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Aatish Taseer

About The Author

Image of Aatish TaseerAatish Taseer was born in 1980 and lives between London and Delhi. His writing has been widely praised both in Britain and India, most notably by Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul, who described him as ' a young writer to watch'.

His first book, Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands, came out of his fractured upbringing, raised as a Sikh by his mother while his father, a Pakistani Muslim remianed a distant figure. The book, in which he travels from Istanbul to Mecca and then home through Iran and Pakistan, is his journey to understand what it means to be Muslim in the twenty-first century.

His first novel, The Temple-Goers, describes an unlikley friendhsip between two young men, one a regular on Delhi's fashionable party scene, the other a denizen of the city's seamy underbelly. When one of them is accused of murder, some uncopmfortable truths begin to emerge. It was a number one besteller in India, attracting both high praise for its writing and fierce criticism for its controversial portrait of modern-day Delhi, and was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa First Novel Award.

His latest novel, Noon, is a profound and far-reaching novel set amidst two decades of convulsive change in the 'new' New World, with at its core a man whose heart is split across two cultures' troubled divide. Rehan Tabassum has grown up in a world of nascent privilege in Delhi. His mother is a self-made lawyer and her new husband a wealthy industrialist, their lives the embodiment of a dazzling, emergent India. But there is a marked absence in Rehan's life: his father, Sahil Tabassum, who remains a powerful shadow across the border in Pakistan.

This exclusive extract from Noon is the novel's prologue.

Below is a list of titles by Aatish Taseer currently in print in the UK. You may find othereditions in our 'New and Used' section by typing the author's name into the Search field at the top of this page andselecting the 'Author Exact' filter to the far right of the Search field.

 

Extracts

' "What is this tumultuous din of clashing waters?" Hearing Rághava's words, so expressive of his curiosity, the righteous sage explained the cause of that sound. "Rama, on Mount Kailása there is a lake that Brahma produced from his mind, manas. Because of this, tiger among men, it is called Lake Mánasa." '*

from The Ramayana by Valmiki

* \skt{manas} n. mind (in its widest sense as applied to all the mental powers), intellect, intelligence, understanding, perception, sense, con¬science, will [Lat. {miner-va}.]


On the day I met my father's family for the first time, a strange coincidence occurred on a train. It was October 2006, a year after the great earthquake in Kashmir. I was travelling south from that troubled region, when a young man burst into my cabin.

He wore flared jeans and a faded denim jacket. His long, well-brushed hair was tied back and there was something of the Frontier in his dark sunburned features. He gave me no explanation for barging in. He simply dropped into the facing seat, loosened the coloured bands of his ponytail, and began talking.

I felt I had to respond to this casual restlessness: 'The conductor will come. If he sees that you don't have the right ticket, he'll send you back or fine you.'

The intruder gazed fixedly at me, then smiled and extended his hand. 'Mirwaiz,' he said. 'When he comes, I will go back.'

'Rehan,' I replied, reluctantly taking his hand, 'Rehan Tabassum.'

'Where are you headed, Rehan?'

'La Mirage. And you?'

'Port bin Qasim.'

'Long trip,' I said, with the visitor's pride at working out these distances in an unfamiliar country. 'When will you get there?'

Mirwaiz looked out of the window, as if expecting the darkened landscape, dotted here and there with a well or granary bathed in fitful tube light, to give him an answer.

'In the morning,' he said. 'I'd say we're still in Punjab, still an hour or two from La Mirage.'

And, as if deciding this time had been given him to deepen his acquaintance with me, he began firing questions.

'Do you live in La Mirage?'

'No.'

'Why are you going there then?'

'To visit my family.'

'Do they live there?'

'Some.'

'Where?'

'In La Mirage.'

'I know, but where?'

'I'm not sure,' I lied.

Then eyeing the red threads on my wrist, he said: 'Are you Muslim?'

'Yes.'

'Why do you wear this string?'

'It's from a Sufi shrine,' I lied again.

'OK, and this bangle?'

'My grandmother gave it to me. She's a Sikh.'

'And your mother?'

The question took me away for a moment. My mind brought up the two women, one now dead, the other in another country. And from a perverse desire to simplify my life to a stranger on a train, I said, now lying extravagantly, 'She was a Sikh too, but became Muslim after marrying my father.'

'What does he do?'

'My father? Business,' I said uncertainly.

'What kind?'

'What's with all the questions!'

Mirwaiz's eyes grew wide with apology. He sat up and gestured towards the door.

I felt bad, felt I was playing up formalities, when really I was happy to talk. 'No, stay,' I said, 'I'm sorry. The answer to your question is that I don't really know. We don't speak.'

