Salmaan Taseer, the influential governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, died tragically earlier this month. Here, his son Aatish Taseer tells of a journey he went on in search of his father, and his Pakistani rootsby Aatish Taseer / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
My parents met in Delhi in March 1980. My Pakistani father was in India promoting a book he had written on his political mentor, the Pakistani leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. My mother, a young Indian journalist, was sent to interview him.
Their affair began that evening. My father took my mother’s number, they had dinner at a Chinese restaurant and for a little over a week they disappeared together.
My parents met at a time when they had both become politically involved in their respective countries. The state of emergency that Mrs Gandhi declared in 1975 had come and gone—she had returned to power and the terrorism in Punjab that would take her life was about to begin.
In Pakistan the year before (the same year as the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the great hope of Pakistani democracy, had been hanged. And now, General Zia, the military dictator, was settling into the blackest decade Pakistan would know.
My father had loved Bhutto. He had heard him speak for the first time as a student in London in the 1960s and was moved to his depths. The events of 1979 then ushered in a time both of uncertainty and possibility. Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, had entered politics; Zia had to be fought; and for this man of 36, touched by unusual idealism, his biography of Bhutto became his political entry point.
My parents’ affair lasted little more than a week before my father left for Lahore, where he already had a wife and three small children. A month later, my mother discovered she was pregnant. For a young woman from an old Sikh family to become pregnant out of marriage by a visiting Pakistani was then (and now) an enormous scandal. During the week when she was considering an abortion, my father called unexpectedly from Dubai. She told him what had happened.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
“What do you think I’m going to do?” she replied.
My father asked her what could be done to change her mind. She replied that they would at least have to pretend to be married and so they tentatively agreed to continue their relationship for as long as it was possible.
But by 1982 the relationship was over. My mother had begun work as a political journalist in Delhi and my father was fighting Zia in Pakistan. What I heard of him over the next two decades came only from my mother. We followed his progress across the border, through multiple imprisonments in the 1980s, to the restoration of democracy and Benazir Bhutto’s victory in 1988, to the failed governments of the 1990s, and his eventual switch from politics to business.
In 2002, aged 21, I made a journey to Lahore to seek out my father, Salmaan Taseer. For a few years our relationship flourished, then fell apart. The reason for the latest distance between us was an article I wrote in these pages in 2005, after the London bombings. In response, my father wrote me a letter—the first he’d ever written—in which he accused me of prejudice, of lacking even “superficial knowledge of the Pakistani ethos,” and of blackening his name. That letter was the origin of my book Stranger to History, an account of a journey I made from Istanbul to Pakistan, in the hope of understanding the silence between us. It is a discovery of his faith, his country and the story of our shared but fractured history.
At the end of my journey I was, by chance, together with my father in Lahore on the night Benazir Bhutto was killed. I found to my surprise that the wheels of power in Pakistan had turned once more and my father, who had spent his youth fighting the military, had re-entered politics and was now a minister in General Musharraf’s government. Here was a lesson about life in Pakistan, for the compromises men had to make. But it was not ultimately in the drawing rooms of Lahore or Karachi that I came closest to understanding Pakistani society, but rather in the time I spent with a young feudal landlord, known as the Mango King, in rural Sindh.
Pakistan, a land of over 170m people, remains largely rural. People have often said to me, “You will never know the soul of Pakistan till you know feudal Pakistan.” Charged by the desire to see this feudal life, I asked a Pakistani newspaper publisher if he could help. He was a heavy man in a white salwar kameez, with short greying hair and moustache. My mother had put us in touch, and he did for me what I would have liked my father to have done: insist on my connection to Pakistan. By arousing my interest in the cultural bonds that exist between the two countries and in speaking to me of my paternal grandfather, an Urdu poet, the publisher gave me the other side of the romance of an undivided India on which my maternal grandfather and my mother had raised me.
