NOW THAT THE GUIDEBOOK writers and package providers have opened up a mass market in soft adventure and off-the-track forays, travelling great distances is no longer the thing of endurance that once it was. This has made travel writing quirkier, sometimes gimmicky, more superficial.
How refreshing it is, then, to stumble on Stranger to History, a travelogue of sorts that takes you as deep as it takes you far. The book is gripping without resorting to ramped-up pseudo-thriller tension (with one exception – a scene which predictably subverts itself as it happens). Nor is it anxious to amuse you, charm or impress you. It does its own thing. It is a memoir as much as the journal of a fascinating and wholly focused quest.
Taseer has taken on the daunting role of puzzled inquisitor – both in search of his Muslim roots and an understanding of what the faith has come to mean. And yet he is also, even more earnestly, on the trail of the baffling spectre of his Pakistani father, a prominent intellectual writer and political thinker who deserted him and his Indian journalist mother shortly after his conception in March 1980.
Taseer's father had been in Delhi promoting a biography of his mentor, the Pakistani leader Ali Bhutto. The fling had lasted barely a week. When Salmaan Taseer returned to Lahore (and his wife and children), the author's mother, remaining in Delhi, found out she was pregnant. Her lover persuaded her to pretend they were quietly married, averting scandal and thereby prolonging for almost two years the duplicitous life of their relationship.
Living in Delhi, Aatish grows up without his father. In the nest of extended family he is conditioned, as his Sikh grandfather says, "to become a human being", not a Muslim, Hindu or Sikh.
He is sent to America for his higher education, becoming a journalist. He obsesses about the absence of his father, making futile attempts to contact him, and then, after many rebuttals, gains an audience, and a semblance of recognition. By then he is 17 years old.
The relationship builds on this tenuous basis, but suffers a setback when Aatish publishes a feature in response to the London bombings of July 2005 in which he identifies the British second-generation of Pakistanis as being the source of Islamic extremism in Britain.
His father writes to him from Pakistan, accusing him of prejudice, rebuking him for his "superficial knowledge of the Pakistani ethos" and accusing him of blackening his name by spreading "invidious anti-Muslim propaganda". Aatish is puzzled, since his father is a self-professed non-believer. "What made him a Muslim," Aatish wonders, "despite this lack of faith?" This enquiry fuels his trip – and the book's main thrust – a journey from Istanbul (once the greatest city of Islam) to Iran and Pakistan, by way of Mecca, "a journey home to my father's country where my link to Islam began, and … to his doorstep".
Taseer records many conversations along the way with Muslim adherents, a plotted journey (these discussions are mostly arranged, not accidental), encountering danger among the fanatics of backstreet Istanbul, the police state that is Syria with its anti-American banners, and Saudi Arabia where he gains an education in the basic tenets of Islam and learns the biography of Muhammad.
In Iran he discovers a country immersed in the ferment of talk about tyranny, and rules, and how to subvert them. He finds corruption, and double standards – a reflection of hypocrisy in discussions where western society is decried, yet its fruits are enjoyed: in Mecca, for instance, he comes upon a Muslims-only McDonald's.
The writing is concentrated, absorbed in the tale it is telling, expressing competing points of view, the author's bemusement, intrigue and confusion as he searches for the threads of his Muslim identity – the link to his father – a quest that takes him into the personal pain of his childhood and adolescence.
Either story – the quest for the father, or the enquiry into the warping of modern Islam – would in themselves have made a wholly absorbing account. Taken together, and woven astutely, they make a memorable read that engages the mind as well as the heart.