'Oh,' Mirwaiz said, with compassion. 'God willing you will again one day.'

I thought of correcting him, but he said, 'Still; good or bad, it is better to have a father than not. I had one. Once,' he added, enjoying the effect of his words. 'But now there is just my mother and sister.'

'I'm sorry. I didn't...'

'Don't worry,' Mirwaiz said, filling the silence quickly. Then, unprompted, he explained - using the English word - 'Earthquake.'

'Oh!' I managed, and unable to hold my curiosity, added, 'I heard, of course.'

'Hearing, saab, is one thing,' Mirwaiz replied, 'to see is another. My sister heard too, but she didn't see.' Then almost boastfully, he said, 'I saw it all, I saw the Jhelum disappear.'

He began, in a sawing movement, to rub his palm over his chest.

'Our village was one of those typical villages of the Jhelum Valley. Mud houses, slate roofs. Dark hills, river below. A pukka government school. One mobile phone tower. That's about it. I could see it all very clearly that day. I had taken the herd out to one of the surrounding mountains from where everything was visible. October's a good month in the hills. Bright sunshine, cool breezes, great vistas. The goats were happy too. Mast! Eating grass. It was just like any other day.'

He paused, seemed to size me up and continued: 'I was half-dozing in the sunshine, my eyes resting on Madhu, when all of a sudden, saab, she jumped! Three whole feet from where she stood. A stationary goat just thrown from the earth. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. And no sooner had her hooves struck the ground below than she lost her footing and began to roll. I leapt up and tried catching her, but was too late. She was lost, Rehan saab. In seconds, she was tumbling down the hill, hitting against it, legs splayed, trying desperately to regain her footing, bleating with fear. I couldn't make out where she had fallen. Because at that precise moment, my eyes were drawn back to the others, all now jumping, all slipping and falling.

'That was when it came, Rehan saab, that was when the noise came. The movie had been on mute until then. Don't believe people when they say it sounds like dynamite or an avalanche. I've heard those things; this is not like that. When it comes, you know, in your gut, that only creation itself would dare make a sound like that. I heard it travel, Rehan saab, I heard the actual tearing of the earth. It rode through the valley, like the waters of a burst dam.

'Then just before everything went dark, I got a glimpse of the gorge. The goats were specks flying headlong down the mountainside into what I thought was the Jhelum. But where was the Jhelum? When I looked down I saw that there was almost nothing left of the river. Its mighty expanse, before my eyes, was slowing, and turning to a trickle. Then, as water is sucked into a drain, I saw it swallowed up by the ground. My last memory was of its empty bed, a nest of white glistening eggs!

'Around me, the forest had emptied. No birds, no animals. Even the earth had turned out her inhabitants. The forest floor swarmed with creatures we never nor¬mally saw, worms, red ants, snakes, pouring out of holes in the ground.'

'And your family ...?' I said with alarm.

Mirwaiz gazed strangely at me, as if considering the nature of my curiosity.

'I'll tell you how I found them,' he said at last. 'It was afternoon when finally I was able to make my way back home. We lived a few miles from the village in a house, to which my father had recently added a storeroom. We used it, you know, for this and that, bicycles and bed linen. So, anyway, I arrived back at the house to find that though it had been severed from its base, the actual structure had survived. And so, too, would have anyone who had been inside it. But that - and, saab, such was his ill-fortune! - was not where my father had been when . . .'

'The storeroom?' I said.

Mirwaiz nodded. 'All its walls had come down, but the doorway still stood. I looked inside and, at first, I didn't see him. But just as I was turning away, my eyes landed on his small bloated face. It was covered in white cement dust, and but for a bit of dried blood at the corner of the mouth, it was peaceful. Saab, like a child asleep, down to the blankets and sheets. Just one thing was off: ants. Ants everywhere,' Mirwaiz said with a shudder.

'I dusted the cement from his face, and with my own spit, wiped the blood from his mouth. I tried pulling his body out from under the stone shelves, but couldn't move it. Then from behind, I heard my mother's voice. Her face was also covered in dust and her clothes spattered with blood. She saw my father and moaned, "Hai! You too! He's taken you too."

'Note the words, saab: "He's taken you too." My mother, you see, could trust everything to her God. He had sent this upon us as punishment and the ones who survived were punished most. But I could not feel this way. I just felt very quiet and alone. Free almost, free of all my ties. God? God hota, toh He would have at least let us give my father a decent burial.