We sat in his grand old Karachi house. He lay on a very high bed, smoking and making phone calls to people who might help me. Boxes and stacks of books lay on the floor. After a few hours of messages left, phone calls returned, lists made, lectures on safety and heat, the publisher looked up at me, scribbling as he spoke. “Can you leave tonight?”
“Yes,” I stammered. “I can leave tonight.”
I packed my bags in the early evening. I was to leave with Hameed Mahesari, the Mango King, and travel to his lands in the Sindh interior. It was well past midnight when a white car, with heavily tinted windows, drew up. As I approached, a passenger door opened, but no one stepped out. Instead, cold, air-conditioned air infused with a faint smell of cigarettes drifted out. I put my head into the car and saw a young man in the back seat, with a black moustache, fair skin and a handsome, slightly puffy face. He peered at me through a dense haze of smoke and gestured to me to get in.
The chauffeur drove off as soon as I shut the door. I turned to the Mango King, who lit another cigarette. He smoked continuously, slowly and deeply, looking out at the deserted streets. I could tell from his eyes and the thickness in his voice that he had been drinking.
“In the city I am a different person,” he said abruptly, “and, you’ll see, in the village I am a different person. One has to adjust. It gets pretty nasty,” he added. “People steal water. Typical vadhera.” A vadhera, or landlord, was what Hameed had become after his father died; his family were among the largest producers of mangoes in the country. “But things won’t change for another 50 years. There will still be feudalism.” I saw that he was drinking from a hip flask.
“Do you know why Sindhi society is a failure?” Hameed asked, in his abrupt way.
“There’s no middle class. There’s us and there’s them. We had a middle class, but they took off when what happened?” I thought it was a rhetorical question and didn’t answer, but the Mango King’s gaze held me, expecting a reply.
“Partition,” I answered obediently.
“Exactly. But, you know, life goes on, one day to the next. My father trained me to be a farmer.” Hameed spoke in broken, disconnected sentences. After a long silence, he said, “Do you know why religion was invented?”
“Why?” I asked.
“A man can deal with everything but death.”
Hameed lit up again, but this time my eyes focused on a new discomfort: an AK-47 was placed between us, and the ribs of its magazine, its barrel, and bulbous sight shone in the yellow streetlight. I asked why the AK-47 was so popular.
“Three things you have to be able to trust,” Hameed answered. “Your lads, your woman and your weapon. It’ll never jam on you. Anyone can fire it and it’ll never jam.”
I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I woke a few hours later when I felt Hameed touch my hand. It was dawn, and we drove down a deserted country road, amid acres and acres of flat, empty fields.
“The estate begins here,” he said. The car swung left. “This, on both sides, is my estate.”
“How big is it?”
“Six thousand acres.” By the subcontinent’s standards, this was a large holding.
Then after a silence, he straightened his posture and, with pregnant solemnity, announced: “This is my territory.”
We passed several acres of a dense, low crop, then just before the house, like some last battalion of a great regiment or a vanishing tribe of horses, were the mango trees. Hameed stared in dull-eyed wonder at the dark green, almost black canopies, heavy with fruit and dropping low in a curtsy against an immense saffron sky.
When we got out of the car, I saw that Hameed was tall and well-built. His cream salwar kameez partially concealed a new paunch and, like the puffiness of his face, it was unattractive on a man of his looks.
A few men were stooped in greeting. Hameed waved, then stumbled through a doorway. We entered a walled garden of palms, ashoka trees and buoyant rubber plants. Hameed’s fluttering cream figure lurched down a narrow path that led to a low white bungalow. Darkness and a musty stench from thick, beige carpeting hit us as we entered. I couldn’t make out much in the dim light.
Hameed collapsed into a sofa, and stared vacantly at me, as if only now seeing me. I wondered what he thought I wanted with him. Among pictures of the family, and one of Hameed in a yellow tie, there were many books: a Hitler biography, copies of National Geographic, Frederick Forsyth, Jane’s aircraft almanacs, Animals in Camera and dozens on travel. I felt from the books, and the framed posters of impressionist paintings, a longing for other places.
“Did your father read a lot?” I asked.
