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Verve Man
October 17, 2011

A Life Less Ordinary

Text by Shashi Baliga. Photographs by Amit Dey

Aatish Taseer, author of the newly-released Noon; son of a slain politician, disciplined writer who once hit British tabloids with his royal connections, reveals his views on marriage, commitment, fatherhood and writing, to Verve

He insists that he does not have the money or time to keep a relationship going. That ‘relationships that require a kind of giving are difficult’ for him.   That he’s sceptical about marriage and the thought of having children makes him nervous. Naturally, women must find him irresistible. The lure of the troubled soul is one that few women can resist, I point out to Aatish Taseer. “I think I might be more trouble than I’m worth,” he shoots back, with a smile that is only half-discouraging. And we both laugh.

I, because it’s unlikely that any of those declarations will keep hopefuls at bay. Especially since he’s also 30, successful, good-looking and, has, shall we say, a way with words. Besides, he has an incredibly attentive quality; his gaze is unwavering and his manner intense throughout the interview as he listens carefully and deals with each question painstakingly. There’s little that’s casual about his body language, there are few throwaway lines or gestures. All of which should be as alluring for female predators as it is for interviewers. But to hear the author tell it, there is little space in his life for conventional relationships, consumed as he is by writing, reading and learning. “My ideal situation would be for whomever I’m with, to be lying quietly in a chair reading while I’m reading,” he says. And we laugh again.

Clearly, not your average young man. But then, little about Aatish Taseer’s life has adhered to the norm. If you didn’t know, he is the son of feisty journalist Tavleen Singh and flamboyant Pakistani politician, the late Salman Taseer. He was born of a brief dalliance – “My parents’ affair lasted little more than a week,” he wrote in his non-fiction book, Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands. His father did little to help or even reach out to either mother or son and Taseer has described his father’s existence in his life as ‘ghostly’. The tenuous relationship was cut short when his father, then Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was assassinated by his bodyguard in January this year.

It’s been an extraordinary life. How well has he coped? “Well, I’m still going on. I haven’t faced all of it yet,” he begins, in a low voice. “I think I go to the writing as a way to get through and there is a tendency to want to close myself within that writing circle and to just do the writing.” A pause, then he adds, “There’s been an emotional toll. There’s almost a kind of nervousness about starting my own life.”

His voice is stronger by now and he looks up, smiles and declares, “But on the whole I feel pretty good and strong and well.” The writing obviously helps; is it cathartic? “No-o,” he says. “Catharsis would imply a relief, something that is satisfying in an easy way. This is not; it’s satisfying in a very difficult way. It’s a huge labour, writing, it’s huge. But when I’ve written about it, it certainly feels like the material has gone quiet in some ways. I’m able to move away from it and on to something else.”

With such a dramatic life-story, it’s not surprising that both his novels are full of autobiographical overtones. The protagonist in his first novel, The Temple-Goers, is called Aatish, has an absentee Pakistani father and an outspoken mother. In his just-released book, Noon, the protagonist is called Rehan, is also (surprise) a writer with an absentee Pakistani father, with part of the story set in Pakistan, where he journeys to meet his family.

But here’s the interesting thing: Taseer tosses it all up – the  autobiographical elements are blended with fictional strokes and reality bleeds into fantasy in a manner that is quite different, really, from the manner in which most other authors weave in autobiographical elements. The lines are constantly blurred, the reader is kept guessing.

“But that’s because you have extra information. Because there’s a certain amount of information about me in the public sphere – like the way my father was killed – that you are able to make these connections. It’s only at this particular point in Delhi or Mumbai that people feel they can read into the book in this way,” he argues.

Which is, I have to admit, fair enough. But Taseer also throws in what seem like thinly-veiled portraits of various celebrities. The Temple Goers, for instance, has an imperious writer named Mr Vijaipal, who speaks unkindly about Indians and who ‘could take big ideas such as colonialism, defeat, occupation and show their effects in small human ways like lying and boasting, in hidden anger and resentments’. And there is the colourful Chamunda, who, deserted by her princely husband soon after marriage, jumps into politics and becomes chief minister of a Northern state. You join the dots.

The portrayals are not all kind; some border on caricature. So how do people who might recognise themselves in his books react to their portrayals?  The reply is somewhat unexpected: “I wouldn’t know if there are any such reactions – I don’t have an avenue to receive them. Because I don’t meet people, I don’t go out, I don’t read the Internet. I lead a totally isolated experience.” He offers an explanation: “When I’m writing, I wake up at 5 a.m. That limits how much I can go out. And I have a lot of things I’m trying to do at once (he reads in Sanskrit and Urdu every day), so I need to break my day into fixed portions.” Mostly writing, reading or learning, I remark. “That’s right. That’s right,” he replies quietly.

A  far cry from the days when he hit the British tabloids as the boyfriend of Lady Gabriella Windsor, daughter of Prince and Princess Michael of Kent and a member of the British royal family. He was then a reporter with Time magazine and the couple was a colourful part of London’s party scene. There were rumours of marriage but they split when Taseer returned to Delhi. He is reticent for the first time when I ask about that episode. “Oh, it was part of my youthful days,” he says, emphasising the somewhat drastic change in his lifestyle. Today, he says, “Marriage and fatherhood certainly make me nervous. I’ve never grown up around marriage; it’s not an institution that I know, the way that others do, from their parents being married… I have no models.”

And as for children, well, “I like the idea, but it’s still quite far away. There’s definitely a fear of letting down any kid I have,” he confesses. “I’m very nervous about making mistakes, which one shouldn’t be, because perhaps everyone makes mistakes…. There’s a tendency to want to be, in some ways, unassailable; to be so right that no one can throw a stone at you.”

That statement is so loaded with vulnerability and candour and subtext that I let it go without comment. I felt that nothing more, really, needed to be said.

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