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I discovered travel writing when I was well into my 20s. Once I did, it didn’t take a lot to realise how travel accounts could tell stories much bigger than just about the particular journeys themselves. From William Dalrymple’s study of Delhi, City of Djinns, to Samanth Subramanian’s portrait of Sri Lanka after the war, This Divided Island, travel narratives have kept surprising me with the way they keep illuminating the larger through the mundane. And I’m convinced that there is no other genre of non-fiction that can tackle subjects as diverse and as difficult, and still be able to infuse them with literary beauty.Aatish Taseer’s Stranger to History is one of those books, but it is also a whole lot more.One of the travel quotes that keeps making its way across Facebook timelines talks about how though a traveler may be making the journey, the journey might be making him. In Taseer’s book, he acknowledges this from the very beginning: This is a journey to try to understand his making; its very undertaking is as an inward journey.The peculiar circumstances that gave birth to Taseer is the starting point of the book, but that is not its heart. Though Taseer writes repeatedly that he wants to understand the young Muslim psyche, and indeed tries and partly succeeds in doing so, the book is not entirely about that either.Aatish Taseer is Indian, his father is Pakistani, and his maternal family are partition refugees. His ancestry lies in the Pakistani Punjab, and Stranger to History is, at its core, an Indian’s attempt to make sense of this. And when I refer to Taseer as Indian, it is not a light remark. The writer’s ethos, his understanding of the world, his way of looking at things, is instantly, immediately recognisable. It is Indian. I know this because I am one. But also recognisable is his feeling for Pakistan, for the land that once was his ancestors’, for the undivided Indian homeland.I understand that feeling as well. Because as an Indian, you’ve always asked yourself that question - the why of Pakistan. Why has the idea of India endured while that of this nation’s, carved from ours, born with as much idealism as ours, has fallen away in radicalism and terrorism? I understand that feeling because like Taseer, I care. You can’t erase a shared history, as he points out multiple times in the book, and that is exactly why I care: this is my world, too. But the writer has much more reason to, of course, and though his story starts as an attempt to understand Islam in this time and age, it is in Pakistan that it finds its soul.The first part of the book deals with the writer’s observations on his travels through the Muslim world, from Turkey, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, including visits to Mecca and Medina. The second part begins in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and goes on to Pakistan, where the really personal drama of the writer’s tale takes place. The division is well thought out: the first part deals with the countries voluntarily regressing to a radical, angry, violent Islam, driven by a restless young population in search of meaning. In the second part, in Iran, the writer encounters a kind-of secular rebellion (complete with Hare Krishnas, God help us) against a state that seeks to impose its own version of Islam on the people. And then comes Pakistan. In all of these places, the writer meets troubled, damaged, fascinating young Muslims, each of them dealing with the challenges of their faith and its complexities in their own way.The writing is incisive, the observations sharp. It startles you right at the beginning, when Taseer seems to grasp and foretell Erdogan’s Turkey of today. It gets better. In Syria, he sees a region in rift, and something that tells of ISISs rise is already visible. In Arabia, he ventures into the history of Islam, and how it got to where it is today. In Iran, where the nation-state imposes a literal Islam, he sees a people at odds with the history being fed to them. In Pakistan, he sees the great, inclusive culture of the northern subcontinent being strangled, being made into something so hollow and regressive that his despair becomes almost tangible: you can feel it strongly.And in all of these places, Taseer encounters the religion that gives him his Urdu name, and meets its different faces and interpretations, including most importantly, political Islam - the idea that temporal and religious power should be one, the idea that is at the root of ISIS, an idea completely at odds with the world of today. This is also what the book is about: what is Islam to its youth? What does being Muslim mean?In Britain, where second and third generation Muslim immigrants think of Islam as an ‘extra-national identity’, we get our first glimpse of what Islam is morphing to be. In Turkey, where Islamic dress would become a point of contention, Taseer is told, “To be a Muslim is to be above history.” Taseer writes of the exchange, “(This) explained so much of the faith’s intolerance of history that didn’t serve its needs.” It is in Iran, however, that this idea comes home in an conversation with an old Iranian friend of