“Yes,” Hameed replied. “He was the sort of man you could talk to about anything and he would always have the right answer.” The description suggested a nightmare person, but Hameed hadn’t intended it to sound that way. “I used to read,” he added, “but I don’t get the chance any more.” He showed me a book he’d recently bought. It was a guide to being a gentleman. “It says that a gentleman never adjusts his crotch in public.” Hameed chuckled and then we fell into silence. He sat there, looking neither at me nor at his men, but ahead into the gloom, like a man who had just lost all his money. A servant brought him some water and a new AK-47, this time with a drum magazine. He leant it against the leg of his chair, telling me it was Chinese; more than 100 countries produced them now. He asked me if I’d like to fire one.
“Yes,” I said, surprising myself.
“She wreaks havoc when she opens her mouth,” he smiled mirthlessly. He was prone to theatrical utterances and to clichés like “Different strokes for different folks” or “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy,” which he said as if they’d never been said before. The idea of firing the gun was forgotten for now.
My fatigue deepened just as the Mango King had a second wind. He ordered wine and offered me dinner. Wine is unusual in the subcontinent, whisky and soda are more standard, but this, like the cigars and brandy, and the guide to being a gentleman, seemed like a recent feudal affectation. I turned down the suggestion of dinner as it was already dawn.
“Yum, yum,” he said, looking at the feast that was now being laid out before us. There were several kinds of meat, rice, lentils, bread and more wine. Hameed rolled up his sleeves to eat and I saw that there were cigarette burns branded into his arm. The cutlery was Christofle, scattered stylishly among the oven-proof crockery and dinner trays.
When I awoke a few hours later, I was lying under a wooden fan. Next to my bed there was a copy of Time magazine and a guide to nightlife in Thailand. The room, despite the air-conditioning, was suffocating. It was about 10am and the house was quiet. I stepped into the drawing room and felt a wave of compressed heat. The room could not have been more badly designed for the fierce temperature beyond its sliding doors. It was low, like a garage, heavy with carpeting and velvety sofas, and without ventilation. I stepped out onto a white tiled courtyard but soon retreated. It was dangerous heat, the worst I’d ever experienced: sharp, unshaded, asphyxiating. It could make you sick if you went unprotected into it. Yet to be back in the room, in its stale air, was hardly better. Outside, buffaloes lay in the shade of trees; I could just make out villages of straw dotted around the Mango King’s lands; and slim, black women, in bright colours, with white bangles all the way up their arms, walked along the edges of mud paths.
After tea, breakfast and a shower, I came into the main room to find that Hameed was up and inspecting weapons. “You can’t get this on licence,” he said cheerfully, as the man brought out an Uzi. Hameed was freshly bathed, his eyes alert, his manner sprightly in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible the night before. The deadened glaze had gone from his eyes and his mind made connections easily. He seemed to sense that I might be a little surprised at the gun parade. “A lot of people in Karachi don’t like farmers,” he said. “They say they’re feudal, but my feeling is that there are good and bad people in every field.”
Still squinting through sights he said, “Can you imagine? Even I was kidnapped… I was 12 and when I came back I was 13. It was from 1984 to 1985, for six months. I was chained for the last two. My father wouldn’t pay the ransom. When they called he started abusing them so they only called once. After that, they dealt with my uncle.” The kidnappers had picked him up outside his school in Hyderabad.
His point, it seemed, was not to emphasise the violence in his life but to make clear that he had paid his dues.
Hameed drank heavily; he had suspicious cigarette burns on his arms; he played with guns; and yet what might have seemed like cause for alarm was presented instead as emblematic of the feudal life. The violence he had experienced, and perhaps inflicted, became like a rite of passage.
“Was it traumatic?”
“Yes,” he replied, “but you get used to anything.”
That evening the Mango King suggested I go with him to Mirpur Khas, a nearby town, to meet a lawyer who was working on a case he was fighting. The sun at last was loosening its grip on the day and the land, stunned and silent for many hours, came to life with the screeching of birds and the movement of animals.
