Writers & Company

Aatish Taseer on religion, caste and power in modern India

The author and journalist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his Indian-Pakistani heritage, spiritual identity and the ancient Indian city of Benares.
British-born journalist and author Aatish Taseer was interviewed by CBC's Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (Michelle De Marco)
Listen to the full episode59:51

In his new book, The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges, novelist and journalist Aatish Taseer explores the world of India's Brahmins — who sit at the top of the Hindu caste system — set against current politics of nationalism, revivalism and revenge.

The book centres on the city of Benares, also known as Varanasi, the spiritual capital of Hinduism, where Taseer first encountered Brahmins and began his study of the ancient language of Sanskrit. Examining the impact of modernity on India today, The Twice-Born is also a work of self-discovery — as Taseer explores his dual Indian-Pakistani heritage, and seeks out people who challenge his westernized world views.

Born in London and raised in Delhi, Taseer moved to the United States for college when he was 18. The author of three novels and a previous memoir, he's a contributor to The New York Times and has written for Time Magazine, The Financial Times, Vanity Fair, The Sunday Times and Esquire.

Taseer spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the Toronto Reference Library in March 2019.

The declining caste system in India

"In the world of anglicized India, concepts such as caste had been almost completely forgotten. All the markers, all the signifiers of caste were hardly apparent. And similarly, in a weird way, religion had receded and people dealt with people more in colonial and class terms. It was the world of English, and nearness to the West as a sign of prestige."

Love and different religions

"My family were Sikh. They were refugees from what became the Pakistani side of Punjab and my grandfather maintained a healthy contempt for religion. Despite the fact that there'd been this tremendous displacement — and the loss of home and possessions — there was a love of Muslims. My grandmother, when she heard that my Indian mother had this totally unorthodox love affair with a Pakistani when I was being born, it was her who insisted that I have Ali as my middle name because it was part of this syncretism of that region."

Idiosyncratic syncretism

"My Hindu religious fascination was very much a visceral one. It was a sense of wonder with the pantheon of Hindu gods, which is more exciting than the Greek and the Roman gods. Hindu gods are alive and living in the world. People carry the stories with them. You grow up with this stuff in your system. I had a little temple, and I used to go to the local market and get all the religious movies.

"There is a tradition of Christian educational institutions in South Asia — there are many of them. The Christian boarding school that I attended in India was a very strange school because it was American Christian missionaries who'd started the school in 1901. By the time I got there, it was divided, with Bible thumping evangelicals from the deepest parts of the North American continent, and old hippies who'd strayed and lived in this town. It was a very volatile, interesting environment.

"I knew near to nothing about Christianity when I arrived, but I left with some distaste. So the religious people had done their job, as they do their job everywhere."

My father and Islam

"My father had come out of a tradition, within Islam, of a very rich tradition of challenging clergy. There was a close idea of being culturally Muslim within the world of Islam. It was very easy to be provocative about religion. My father grafted a sort of 1960s-era socialist spirit of moving away from these things. He was a babe in the woods, in that respect, because he thought it was garbage. He was in a country that was turning increasingly more religious and he thought he could assert a sense of class. He was so protected that he could talk down to these people and make them see sense and knock aside all this religiosity as if it was nothing. But, of course, his world was not as safe as he thought it was.

"It was a great pain for me because the reason we'd fallen out as father and son... was over the fact that I'd written [the 2007 memoir Stranger to History] in which I describe the country that he didn't recognize — but it was the country that killed him. He didn't see what Pakistan had become."

Author Aatish Taseer spoke to Eleanor Wachtel onstage at the Toronto Reference Library in March 2019. (Michelle De Marco)

Aatish Taseer's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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