Taseer’s, who had studied in India before going back. Speaking of Iran’s attempt to rewrite everything as an affront to the Islamic nation, and to formulate responses and governance based on this idea of a great Islamic past, the man says, “The youth of today are strangers to their history. You can’t build a country like that.”This idea, as we come to see, is true of the entire Islamic world. In Syria, in a radical mosque where, in the wake of a Danish newspaper publishing cartoons of the Prophet, a crowd of young Muslims is riled up into an angry mob by the mufti, Taseer writes, “..it didn’t matter what kind of Muslim you were, as long as you were Muslim, because there never was any plan to offer real solutions, only to harness grievance, and because its sense of outrage had more to do with the loss of political power than divine injunction, it could even find room, as certain decayed ideologies can, for men like my father, who were ready to participate in its grievances, but who were also professed disbelievers.”I grew up in India’s south, far away from the Punjab of India and Pakistan, and where partition is not an open wound like it is in the north. But like it is in the north, India is a land of so many cultural, communal, and religious differences that being Muslim was, to me growing up, just another mode of being, just another difference in a country-ful of them. I know the Muslim festivals, I know the cultural associations, I know the story of Ali, in the same way that my best friend from college, a Muslim, knew all of the corresponding Hindu points of interest. But, and this is an important but, the south has its own shared history and landscape. For example, in Karaikal, where I went to college, the annual Kandoori festival, a remembrance of a Sufi saint, is celebrated by Hindus and Muslims alike - this in a temple town revered for its closeness to Thirunallar, an important Shiva temple in the Hindu pantheon. The Nagore dargah is another, a short motorcycle ride away from Karaikal, where we would ride to, and pray whenever we could. But why are these details important? Am I showing off, in the way liberals are accused of showing off their association with the other faith?No. I point this out because it was natural to be part of these things. It was natural to attend these festivals, go to the dargah together. And the loss of exactly this is what makes Pakistan what it is today. Writing of Sind, and the factional differences, rivalries, and enmities he observes, Taseer writes, “Pakistanis offered their natural differences, differences in culture and language, as an explanation for the battle lines that had come up, but this was hardly an explanation when next door in India deeper differences had been bridged. Not only that, but in Sind too, where once great variety had been absorbed, bitter division was to be found in what was now relative homogeneity. And Sind, for centuries so diverse, its culture and worship formed from that diversity, was for the first time in its history no longer a place of confluence.”The same can be said for all of Pakistan. This was a nation, like mine, that was founded on high ideals. Taseer again: “Pakistan’s founders were not clerics and fanatics, but poets and secularists. It was from the sophisticated (read liberal, secular) Muslims of the time that the case for the country was made. And yet among these genteel people an idea was expressed whose full ugliness, and violence, only became clear in the cruder, more basic articulations that followed.”Taseer’s book ends with a chilling, beautiful passage where he writes of his father’s pain and confusion about facing and reacting to Pakistan’s history. It is deeply personal, an observation by a son about his father, an observation by an Indian about a Pakistani patriot: about how his nations tragic, unsettled past holds his father down; the phrase Taseer uses is ‘the pain of history in his country’.In itself an attempt to understand, Stranger to History can be a starting point for many who don’t understand how this peaceful, beautiful faith they know so well among their friends can foster such anger and fear. It can also be a glimpse into what Pakistan has become, but like me, it can leave you with a profound sense of sadness and despair. Because what is Pakistan except a part of us, undivided India, that was separated and distorted into something it did not really want to be? They are our people, in more ways than we can ever imagine, and if this can happen to them and this nation they forged for peace, how easy it would be for us to fall into this trap? Hate, anger, and fear, are easily stoked, easily given fuel to, and as we know, there are forces even in India’s strong, pluralistic democracy who wish for nothing less to happen.Pakistan’s knowing, deliberate abandonment of its shared past with India was its first ‘break with history’, and as the years rolled on, that rootlessness invited in dark ideas and conceptions that festered, became poisonous, and that have now eclipsed the ideas the nation was built on. This, then may be what Taseer is saying to us: if you lose your history, you may lose everything.

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