Afghanistan, Foreign fiction, Fundamentalism, historical fiction, Nadeem Aslam, Novels, Pakistan, Peshawar, Religion, The Blind Man's Garden, war literature, Women's Literature, World Fiction, World Literature
“Kyra opens the Book of Prophet’s Savings. Number 813: I was given the following words of the Prophet by Hukum bin Nafa, who was given them by Shoaih, who was given them by Zehri, who was given them by Abu Salma, who was given them by Abu Horaira. The Prophet said, ‘The End of the World won’t be until two armies have gone to war proclaiming an identical goal.'”
9/11 has just occurred and the Americans are having their revenge in Afghanistan. There is spill-over of the wounded into Peshawar. “The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation.” A coin has three sides. The Americans and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are the opposite sides squeezing the thin diameter of Muslims between them. They are compelled to defend themselves and their family- often to choose a side.
“There are a few seconds of utter silence and then more tha a thousand attackers penetrate the smoke and dust, firing and being fired on, kissing their guns before pulling the triggers, both sides shouting Allah’s name.”
Nadeem Aslam’s novel The Blind Man’s Garden is exquisite in language, observation and perception. History is captured within a page turner.
Rohan is an imperfect but devout Muslim. He is the father of Jeo, a soon to be doctor, and guardian of his brother, Mikal, whose parents were of the wrong political persuasion in Pakistan. Rohan is aggrieved by the loss of his wife, Sophia. She is secular, rooted in the beauty of her garden.
“He raises the louvered blinds and looks out at the train tracks and the Grand Trunk Road running along them. Eternity suspended over human time, the stars shining above the world like grains of light, this world that she loved and called the only Paradise she needed. Preparing himself for blindness he commits everything to memory as she committed everything to paper, painting the garden’s flowers and birds onto his mind, and for several years after she was gone the garden looked as though something important had befallen it. The limes and the acacia trees seemed to mourn her, the rosewood and the Persian lilacs, the peepal and the corals, and all the different fruits, berries and spores, the seeds as tough as cricket balls, or light enough to remain afloat for half an hour. Inside the earth the roots mourned her even without having seen her, and the white teak whose bark came off in plates the size of footprints, the lemon tree that produced twenty-five baskets of fruit each year. He was sure that all of them, as well as the lightning-fast lizards of the garden, were mourning her with him, and the stiffly rustling dragonflies and the blue-winged carpenter bees and the black chains of the ants and the tough-carapaced beetles and the various snails. In grief he had whispered her name as he walked the red paths set loose in the garden, and the word had gone among the glistening black brillance of the crows and the butterflies floating in the sunlight– the Himalayan Pierrot, the Chitrali Satyr, the blue tigers and the common leopard and the swallowtails and peacocks. She loved them and the world in which they existed, saying, “God is just a name for our wonder.” There was no soul, only consciousness. No divine plan, only nature, and we were simply among the innumberable results of its randomness. Saying, “I will miss this because this is all there is,” her last words, and then she slipped out of his life, consigning him to decades of apprehension on her behalf, because he knew that the soul existed, and not only that, it was accountable to Allah and His providential rage. Unlike her he knew that the dead were not beyond harm.”
Jeo and Malik both loved Naheed, the latter secretly because she was married to Jeo. Jeo goes to Afghanistan to offer medical assistance and Malik goes with him because he is mentally and physically stronger than Jeo. Afghanistan smothers the innocent. Tara, Naheed’s mother, is a fallen woman under Islamic law. She tries to shield Naheed from all her life fears by marrying her above her status to Jeo. Tragedy befalls the intertwined extended family as it does Pakistan and Afghanistan. War, warlords, corruption, custom, and fundamentalism take their toll. I will not spoil the plot, except to mention that Rohan loses his sight while searching for Jeo and Mikal in Afghanistan.
Rohan wishes to have colors described to him one by one, all shades and subtleties. Tara reads to him from the Dictionary of Colour.
” Dragon-A bright greenish yellow.”
“Dragon’s Blood- The bright red resin of the Indian Palm tree, Calamus draco (or perhaps of the shrub Pterocarpus draco).”
We take for granted all the processing of vision. As the light fades we process through our ears.
“He listens to the streets as he travels with the girl, the rickshaw crossing the major roads and entering the density of the bazaars. She holds his right hand, her own two hands placed gently above and below it. Beneath the bandages and the closed lids there are specks of light like coloured sand in his eyes, a vast visual song of the cells expressing their internal life, and out there is another song called Heer, called Pakistan, the people buying, selling, asking, shouting, the minarets insisting on Paradise at every street corner, and in his mind he sees the shop signs painted with heartbreaking precision and beauty by barely literate men and he listens to the slap of wrestlers against each other, gleaming with oil, the arcades under which pieces of meat sizzle, cubbyhole shops selling Japanese sewing machines, English tweed and Chinese crockery, the fruit sellers standing behind walls of stacked oranges, and women’s clothes hanging in shop windows in sheaths of pure lines and colours, teaching one the meaning of grace in one’s life, and he wishes Sofia were here so he could ask her to describe these things for him, she who made an entire life out of seeing, possessing an enraptured view of the everyday, who knew which section of the house received the most moonlight on any given night of the lunar calendar, and he wonders if this is how the dead mourn the world they have left behind, if this is how she mourns it below ground.”
The book is written in third person. It is a Passion Play, each taking turns in the crucifixion. Fundamentalism was not invented by the Taliban or Al-Qaeda.
“Spain was once a Muslim land,” Rohan says, cupping the flowers in his hands. ‘In October 1501, the Catholic monarchs ordered the destruction of all Islamic books and manuscripts. Thousands of Korans and other texts were burned in a public bonfire.” Inquisition is a collective memory for many ethnic and religious groups. It is the privilege of conquerors.
Aurangzeb [Abul Muzaffar Muhi-ud-Din Muhammad Aurangzeb] the sixth Mughal Emperor is often cited as a precedent for the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and fundamentalist beliefs. While there is any proof to this purported historical precedent, he did consolidate power by ordering the eradication of all religions except Islam. His destruction of musical instruments, the barring of women from visiting shrines are captured in the novel. Women who visit the graves of their relatives recently killed are beaten by true believers.
Some true believers are stamping the ground around Mikal. He thinks it a snake, but the man tells him it’s the boxthorn.
“Mikal nods. The despised plant. The Prophet Muhammed said, In the Final Flght between Muslims and Jews, when a Jew hides behind a rock or a tree, it will say, ‘O Muslim, O Servant of Allah, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’ All the trees will do this except the boxthorn, because it is the tree of the Jews.”
It is from Sahih Muslim Book 041, Number 6985 and is considered an authentic hadith. The boxthorn or qharqad in Arabic, is not considered a protective plant by Jews, although it does appear in the Book of Proverbs as a pitfall for the wicked. For fundamentalists this hadith is a continuing prejudice or truth.
The latter is exemplified by a driver who says to Mikal “The West has dared to ask itself the question, What begins after God?”
It is a perspective not understood by those who do not share a fundamentalists belief. It is reflected in the lack of understanding of fighting to the death. It is reflected in the futility in believing there is a middle ground.
The only disappointment I had about this otherwise wonderful novel is its conclusion. It was disappointingly made for movies. The brevity of the chapter makes me wonder if there was another alternative that was rejected either by the author, the editor, or the publisher. Given that Mr. Aslam’s other novels were the recipient of many awards, including long-listed for the Man Booker, it seems unlikely that an editor or publisher would have imposed their will. The other novels you may want to explore are Season of the Rainbirds, Maps for Lost Lovers, and The Wasted Vigil. In 2012 the author was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.