Driving out of the Mango King’s gate, I noticed that under the name of the estate, it said, “Veni Vidi Vici.”
“We used to send mangoes to the Queen of England,” Hameed said proudly.
“You should start again.”
“No,” he smiled, “but we send them to Musharraf.”
In the car, the Mango King and his lieutenant discussed feudal revenge. The lieutenant was a muhajjir or immigrant from India. His family came to Pakistan from Jodhpur in Rajasthan after partition. The feudal life needed men like the lieutenant. He was dark and bald, with the aspect of a grand vizier, and after the Mango King’s father died, he served the son as an adviser. They talked about how another feudal owner had killed the Mango King’s friend in an argument over 350 acres. Hameed said that the other landlords still teased the dead man’s son for having been unable to exact revenge.
“Don’t the police ever get involved?”
“Not in these things. The people come to me with their problems and family matters. If you’re the landlord, you’re politician and policeman too. The landowner’s word is law.” Then, pausing for a moment, he said, “In the end, it’s not even about land. It’s about who gets to be head honcho.” He put it well: land at least was stabilising; this was about arbitrary power and Hameed was also vulnerable.
His lieutenant had been back to Jodhpur just once, in 1990, and from the moment he heard I was Indian, he could speak of nothing else. He craned his long neck forward and asked if I saw much difference between India and Pakistan.
“Not much,” I said, meaning to be polite. “There’s more feudalism here.”
“But between human beings, on a human level?”
“No, not really.”
“But there is!” He smiled.
“In Pakistan, the clothes people wear are much better. There’s far less poverty. India makes its own things, its own cars, but then you don’t get Land Cruisers. In India, you get Indian needles. In Pakistan, we get Japanese needles!”
In India you now got Japanese needles too. The lieutenant had visited before economic liberalisation, but that was not the point. What struck me was how this man, who would never come close to owning a Land Cruiser, could talk of such things as core human differences. The poverty around him was as bad as anything I had ever seen, yet he spoke of expensive cars. It was as if the mere fact of difference was what he needed. It hardly mattered what the differences meant: that was taken care of by the inbuilt rejection of India. In the confusion about what Pakistan was meant to be—a secular state for Indian Muslims, a religious state, a military dictatorship, a fiefdom—the rejection of India could become more powerful than the assertion of Pakistan.
“What other differences did you see?” he asked.
“It’s hard to say as there’s so much change within India. There are more differences between the north and the south than there are between north India and Pakistan.”
The lieutenant was not to be put down. He wanted to get something off his chest. “The other difference,” he began, “was that while men here wear flat colours, the men there are fond of floral prints, ladies’ clothes.” Hindus weaker, more feminine, and Muslims stronger, manlier: this was the dull little heart of what the lieutenant wanted to say and a great satisfaction came over his face as he spoke. This was the way he reconnected with the glories of the Islamic past when the martial Muslims ruled the “devious Hindu.”
“Were you scared when they kidnapped you?” I asked Hameed, hoping to hear the rest of the story.
“The first 15 minutes were scary, but then it was all right.”
After four months he had tried to steal a kidnapper’s gun and use it on two of them, but just as he picked it up, the third returned and wrested it from his hands. That was when they chained him as punishment.
I thought he wanted to say more, but his lieutenant interrupted: “Tell me,” he said, “why do you wear a kara?” He was referring to the steel bangle on my wrist.
“My grandmother is a Sikh and wanted me to wear it.”
“Your mother’s Sikh and you’re Muslim.”
“No,” I said, not wishing to annoy him, “my mother’s Sikh and my father’s Muslim.”
“Yes, yes, so you’re Muslim.”
The lieutenant seemed to ask the question in the most basic sense. He could tell I wasn’t a practising Muslim, but he wanted to know if I was Muslim somehow.
“Come on, you’re Muslim. If you’re father’s Pakistani, you’re Muslim.”
“If you say so, but don’t you have to believe certain things to be a Muslim? If I don’t believe, can I still be Muslim?”
