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Vignettes from the city of light

By January 23, 2019No Comments

Source : The Hindu

At the launch of his latest book set in Varanasi, author-journalist Aatish Taseer discusses his fascination with ancient cultures and their place in an increasingly frantic, modern world

Author and journalist Aatish Taseer understands what it is like to inhabit multiple worlds. The British-born writer is the son of Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and late Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer. Born in London, he grew up in Delhi, studied at Amherst, Massachusetts, and now lives in New York.

At the recent launch of his latest book, The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges (Harper Collins India), Taseer talked about making multiple trips to Varanasi in an attempt to write what began as a travelogue, but ended up being a cultural journey.

In conversation with Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor, The Hindu, Taseer discussed his fascination with “ancient cultures reborn as modern nations,” adding, “I’ve used this narrow prism of the world of Benares to look at fault lines that might otherwise have been obscured”. He added that the central conflict he noticed in Varanasi (which he constantly refers to as Benares, “because that’s what they call it on the streets”) is the same conflict he sees across India: “This conflict is not between tradition and modernity. It is between spirituality and modernity.”

A political landscape

Stating that the story takes place against a larger political landscape, Padmanabhan pointed out that the book is “made up of a string of conversations with people. Some of whom are — for a lack of a polite word — bigots.” He then asked how much of this engagement was done with the neutrality of a journalist. “It’s the schooling of a novelist,” said Taseer. “In many situations, even when I was outraged, I thought ‘let people see this man. And let them reckon with him’.” He added thoughtfully, “People are always more than just the expression of an idea… and it’s more effective if one sees them in the context of a real human being. Not just a cipher.”

For the book Taseer says he met people with very different world views and opinions on morality. Asked whether he felt a need to conceal his sexual orientation on these journeys, Taseer shrugged, “You don’t tell them.” Then explained, “I was suddenly in a situation where, during the course of this book, I met this tall white man from Tennessee and fell in love. And I feel we do have that colonial sense of apology. For my husband Ryan, there is nothing in the world that would stop him from being true to who he is… But we live in a country where morality is set at a very different speed.”

“Do you think that the shadow of colonialism has lifted somewhat with time?” asked Padmanabhan, adding “Today’s kids, I think, feel less like foreigners in their own land.” Taseer shook his head, “One mustn’t confuse the energy and confidence of youth with self-assurance. These things creep up on you, when it comes to where you live. Or who you marry.” He added, “This is a country where people talk about abstractions. About history and culture. But there is a growing sense of upheaval. One does not have to even leave the place one is from to be very culturally different from one’s parents or grandparents.”

The book ultimately grapples with the idea of ancient cultures finding their way as a modern nation. “We think politics will solve our problems,” said Taseer, adding “But we know in our hearts that if cultural issues are not resolved, it will be tough to find peace.”

This is a country where people talk about abstractions. About history and culture. But there is a growing sense of upheaval

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