Apr. 19, 2009
Writer Aatish Taseer on two weddings, a lawsuit and upstaging David Frost...
The week of publication was never going to be a smooth ride. My first intimation of trouble was when my father, in part the subject of my memoir Stranger to History, re-entered Pakistani politics after a 15-year hiatus. As the book was being typeset, he was sworn in as a caretaker minister in General Musharraf's Cabinet and then, with an ideological flexibility particular to Pakistan, he was Asif Ali Zardari's governor in Punjab. As the book was going to print, he threatened to sue my Canadian publisher for referring to his union with my mother as 'a marriage'. They were never married. They had a liaison soon after my mother, a journalist at the time, interviewed my father about his book on his political mentor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; I was the result. 'How funny, darling,' a friend said. 'Your father considers it libellous to have been married to your mother!'
But nothing could have prepared me for publication coinciding with political meltdown in Pakistan, and my father having recently swallowed the powers of the chief minister. Part travelogue, part memoir, the book is a journey from Istanbul to Lahore in an effort to understand my father, his religion and country, from whom I was estranged for most of my life. It set off a small media frenzy in India and Pakistan and, while described as 'subtle and poignant' by VS Naipaul, came to sound, even to me, like a seedy tell-all. I must sadly confess, after my father's political opponents in Pakistan used the book to rubbish his Islamic credentials, to being an accidental accessory to attempted political parricide. My father's reaction was silence, far more menacing than his threats to the Canadians for their delayed attempt at making an honest woman out of my mother.
But even as I wandered the streets of my two favourite cities, Delhi and London, looking over my shoulder for Pakistani snipers, a friend, and my personal trainer, got married. A fine-looking Brahmin, my trainer fell in love with, and discreetly married, a rich and, as they say in India, 'healthy' (read, fat) industrialist's daughter, who had been sent to him to slim down to make a good match. The wedding was in the Delhi equivalent of a Vegas chapel, with no one present on the bride's side but her mother and aunt. In a sordid dressing room off the marble marriage hall, Mrs Aggarwal, a dour woman in a shapeless salwar kameez, broke down, clutching my hand. 'I will never give my consent. I'm not saying don't have a love marriage, by all means have a love marriage, but with someone of your level.' Shaking a finger at me, she added, 'Money is not greater than God; but it's not less either. With money, you can get 99 things; with love, only one.'
Throughout the ceremony Mrs Aggarwal remained inconsolable, reluctantly adorning her daughter's healthy wrists and neck with diamonds, a euphemism for love among the Aggarwals. Afterwards, samosas and sweets were laid out on a wooden table. 'We are the Aggarwals,' the bride's mother said, 'when we have a party, hundreds come, but here... the situation is different.' A few beggars crept in. My trainer was about to give them the last of the snacks when his new wife snapped at him: 'Don't! What are we going to feed our guests?' Then, looking at me, she added: 'Charity begins at home!'
At a castle on a hill in Arundel, covered in spring flowers, the scene was different but the themes the same. Lord Balfour, the brand-new fatherinlaw of my friend Riccardo Lanza, considered how to measure success. At one point when he spoke of 'real success', some in the crowd were fooled into thinking he meant love and happiness; but no, he meant money and fame. And that night itself, the unreliability of these things was revealed when the best man manqué, barely able to stand, gave an inspired speech that made family friend David Frost's formulaic words seem software-generated. What remained of the night was spent in the dance tent - a white golf ball in the castle courtyard, illuminated by green and pink lights.
And so, wedlock, both locked and unlocked, was the theme of my week. I spent it cruising bookshops, full of gloom at the remote corners they found for my book. I attended my launch at Gillon Aitken's; no one from my publishers was there. I cheered myself up with lunch at Southern hostess Marguerite Littman's house on Chester Square with my ex-girlfriend Ella Windsor and Bobby Harling, who wrote Steel Magnolias. Marguerite, when she heard of my next destination, said in a Louisiana accent she once loaned to Elizabeth Taylor for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 'Canada? How do you get there?'
Stranger to History: a Son's Journey through Islamic Lands, is out now (Canongate, £14.99)