He’s one of the subcontinent’s most exciting literary talents. His new book ‘Noon’ explores violence in South Asia. Son of Pakistani politician Salman Taseer, assassinated after defying Islamist groups, Aatish Taseer speaks with Srijana Mitra Das about nations, truth, lies and ties that bind – or break – people.
With an unusual parentage, how do you see nationality?
Because of Partition, my relationship with nationality’s always been strange. My ties with Punjab are more real than abstract relations with Pakistan or India. Nations are made up of songs, dress, the way people talk, literatures – those are much closer to one than the passport you carry. But Pakistan never recognised this. It was based on rejecting these for a larger Muslim allegiance.
India’s the opposite. We’ve cherished our variety, nurtured it with a loose, big Indian idea floating over the surface. This could incorporate the idea of Pakistan as well – that’s why Pakistan is hostile to it…previously, Pakistanis felt Partition was alright because India was doing badly economically. When the Indian star started to rise as a democracy, one of the world’s strongest soft-power engines, it brought home the futility of Pakistan.
In Noon, you call Pakistan ‘La Mirage’-why?
I had a sense of falsity, a state, a society, cities that weren’t quite believable. There’s a constant phantasmagoria in the Karachi section. ‘Port bin Qasim’ has an illusory quality- it’s not Karachi as we know it. It uses Karachi, lifts from it to create the sense of a violent utopia. Associations with Pakistan were held back till the end. You’d discover in other ways you were there.
Why such violence?
That’s the last question of the book deliberately left open. The West’s concerned about Islamic violence. But what I experienced in Pakistan isn’t Islamic violence, rather, a society coming apart, social fabric disintegrating. You hear constantly of people losing relatives in kidnappings, robberies, kin clashes. Everyone has a story. That’s not jehadi violence. It’s a society collapsing. There’s palpable anger about not being able to realise potential. That’s part of the rage. It shows itself in violent ways.
You depict another violence – in Delhi. Are you saying India should be careful?
Absolutely. This is a worrying time. India doesn’t have Pakistan’s problems but it has the problems of a very big country having awakened the hopes of many. If those hopes are dashed, it can produce a terrible backlash. The energy’s wonderful so long as it’s channeled. As long as people from the countryside have a city to come to where they can find housing, jobs, roads, courts that work, they feel there’s not a spirit of plunder overtaking Indian society.
The drag government’s been on the Indian story is astonishing. No government in the world’s been such a burden to a country. It’s done none of the things it’s meant to while it seems to eye private success with greed. There’s only so long this frame can hold…I was also troubled by servitude, our relationship to the people who are our life-blood really. One of the things making me happiest in America was the man coming up was celebrated. In India, I sense disgust, revulsion for that person, that he should suddenly have aspirations, riches, ambitions. In Noon, I’ve tried to get at this.
Your background provokes strong reactions. Are you in a lonely place?
Not as long as I’m writing fiction. When it gets into comment, I get a stronger reaction. The normal liberal Indian writing about Pakistan is usually conciliatory. But I feel it’s very important, out of my concern for it, to write coldly about Pakistan…I think of myself as Indian in a broader sense – in a sense that includes Pakistan. That makes me unpopular in Pakistan and probably, a little suspect here.
What’s the future of ‘La Mirage’?
People predict a collapse but that’s not what happens to countries. They just keep rotting away. You’ll have more years like this year. It began with my father being killed, minister Shahbaz Bhatti killed, journalist Saleem Shahzad killed by the army. The Osama thing happened. Cycles are getting shorter. Before, every six months, there was a catastrophe in Pakistan. Now, there’s a calamity every month.
Alongside, there’s a Western perception that Indian writers are slightly passe, this is the moment for Pakistani authors. Is that right?
That’s the stupidest thing. Only idiots say that. Indian writers are just about now writing for India. For the first time, India can sustain its writers. I’m receiving an advance by which I can live – that’s huge. It means there are readers, a reading-writing society here. In Pakistan, a successful book sells 1500 to 3000 copies in a country of 180 million. Pakistani writers are emigre writers. They do not write for Pakistan. I know exactly the type of idiot who’d say that…the West tastes different literatures the way they taste different cuisines. One day, they’ll have Vietnamese food. The next day, they’ll have Afghan food. Life goes on, what do they care? But in India, for the first time, we could have a serious literary life supported by Indians. It’s a long, fruitful road ahead and there’s so much to write about.
Will you move from your personal life towards other stories?
My personal life’s been complicated. It’s taken longer to deal with. To my mind, my three books form a trilogy, different treatments of a personal entanglement I inherited…I’m ready to move from the personal but in my writing, more stories do come through. Not just my story.
Your father indelibly shaped your story. Once apart, you were coming closer. Do you want to talk about losing him suddenly?
We hadn’t been coming closer. Our relationship was in a freeze since my last book. We weren’t speaking. I don’t know when we’d have spoken because I’d continue writing and that would continue upsetting him.
Having said that, I did always think that partly because he was so intelligent and interesting, down the road, we’d be able to make some kind of repair, there’d be a way around…it was very hard to let go of that possibility. To know there was nothing to look forward to vis-a-vis him.
Are you in touch with family in Pakistan?
I was, with my sister. Now they’re angry about a Pakistan story I wrote for the Wall Street Journal. Part of my problem with my father was that I wasn’t willing to tolerate censorship from anybody. Now he’s dead, I’m not willing to tolerate censorship from them. If they come to terms with the fact that I will say exactly what I want to, I’d love them to be part of my life. But I won’t accept censorship.
Which your father didn’t either?
No. He didn’t.