins of Benares that have not been written about before. To see in their experience a shade of my own helps me to better see myself against this strange background. I am not Hindu, yet I am deeply susceptible to the power of Hindu ritual. I am not a foreigner exoticising what I do not care about. I am implicated, and yet on the outside. My anxiety and concern for India allows me to repurpose this cliché of the Brahmins of Benares– to give it fresh meaning.
You have chosen to write about Brahmins who in the liberal imagination exist foremost - and rightly so - as the purveyors of cruelty and caste oppression. How do you accommodate that baggage and cast a fresh look? Did you anticipate that you might be criticised for portraying them as an underclass?
Of course, I almost welcome it. But I find it absurd when a critic uses a perceived class tension between him or herself and me to strike out at my subject. Every character’s economic background in this book is perfectly clear, down to the last detail of their lives. Nothing is hidden. Some of these Brahmins are privileged, though not by the standards of English-speaking classes, others are desperately poor. It is ridiculous to look at them as a monolith. The reader is perfectly capable of seeing them for what they are, but it’s a wicked political lie to make them seem like an undifferentiated upper class. What I do not do is make people symbols of their group. The story of Brahmins cannot simply be the story of the oppression of Dalits. It is an important aspect but it is not everything. In my book you will find moments of real chill and horror to do with the deepest implications of what caste means. But it is important to look at people, with all their fullness and complexity. If you deny people their full humanity then you cannot expect them to look at you in all your complexity.
You recently wrote an essay about how you had perhaps misunderstood Nehru for years. Was the journey you undertook for this book in any way responsible for your rediscovery of Nehru?
It is certainly responsible for my realising how old and how deep the situation we find ourselves in is. As far back as 1916, Gandhi gave his famous speech about ‘foreigners in their own land’. Similarly, Nehru’s anxiety about the queer mixture of east and west he had become, is still with us. It is amazing to consider that for well over a hundred years people in this country have been wringing their wrists about what is theirs, and what has come from outside. They have been trying for over a century to make their peace with this process and the truth is they have not really succeeded. I find the figure of Nehru so moving in his honesty. He didn't do what Gandhi did. He didn’t get rid of his clothes and deny what the West had given him. But, in his person and in his writings, we have a living model for a condition that is absolutely essential to the future of India. Tens of millions of people today are experiencing a version of what Nehru experienced. I have come to adore Nehru for his honesty. There are moments when, even in his personal life, he can look at himself with a clarity that is breathtaking.
When one thinks of Nehru’s anxieties one cannot help but think of his anxiety about the future of a secular state in a deeply religious country. You write about a Hindu policeman assigned to guard a mosque who picks up his loudspeaker to shout an invocation to Lord Shiv. Through the process of reporting this book, what do you think has become of the project to build a secular India?
I think it was a very grand project, and I think that Nehru was totally right to set the foundation that way, but I feel that the consideration that he didn’t give enough thought to is - what about cultural freedom? They thought that when British power was withdrawn, India would flourish culturally. That was not right. Arthur Koestler says of the West: “We ruled by rape, but influenced by seduction.” When the rape was done, people like Nehrudid not account for the fact that the seduction would remain, and that a great cultural transformation, driven by the sheer appeal of the West, was in the offing.
They should have thought more about what it meant, not politically, but culturally for a country that had endured a long period of foreign rule to find itself again. I think there were the seeds of a very interesting linguistic and literary Hindu renaissance at that time that could have played a bigger part of the bone marrow of the Indian state. That didn’t happen and people grew culturally denuded; not just people of English-speaking backgrounds, but those who were still within tradition were not given avenues by which they could become modern while retaining a culture they cherished. Modernity and westernisation become synonymous. By not giving modernity a deeper meaning than westernization, men like Nehru harmed the credibility of the modern nation state.
How is the alienation that you write about playing out in the context of the politics of Hindutva? Modi picked Benaras as his constituency, projecting it as the symbol of Hindu identity. What do you make of his tenure?
There has been a weaponization of that alienation. There was a moment in 2014 which could have opened up a true conversation, quite separate from politics, about what needs to evolve down the line. But four or five years on, people on the left have not learned much; in turn, the right has, to the detriment of their own tradition, reduced what they wanted to achieve to slogans, statues, and temples. They could have done something far more interesting. They could have reached out to the right people, they could have changed the education system in ways that were meaningful, they could have thought about the place of India in Indian scholarship, they could have thought about museums, they could have thought of so many things that would have answered the need they were feeling, but instead they really made it their business to achieve a purely negative result, attacking their political and ideological enemies, and undoing the world as it is without thinking of what they would put in its place. In their fear of what the past would reveal — that it would not conform to their Islamized version of Hinduism — they ran from the past.
What are the Brahmins of Benares making of the dominant form of Hindutva today?
I think they’re nervous. I think they know that Hindutva under Modi has smuggled in yet another anti-Brahmin movement. With the Congress they had little to fear. They were masters of their tradition. Now the tradition has been weaponised, turned into politics, and they’re not needed – their knowledge is not needed – for this new cruder form of Hinduism.
Originally published in Mumbai Mirror.