'Or perhaps He decreed otherwise. For after the earthquake He sent rain. And it rained, saab, as it has never rained in the Jhelum Valley. We had with great difficulty, inch by inch, and with the help of an iron beam, retrieved my father's body. I had washed and prepared it for proper burial, then, using a small pick and my bare hands, dug him a grave. There was no one to administer the rites, of course. But the beauty of our religion is that for all the major occasions - birth, death and marriage - a priest is not needed. Any good Muslim can perform the rites.

'The grave, saab, had not been ready ten minutes when darkness and rain came at once. The bed of the Jhelum flashed, like a live wire, and, in seconds, the little makeshift grave into which my mother had thrown some rose petals and coins filled with muddy water; its outlines crumbled and were washed away. The mountains, with nothing to hold the soil together, began to run into the river. We had to clutch, saab, with all our strength to my father's body to stop it from joining that downward flow of rocks and earth. His shroud, a normal bed sheet, was drenched and dirtied. But we dared not go inside the house, Rehan saab, we dared not go inside the house. We sat there, like that only, all night, clutching his body till dawn, unable to give it burial or shelter.'

Mirwaiz's voice faded before the sudden airy thump of a second train. For a moment the lights of the carriage dimmed. In the darkness, it occurred to me that the events he described had happened a year ago to the date almost. He had obviously just been back. Why?

The question brought a twist of a smile to his face.

'I'll tell you, I'll tell you. You see after it happened, we were separated, my mother and I, from my sister, and not reunited till many days later when we were brought to the Tabassum relief camp. You know those Qasimic Call people, telephone company walleh? Mr Narses...'

And here was the coincidence. 'Mirwaiz,' I muttered, unable to hold my surprise, 'I don't just know them; they're my family. Narses is my father's brother-in-law.'

Mirwaiz was impressed. 'Mr Narses? Your uncle?' he said. 'So you are of those Tabassums. I didn't realize when you gave me your name. Sahil Tabassum, then, must be your father?'

'Yes,' I said unsurely.

'By God, I knew there was a reason why I felt myself drawn to your cabin tonight. Fate, you see, Rehan saab, fate.'
He let the wonder of it linger a moment longer, then abruptly resumed his account.

'I began by telling you that I had seen; and so had my mother; but my sister, saab, had not. She was in another part of the valley when all this happened; and this made it very hard for her to digest. Ever since we moved to the plains, she's been haunted by how unreal it all feels. She keeps saying she needs some way to remember. "To fill the hole in her life. Anything," she repeats, "anything, Mirwaiz. I don't care if it's just a picture of flattened houses; I need something."

'That was why I went back, saab, on the one-year anniversary. She was to have come too but, in the end, she backed out. Which is good, for she would not have been able to handle what I found.'

'What did you find?'

Mirwaiz raised himself up and removed a mobile phone from the pocket of his jeans. He brought up an image on its screen, which he looked at, before handing the phone to me.

On the small screen, I was able only to make out a blue lake in bright sunshine, a line of trees in autumn colours and, in the distance, the snows of the high mountains.

'I don't understand.'

'Look closely,' Mirwaiz said, his dark features intent. Then taking the phone back for a second, he zoomed in on what was a tiny elevation on the glassy surface of the lake, a point of orange and white on its wide expanse, no more prominent than a buoy.

'What is that?'

'The top of our mobile phone tower! The Qasimic Call tower, put there by your family!' Mirwaiz replied, almost laughing. 'It is our one memorial to what happened. For to stop the Jhelum, Rehan saab, is no small thing!'

Seeing that he had restored my faith in him, he took on a different tone.

'So, you see, Rehan saab, when a man sees what I've seen, this lake now in place of our lives, and the violence that made it, he does not want to think too much; he just wants to live as he wouldn't mind dying, no regrets, king size! What do you say?'

The train pulled into La Mirage. An evening scene of porters in orange and food-sellers greeted us. Still feeling the force of Mirwaiz's story, I rose to get my bags. As I was leaving the cabin, I paused in the doorway. The light coming in through a grilled window left a jaundiced imprint on Mirwaiz's handsome face. He was looking up at me expectantly.

'Rehan saab. Your father is a very big man. So is his son, Isphandiyar Tabassum, and his brother-in-law, Mr Narses. They have many companies. See if you can't speak to one of them about a job for me in Port bin Qasim?'

'I'll try, Mirwaiz,' I replied. 'I'll definitely try. But I can't promise anything. You see,' I added, looking long at him one last time, 'our situations are not so different. Sahil Tabassum may be my father, but I've never met him.'

Available Titles By This Author

The Temple-goers
(Paperback)
Aatish Taseer
 
 
£10.99
 

Currently out of stock

Stranger to History: A Son's Journey...
(Paperback)
Aatish Taseer
 
 
£9.99
 

Currently out of stock

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