A review of a review of Aatish Taseer's book

There’s an interesting review of Aatish Taseer’s Stranger to History up at the Newsline website by Shimaila Matri Dawood. It’s an extremely negative review. The reviewer gets into it with this rather startling statement: “The problem with entwining the personal with the political, however, is that the former always influences the latter.” Ya don’t say? Isn’t that, well, the point of the book? Anyway, then there’s the obligatory reference to Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilizations” (which has to win the award for book most infrequently read and most frequently referenced to mean whatever negative thing you want it to).

But really, the heart of the reviewer’s gripe with Taseer is all the way in the last paragraph:

It is just as unfortunate that all moderate Muslims, as well as their more radicalised counterparts, have been tainted by one sweeping brush – making them in Aatish’s and the non-informed reader’s, eyes, just two sides of the same coin.

Ahhhh, the old “broad brush stroke” argument. How I hate thee, broad brush stroke argument, the security blanket of the un-self-critical and the perpetually outraged.

Now, I’m a big fan of Aatish Taseer’s writings… his essay Travels with the Mango King is not only a fascinating account of a Sindhi landlord but a great take on Pakistani society in general. But I understand exactly why Aatish Taseer crawls under the skin of people like Dawood. Passages like this one:

The lieutenant, who had been sitting quietly on the edge of the veranda, now whispered slyly to me that he was a Rajput. This was another reference to the Hindu caste system, in this case a high caste. But the lieutenant didn’t know he spoke of caste. When I said to him that Islam, with its strong ideas of equality, forbade notions of caste, he became defensive and said that this was a matter of good and bad families.

“If you can have Rajputs, then you can have choodas,” I said, using the derogatory word for “low caste.”

“Of course you can have choodas,” the lieutenant replied.

“Would you let your daughter marry one?”


Ouch. I can feel at least 25% of my Pakistani elitist brain rising up in righteous indignation. And right after that, this, which to me is one of most profound paragraphs on Pakistani society’s rejection of its sub-continental history that I’ve ever read:

On the one hand, there was the rejection of India that made Pakistan possible, and on the other, India was overwhelmingly at play in the deepest affiliations of Pakistanis, sometimes without their knowing it. It made Pakistan a place in which everything just existed because it did, eroded haphazardly by inevitable change. The country’s roots, like some fearsome plumbing network, could never be examined to explain why something was the way it was, why the lieutenant, perhaps centuries after conversion, still thought of himself as a Rajput. And though I, with deep connections on both sides, could see the commonalities, they were not to be celebrated: we spoke instead of difference.

I think it would be unnatural for any society to embrace this kind of brutally honest criticism of its structure and interactions. In a way, it’s far more difficult for people from the ‘Mango King’s’ and Salmaan Taseer’s social class to accept Aatish Taseer’s work because, well, the reviewer is wrong — Taseer isn’t using a ‘broad brush stroke’ that covers rich and poor, extremist and ‘liberal’. He’s using a very narrow brush, specifically to describe the hypocrisies and confusion of his father’s social class and way of thinking:

He speaks of Salmaan Taseer as “my father, who drank Scotch every evening, never fasted or prayed, even ate pork, and once famously said, ‘It was only when I was in jail, and all they gave me to read was the Quran – and I read it back to front several times that I realised there was nothing in it for me.’” Aatish questions, “What made him [Salmaan Taseer] Muslim despite his lack of faith?” In the concluding part of his book, Aatish reveals the answer. “I had begun my journey asking why my father was Muslim and this was why. I felt sure that none of Islam’s once powerful imperatives existed within him, but he was a Muslim because he doubted the Holocaust, hated America and Israel, thought Hindus were weak and cowardly, and because the glories of the Islamic past excited him. The faith decayed within him, ceased to be dynamic, ceased to provide moral guidance, became nothing but a deep, unreachable historical and political identity. It was significant because in the end this was the moderate Muslim, and it was too little moderation, and in the wrong areas.”

Anyway, I don’t want to be too harsh on the reviewer, so I’ll stop at that excerpt. I do think she has a point when it comes to Aatish Taseer’s rather shabby treatment of his half-siblings. But as Salinger said, being related to a writer is not something that anyone should aspire to.

5 responses to “A review of a review of Aatish Taseer's book

  1. But we should be harsh on the reviewer , she deserves it

  2. Shayan

    “Too little moderation and in all the wrong areas.” Excellently put.

    Aatish points to the conceptual difference between “Muslim” as a religious identity and as a political identity. In my opinion, it is the political that needs a comprehensive overhaul.

  3. stuka

    Love your comments. Loved Mango King, and yes, still waiting to pick up the book. I heard it’s wait listed at Delhi Gymkhana library.

  4. stuka

    So I read the review and to be honest it is godawful.

    “In Pakistan, Aatish points out the rot and corruption prevalent in rural and urban Sindh alike, but completely ignores the most gripping issue of the thousands of Pakistanis dead in the tribal areas, murdered by drone strikes conducted by American forces.”

    This is the reviewer revealing her own angst rather than a fault of the author..I doubt rural Sindhis are excercised by “thousands’ killed in Pakistan….takes me back to the reviewer mixing the political and the personal.

    ” In the blinkered world that Aatish inhabits, there is perhaps no reason for the disenchantment of the Pakistani people, let alone any mention of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.”

    The very next sentence is fricking genius right here..”the blinkered world” of the author’s perspective reveals no disenchantment??? What about the rot and corruption mentioned in the previous sentence? Ahh Iraq and Afghanistan, the staple of Pakistani drawing rooms and the outrage within.

    The reminds me of something an Indian author wrote (I think it was Gursharan Dasbut not sure). The author’s elite South Mumbai school wanted to do a play at their school. So they picked up an American play about how a bunch of kids come together and collect food for the starving children of Vietnam. Except, in the original American play, it wasn’t about the “starving children of Vietnam”, it was about the starving children of INDIA!!! But these South Mubai kids were not starving and they were Indian…ofcourse there were kids starving outside, but that was too close to the truth and it was uncomfortable to think of..so hey “starving children of Vietnam” instead.

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