Ben Okri referred once to the older generation—in any time, of any place—as “libraries on fire”. In modern India, the stories these “libraries” contained often went up in metaphorical smoke: of all the things we were forbidden to write about, the family was the most taboo.
For many (though not all) writers, the first and most natural route into writing is the exploration of their own histories. Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Vikram Seth are classic examples of those who were drawn into exploring the silences around the official histories, the absences in family photographs. The late Flannery O’Connor had an astute understanding of why the code of silence and repression was so tempting to any writer worth her salt. “I come from a family where the only emotion respectable to show is irritation,” she said in one of her interviews. “In some this tendency produces hives, in others literature, in me both.”
Two new writers, Sadia Shepard and Aatish Taseer, have little in common beyond this: a curiosity about their roots, and the means to indulge that curiosity. The titles of their books are revealing: Shepard’s exploration of her roots in the Bene Israel community of India is called The Girl from Foreign, and Taseer’s journey through the map of modern-day Islam is called Stranger to History.
Taseer’s story is well-known by now. He was brought up in Delhi by his mother, the journalist Tavleen Singh, and knew little about his father: “My earliest sense of being Muslim was bound to my earliest perception of my father’s absence.” The first letter his father ever wrote to him was in response to an article Taseer had written on Islamic extremism in Britain; the father excoriated the son, accusing him of lacking even “superficial knowledge of the Pakistani ethos”.
To Taseer, the most interesting part of the letter was that his father, “a professed disbeliever in Islam’s founding tenets”, still retained the right to be offended as a Muslim. “Caught between feeling provoked and needing to act, I thought of making an Islamic journey…. The first part of the trip would be an old Islamic journey, almost a pilgrimage, from its once greatest city to its holiest. The trip away, through Iran and Pakistan, was a journey home, to my father’s country…. and, finally, to his doorstep.”
Shepard grew up in a white clapboard house in Chestnut Hill, just outside Boston, with a need to fill in the outlines of the stories her grandmother told her. Shepard’s father was a WASP, her mother a Pakistani Muslim—but her Nana, she discovered at 13, had gone from being Rachel to being Rahat, from being Jewish in India to living in Pakistan as a Muslim. As she returns to India to explore her grandmother’s legacy, her Nana’s hidden story and to find her own “native place”, Shepard must deal with her own unusual position. She belongs to three faiths—Islam, Judaism and Christianity—or to none. “I feel a welling up of resentment at the idea of choosing one faith, one affiliation, over the others… [Not belonging] also allows me to keep asking questions, to hear what is really said behind closed doors.”
Shepard’s journey is deeply personal, a delving into family history and a discovery of a community struggling to live within the bounds of an increasingly polemical India. Taseer’s journey through Islam is a more deliberate exploration, part travelogue, part self-discovery. Towards the end of his travels, Taseer, who may claim both Sikhism and Islam or neither, writes of the possibility of embracing the three-tier history of India whole, of how he prefers inheriting garbled histories to violent purities: “The world is richer in its hybrids.”
There is such a small, scattered set of books on the shelf of Indian memoirs and personal journeys. In recent times, a few writers have successfully attempted to mine personal history—Amitava Kumar (Husband of a Fanatic), Ira Pande (Diddi) and Timeri Murari (My Temporary Son) among them. The memoir requires a blend of technical skill, journalistic observation and personal honesty to really work, and also perhaps freedom from the fear of being judged. I don’t know what drove Taseer or Shepard to use the labels “foreign” and “stranger”, but perhaps what they were claiming was the privileges of the outsider, who may roam freely through the hidden rooms of family history without breaking too many unspoken rules.
As I read these two different but equally compelling narratives, a friend calls, a young writer who grew up in Calcutta and moved to the US several years ago. Amin is working on a family history, and the journey has taken him to old, crumbling homes, to Dhaka, to Dubai. He speaks of what he has discovered here, and what is left to discover. And then he says, “I don’t know if I could have written this if I’d stayed here. Distance gives you freedom.” Freedom to question, freedom to write without fear of what people will say, freedom to explore. Perhaps this generation of writers, insiders or strangers as they may be, will give themselves that freedom, one that was denied to the previous generation.