He looked at me with fatigue. It was almost as if he wanted to say yes. It was as though, once acquired, this identity based on a testament of faith could not be peeled away, like caste in India. And I felt that if I could know the sanctity of his feeling of difference in relation to non-Muslim India, and the symbolic history that went with it, I would be as Muslim as he was.
“It’s his decision,” the Mango King laughed.
The lieutenant fell into a moody silence. “It’s hotter in India than it is in Pakistan, isn’t it?” he started again.
The Mango King groaned with irritation.
“It’s the same!” I said. “You see too many differences.”
Perhaps sensing that he had created bad feeling with a guest, he said, “Sikhs have a very sweet way of speaking.”
“They speak just like we do!” Hameed snapped, and the lieutenant retreated with a sad, stung expression.
Pakistan’s economic advantage, the manliness of Muslim men, Land Cruisers and Japanese needles, even an imagined better climate: these were the small, daily manifestations that nourished a greater rejection of India, making the idea of Pakistan robust and the lieutenant’s migration worthwhile. Hameed didn’t need the lieutenant’s sense of the Other. He was where his family had always been, sure of himself and, if anything, he felt the lack of the Hindu middle class that had once completed his society.
On the way into town, Hameed explained the legal dispute. It was a complex story in which the laws of the country—British law with Islamic accents—came into conflict with feudal family agreements. Hameed’s aunts had inherited a parcel of land, which they wanted him to inherit, but as his cousins (with whom he’d had gun battles) contested this, a spurious sale was organised, by which the land would come indirectly to Hameed.
The section of town we entered in moonlight had old-fashioned whitewashed buildings. Outside the lawyer’s office there was an open drain from which a vast peepal tree grew, its roots threatening the foundation of both street and building. The man inside the pistachio green room was like a caricature of a small-town lawyer. He was squat and smiling, with dimples and greasy hennaed hair. His office contained a glass-topped desk, green metal filing-cabinets and shelves stacked with volumes of Pakistan Legal Decisions.
He had been briefed about the case and, after offering us tea and soft drinks, he began: “You have two options, either of speaking the truth or… I’ve heard, sir,” he said, a smarmy smile lighting his face, “that it is hard for you to tell a lie.”
Hameed looked at him. “No, there’s no such problem.”
“Another situation is that we don’t tell the truth,” the lawyer said, shaking his head mournfully, as though drawing some pleasure from the foreplay of an illegal act.
“Please leave truth and lies aside,” Hameed said. “Let’s just do what favours us.”
The lawyer, bowing from the waist, grinned. “Are both women educated?”
“Yes, a little.”
The lawyer nodded sadly, feigning gloom.
“What difference does it make?” Hameed barked.
“Because we could say the transaction was a fake,” the lawyer sputtered. “The ladies did not understand what they were doing. We could make the plea that they didn’t know what was in the documents when they signed them.”
“But then wouldn’t I end up looking like a fraud?”
“No,” the lawyer said, “you weren’t present. We can say the ladies never sold the land and received no monies.”
Hameed looked as lost as I was. “Does the judge accept bribes?” he asked. “Can’t we just bribe him?”
“He does in some cases but not others,” the lawyer said, as if delivering an official statement. “But the other party can bribe too so it doesn’t matter.”
“Can’t we give them a little danda?” Hameed said, using the word for “stick” to mean a beating.
The lawyer smiled serenely.
“Can the property be put in my mother’s name?” Hameed asked, then mentioned she was a German national, which created other problems.
“Why don’t you get married?” the lawyer suggested.
“I have to find the right girl,” Hameed laughed. “When I do I’ll get married.”
We stood up to leave and the lawyer rose too, bowing.
Outside, Hameed lit a cigarette. Turning to me, he said bitterly: “Bloody feudal family disputes.” He seemed a little depressed and lonely.
In the car his lieutenant tried to convince him to get married. He said it would strengthen his position.
“If we lose in the court, how soon can they take control of the land?” Hameed asked, thinking aloud.
