In a lecture titled “We Shall Be a Country with No History — A Historical Awakening at Amherst College,” author Aatish Taseer ’03 spoke about his experience at Amherst and its relationship to modern-day India on Oct. 10 in Converse Hall. The talk was funded by the Croxton Lecture Fund.
Taseer was born in 1980 to an English-speaking Indian household and has written a memoir, titled “Stranger to History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands,” about being raised by a Sikh mother while estranged from his Pakistani- Muslim father. He has written three critically acclaimed novels and is currently a contributing writer for The International New York Times.
In the lecture, which concerns his forthcoming book “The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges,” Taseer talked about his journey of self-discovery at Amherst — and his view of modern-day India.
According to Taseer, “The glamour and prestige of college in America was self-evident to us in India …We went to America like the generation before us had gone to Britain. One went if one could — it was as simple as that.”
“[Going to Britain, I] would have split my personality, but I didn’t go to Britain,” he added. “I came here to America, and as such I came at an oblique angle to a society to which I had no direct historical relationship. I was an ahistorical entity entering a society notoriously impatient with history.”
Taseer arrived at Amherst in the summer of 1999. He originally intended to attend college as a way to impress others, he said. This sentiment changed when he met Zack — a fellow student who was more interested in “reading books rather than drinking beer from colored cups and enjoying the nice weather.” It was in this relationship that Taseer said he realized the difference between “education that is ornamental versus education that is real.”
Taseer said his experience at Amherst aided his personal discovery of what it means to be Indian. Prior to making his education real — rather than ornamental — he said he was “more focused on not being unmasked rather than making an authentic core.” Before and during his time at Amherst, he said, he was just a bystander both at home and at Amherst.
This formation of an “authentic core” was influenced heavily by what he called “the minority section” of Valentine Dining Hall. During his time at Amherst, he said, the dining hall was self-segregated — white athletes and wealthy students would eat in the back room of Val, while students of color would eat near the entrance.
One day, Taseer observed the Black Students Union stage a protest by eating dinner in the back room, to the puzzled looks of fellow students. As an observer, Taseer saw how self-segregation gave a false sense of security. This event, he said, led him to change his relationship with the Indian subcontinent.
According to Taseer, he did not feel entirely at home in India because of the rise of Hindu nationalism, whereas he felt America was more welcoming even though most of its communities are self-segregated as well.
After Taseer graduated from Amherst, he went back to New Delhi, where he lived for 10 years and translated ten twentieth-century Urdu short stories into English as well as Sanskrit literature. In response to a question about gaining an intellectual understanding of culture without an access to books, Taseer said that “the meeting of cultures wasn’t just in books, it was in music, film, radio, etc. The meeting of cultures happens on the ground, not in a room with a red carpet and five people.”
In July 2016, Taseer wrote an article for Wall Street Journal called “The Day I Got My Green Card,” arguing that India and America have “two fundamentally different concepts of nationhood and citizenship.” During the lecture, Taseer noted that “somewhere I must have know I couldn’t stay in India, that in the country that was coming into being regardless of who was in power, there would not be room for me as a gay man of Muslim parentage.”
His intellectual interests are connected to this American quality, with his favorite novels authored by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and others from the rich literary history of black America. Taseer said when he came back to America in 2016, “I found myself gravitating towards writers I had read in college. If before the black writers had revealed the tragedy of American life to me, they now validated my right to be here.”
“I think it’s an extraordinary body of literature, both essential and an affront,” he added later in response to an audience member. “This is what synthesis looks like.”
DJ Williams ’20 attended the event and said that Taseer’s depiction of America and the American college felt accurate, although it did have some faults.
“He implied that because he wasn’t from the US that he didn’t understand all of the social justice issues that were going on, particularly surrounding race,” she said. “I do agree that as an American I have experience with these issues, but I also don’t think that it’s accurate to say that because I’m from the U.S. that I saw everything.”