'It Was to Know a Kind of Rage': V.S. Naipaul on the Cost of Learning History

Author Aatish Taseer, a chronicler of young Muslims, shares his favorite Naipaul passage.

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Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

As the world becomes more connected, something is lost. Stories—the real and imagined tribal narratives we tell to illustrate who were are—proliferate when we are different, and they dwindle when we're all the same. Local, sectarian myths are subsumed by general global ones.

This is the bargain of modern life, said Aatish Taseer, author of Stranger to History, when I asked him to select a cherished passage from literature. His own heritage stretched between two competing cultures, he knows how narratives become suddenly and violently opposed when the barriers between us fall. For Taseer, a passage from Nobel Prize winner V. S. Naipaul, whose work wrestles with the legacy of British colonialism in India, helped pose this question in sharp relief.

Stranger to History (Graywolf Press) is a travel memoir and coming-of-age story that explores what it means to be a young Muslim in the modern world. Aatish Taseer is author of the novels Noon and The Temple-Goers, and his writing appears in the New York Times' Op-Ed Section, Time, and Esquire.

"To awaken to history was to cease to live instinctively. It was to begin to see oneself and one's group the way the outside world saw one; and it was to know a kind of rage. India was now full of this rage. There had been a general awakening."

–V.S. Naipaul, India: A Million Mutinies Now

Taseer: I was not writing about India, nor was I writing about the rage referred to here. That rage, related to a Sikh insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s, had in our time all but disappeared. But 20 years later, in another time, while writing my first book—Stranger to History—rage and history was still my theme. And I was struck by how well the words stood up, how well they expressed the affront we feel, when the stories we tell ourselves, about who and what we are, come in contact with narratives more powerful than our own, narratives that threaten to overwrite our histories.

Perhaps I was especially sensitive to the message of these sentences. My background was a divided one. My mother was Sikh and Indian, my father Muslim and Pakistani. I must always have known that our idea of who we are—history, in a word—is never the only idea around; that it is, in fact, like a currency, which is good only as far as people recognize its worth. And the experience of being exposed in Pakistan to a narrative hostile to the one I had grown up with in India—a narrative, which, in turn, was hostile to the one the Pakistanis told themselves—confirmed this early sense I had of the fallibility of history.

Not only were there stories other than our own, but there were stories more powerful than our own, sometimes in crude ways, sometimes in compelling ways. One story could swallow another, it could supersede it; and this experience, no matter how it occurred, was fraught with anxiety. Men could make fortresses of their stories, and stop their ears to the appeal or power of an alien story; or, they could succumb, and know a tremendous sense of loss.

In India, where I lived, everyday smaller narratives—told along lines of language, tribe, religion, region, and caste—were being absorbed into grander narratives. National and global narratives; and, as much as there were rewards to expanding one's worldview, there was also fear and pain and loss. It was the bargain that lay at the heart of the modern experience. Which, to my mind, has always been one of trying to remain who we are in the face of that first glimpse, by turns illuminating and frightening, of being able to see oneself from the outside. One must pick one's way between the loss of self and so forceful an assertion of oneself—as fanaticism, namely—that it becomes a way to keep the world out.

These sentences that capture the anxieties of that experience so beautifully helped me put into words something I had felt all my life. And, though I didn't know it at the time, they brought me close to finding something, the discovery of which V.S. Naipaul has described as "half a writer's work": my subject.