Pakistan has always been a negative identity: Aatish Taseer

The place is full of gangs, kidnappings, parricides, rapes, murders, you name it. So when someone says Islamic revolution, it brings to mind something terribly organised. But nothing as organised as that can come out of this chaos. Islam hides the real picture; it has always done that here.

That's Aatish Taseer writing about the surrealism of Pakistan in his latest book Noon. Actually to be precise, that's a fictional character named Isphandiyar Tabassum talking to his half-brother Rehan about life in a country called La Mirage. Noon is a novel but in Aatish Taseer's work, the lines between fiction and non-fiction, novel and memoir can appear blurry. They just got even blurrier last week, when his own half brother Shahbaz, the son of the assassinated Punjab governor Salman Taseer, was kidnapped at gunpoint in Lahore.

Here are some excerpts from Taseer’s conversation with's Sandip Roy at the book launch for Noon in Kolkata.

Read an excerpt from Noon here.

"It's as far away from the Freedom at Midnight moment as you can get." Listen to Aatish Taseer explain why he chose Noon as the title of his book.

On Violence

Why did you want to write about violence?

I think that I was interested in the effect of it. In the burglary part of the book what comes out is a casual violence acting on you where an individual without meaning to, is compromised, is forced to bend. In Pakistan I felt it very acutely. It almost started to feel very far apart from the jihadi or Islamic violence, a much broader, more general kind of violence. It was almost like a society that had seen a trauma, a society like Cambodia or Kashmir where people had absorbed too much.

Aastish Taseer at the book launch of Noon in Kolkata. Sandip Roy/Firstpost

Aastish Taseer at the book launch of Noon in Kolkata. Bishan Samaddar.

But in Cambodia the Killing Fields had a beginning and an ending.. How much harder is it in Pakistan? 

It is much harder to trace back to the point where you went wrong. I have always felt in Iran that if the regime were to fall Iran would still be Iran and they would be able to realise what had happened. In Pakistan with every decade it seems to get worse. So it's hard to figure out how it can return to itself, how it can recognise the point where it went wrong.

You write while people obsess about jihadist violence, what is more pervasive is a secular violence.

I wanted to because that Western story has come out of this experience of Islamic terrorism and that has become their only interest. A lot of stories in Pakistan had been effaced. There was a fight between the old Sufistic religion of Punjab and Sindh and a new energised Islam that was very different and foreign. There is this situation of a society where there is a much broader sweep of violence. That goes into the background and you only hear about suicide bombings and Islamic takeover.

"You want to come back to the place that is your home and remain as you are and not be diminished by that return."Listen to Aatish Taseer talk about why he wanted to write about violence.

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On Pakistan and India

I reject the principle on which Pakistan was founded. I think the religious glue they hoped would hold the country was too thin a glue... (Pakistan) had always been a negative identity. What was being rejected was much stronger than what was being proposed. That showed in many ways. The first and most painful was that the new state was not going to keep its non-Muslims. Later with every failure, it tried to assert a more literal, more energetic form of Islam, a sense where people say "agar asli Islam la saktey they to sab kuchh thik hota." ( If they had bought in real Islam, then everything would have been fine.) This madness in search for asli islam has led people very far away from what goals they could have achieved as a nation.

Shashi Tharoor said a Pakistani liberal is a Pakistani first and then a liberal, indicating he didn't feel there were true partners for peace across the border. Do you believe that?

When there is such a lack of confidence it becomes almost natural to dig your heels in. You cling to your loyalties more fiercely. In India for the first time in the last 15 or 20  years I have seen people move away from those comforting reasons. People are willing to to take responsibility for their country. In Pakistan that is still missing. So I think it's very difficult to have a real spirit of intellectual inquiry in an environment as uncertain as that.

Should India feel triumphalist?

Indian would be very foolish, strategically to be triumphalist, because to have a country of 180 million people armed with a nuclear weapon unhinged on your border, there is no triumph there.  That is scary as hell. If India was to get its act together in a foreign policy way, they could have a very gentle, influential hand in bringing a kind of stability. If Punjab and Sindh could be wrapped up in some kind of economic way with India, if our sense of economic hopefulness could be merged with theirs, it could be a very positive thing.

"I think of my eye as a good eye." Aatish Taseer discusses why it’s tricky for him to write about Pakistan and why he still chooses to.

On the  sexual tensions between men, often across class, in his books:

In a society like Pakistan it's not just tension. There's a hint of abuse. Throughout this book there are different forms of abuse. These are power relationships — the Mirwaiz character representing a certain restlessness, a man who could be very hopeful but also someone who messed with could be very dangerous.

Does that attract you?

I think that kind of man has a lot of appeal for me. That kind of person who is restless. The other day I was at Chandni Chowk and met a man who was going to the Anna protests. And he asked me if I believed in Anna and I offered a measured criticism. He sank back in this angry silence and gave me sidelong glances. And you just felt that kind of restlessness can be the lifeblood of a society. But it can also tear down the edifice of the society. My imagination has a lot of time for that sort of person.


On the Anna Hazare movement

You were quoted on IBNLive saying you understand the outrage but feel its misdirected.

The actual outrage is wonderful. The kind of faces I am seeing are good faces. That kind of political awakening is a very positive thing. But the last thing India needs is that kind of holy fool, who fasts to death, who holds the government to ransom. Those processes are rubbished and made to seem like impediments. It can be quite dangerous to a democracy because democracy is a slow thing. To put that strain on it, to say we give you three weeks or I will die, that's magic making.

This was one of Ambedkar's three cautions — warning us against the formation of a super elite, warning us against demagoguery, and the third thing he was warning us against was the continuation of a Gandhian politics in a liberal democracy, that it was the "grammar of anarchy".

"Am I not going to say what I feel because I risk upsetting my mother? That's too much to ask for." Aatish Taseer's audio on how writing honestly has gotten him into trouble.

Updated Date: Jan 09, 2012 17:52 PM

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