“We’ll go to a higher court,” the lieutenant said.
“And if we lose there?”
“They can take control of the land, but then we’ll bring it back to the lowest court on some excuse. Whole lifetimes go by and things remain unresolved.”
Hameed fell silent.
“You just get married quickly,” the lieutenant said, trying to arrest the gloom that grew in his master, “and then you’ll have a wife and an heir and at least they won’t be able to say ‘he’s all on his own.’ Your strength will improve greatly.” Strength was the right word: it was all that could make sense of the landscape around the Mango King. In the absence of a credible state, crude power, loose and available, was all there was. “Find a good relationship and get married. Aren’t I right?” the lieutenant asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“People are scared of my house,” Hameed replied. “Girls run away from it.”
“You know my pool in Karachi, right?”
“Yes,” I said, half expecting him to say it was having its water changed.
“Well, I had a party,” he said, “and a guy drowned in it. And my cousins said that I paid money to the police and to the guy’s family. Can you imagine? You have a party and a guy dies in your pool. It’s terrible. And they say it’s because I’m feudal. I think the guy was on drugs or something.”
That night I sat with the Mango King on his veranda drinking whisky-sodas and talking. Though occasionally I felt his pain, I didn’t understand his world; I didn’t think it was a world that could be made understandable to someone who wasn’t obliged to work by its arbitrary laws; its brutalities were its own.
It was India’s middle class, its growth and energy, more than anything else that set the two countries apart. The power of the middle class in India dismantled the old feudal structures. In Sindh, the cost of realising the purity of the Muslim state was the departure of the Hindu middle class. The muhajjir population that arrived in its place had not been able to replace its social function; the bonds that had held together the diverse society of Muslims and Hindus had not arisen among the co-religionists. And, without its middle class, Sindh was not merely unchanged from 1947, not merely feudal: it was lawless, divided within itself; town and country were divorced from each other; and even men like the Mango King knew insecurity; the society was dismembered.
The lieutenant, who had been sitting quietly on the edge of the veranda, now whispered slyly to me that he was a Rajput. This was another reference to the Hindu caste system, in this case a high caste. But the lieutenant didn’t know he spoke of caste. When I said to him that Islam, with its strong ideas of equality, forbade notions of caste, he became defensive and said that this was a matter of good and bad families.
“If you can have Rajputs, then you can have choodas,” I said, using the derogatory word for “low caste.”
“Of course you can have choodas,” the lieutenant replied.
“Would you let your daughter marry one?”
“Even if he was Muslim?”
“Even if he was Muslim.”
On the one hand, there was the rejection of India that made Pakistan possible, and on the other, India was overwhelmingly at play in the deepest affiliations of Pakistanis, sometimes without their knowing it. It made Pakistan a place in which everything just existed because it did, eroded haphazardly by inevitable change. The country’s roots, like some fearsome plumbing network, could never be examined to explain why something was the way it was, why the lieutenant, perhaps centuries after conversion, still thought of himself as a Rajput. And though I, with deep connections on both sides, could see the commonalities, they were not to be celebrated: we spoke instead of difference.
Before I went to bed, Hameed came to the end of the story of his kidnapping. Finally, after six months, the kidnappers gave him a bus ticket and released him in the Sindhi town of Sukkur from where he made his way back to his father’s house in Hyderabad. His hair had grown longer and when he got home, the watchman didn’t recognise him. Hameed said no ransom was ever paid.
When he was released they danced in the village. He went to get a passport photo taken, and the man in the shop had baked a cake for him. These were the details that remained with him after two decades. The whisky worked on Hameed, at once deadening his eyes and bringing up unprocessed emotion. He’d gone to get a passport picture because he was going to Germany to see his mother for the first time in 14 years. His separation from her was another secret in the life of the Mango King; I had a feeling it was related to the father who always had the right answer for everything.
The next morning I left the Mango King’s lands for Hyderabad. He was still asleep when I walked out and even at that early hour, the small, musty house was filling with heat.