In May, 2015 I very favorably reviewed Nadeem Aslam’s “The Biind Man’s Garden. Nadeem Aslam is to Pakistan, what Jhumpa Lahiri is to India. At some point in his career I would not be surprised if he is awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature.
“Maps for Lost Lovers” is one of Mr. Aslam’s earlier novels. The venues are England and Pakistan. The heart of the story is an “honor killing”. Mr Aslam adroitly tackles Muslim fundamentalism in this novel. Unlike in “The Blind Man’s Garden” this is not radical Islam. It is the societal and cultural restraints that orthodoxy imposes on families particularly when juxtaposed with alternatives in a secular country. Such honest and fervent belief is not unique to Islam. It is not without consequences.
Through characters Mr. Aslam presents alternative viewpoints. On the whole his writing does not invite a fatwa because criticism is balanced by praise. Shamas and Kaukab are the product of an arranged marriage. Shamas has a Hindu family lineage, but is Muslim. He masks his secularism in deference to Kaukab who is a very devout Muslim. Shamas is book educated. Kaukab has a limited education outside of the Koran. They live in a lower middle class immigrant Pakistani neighborhood in England. England is satanic to her. Kaukab’s orthodoxy has a disintegrative effect on her three children who migrate toward English white women and men in their relationships. The “honor killing” however, is to avenge cohabitation before marriage between two Muslims, one her son. Marriage is bondage to Muslim women. Husbands and their families dictate terms, and a wife’s failure brings disgrace on her family that impacts the future of younger daughters.
“It’s as though Allah forgot there were women in the world when he made some of his laws, thinking only of men – but she has banished these thoughts as all good Muslims must.”
“.. she remember her mother stopping in her tracks and sharply telling her father not to play too enthusiastically with his little daughter lest he cause ‘irreparable physical damage to her private areas,’ having warned him many times before that ‘If a flower loses a petal it does not grow back!'”
“… the word sala – “brother-in-law- was a term of abuse all over the Subcontinent: to call someone sala was to say, ‘I fuck your sister and you can’t do anything about it,’ ‘You can’t stop me from trying my manhood on one of your women!’ What would be more humiliating to men who been brought up to defend their women’s honour above all else? A man’s brother-in-law was a swear word made flesh, and frustratingly , he had to accept it.”
The plot of this novel is like a murder mystery. The prose however is highly crafted and denser as Mr. Aslam imparts knowledge across a wide range of subjects. The author writes like a naturalist, with keen attention to flora, butterflies and moths, and birds. The writing is both metaphorical and relational, and is imbued with religion, culture, culinary arts, and history.
“The harsinghar tree in the courtyard, which dropped its funereal white flowers at dawn, had more flowers than usual under it during those mornings, as though the branches had been disturbed during the night. Shamas was no believer, but imagination insists that all aspects of life be at its disposal, the language of thought richer for its appropriation of concepts such as the afterlife. And so as he looked at the carpet of blossoms he couldn’t help entertaining the thought that during the night Izraeel, the Muslim angel of death, had wrestled in the branches above with the Hindu god of death for our father’s soul. Shamas looked up and imagined the branches twisting around the two supernatural beings, the flowers detaching from twigs and forming a thick layer on the ground.”
“He edges away from a small Japanese knotwood tree of whose pale cream flowers-looking as though dusted with custard powder- he had tried to discover the smell of a few years ago, and found himself taking in a lungful of decay, suppuration, the shock throwing him back on his heels where he had reached up with his neck stretched like that of a hanged man’s. Perfumes come from plants; its animals who produce disagreeable odours, humans included. Musk, honey, milk- these are as much an exception in the animal world as those tropical plants said to produce blossoms smelling of festering flesh or this Japanese knotwood around whose shimmering flowers he had capped both hands that day, the way a young man kisses his first girl. He’ll never now kiss her mouth again while his penis is engorged and sticky at the tip like a bull’s muzzle, or lie with her head on his chest while from somewhere nearby comes the summer noise of a bee that’s got stuck inside a snapdragon flower, a panicked wing-thrash, as it tries to back out. According to her, what she did with him was a “sin,” and she, according to her, will have to bear the “stigma” of that sin “till Judgment Day and after.” She’ll view the pregnancy as the beginning of her punishment.”
” ‘Do you know why paisley is so linked with Kashmir? No? Imagine two lovers quarreling in that region. Her footsteps formed paisleys when she hurried away from him in distress. He searched for her forlornly in the forest glades where luminous orchids arose from the ‘- it is too late for him to stop- ‘spilled semen of mating animals and birds, where the urge for existence forced creepers and vines towards faraway chinks of sunlight, where branches quivered with living songs and at sunset the sky turned red as though the departing sun had heaped rubies on the day’s shroud. And it was the paisleys imprinted amid the low flowers that eventually led him to her. He was the god Shiva, she the goddess Parvati, and when he found her he commemorated their union by carving the Jehlum river as it flowed- and still flows- through the valley of Kashimir in the shape of a paisley.'”
“.. only Allah is perfect and that we should acknowledge that fact when performing a task, that we should introduce a tiny hidden flaw into every object we make. ‘The Emperor Shah Jahan had made sure that there was a built-in imperfection in the Taj Mahal- the minarets lean out by three degrees,’ he said.”
These are but a few examples of the breadth of the writing intertwined with the plot. The overarching theme is how religious and cultural mores impede relationships and evaporate happiness. Shamas likes the paraket, because like Hiraman the paraket, it tells us what we should aim for, what is truly worth living and dying for. Prejudices abound. The Pakastani’s hope those in Bangladash will drown in the monsoon, because of the secret pact they made with the English that marked the beginning of the British Raj in India and the decline in Islam, and their breaking away from Pakistan. So much ignorance and lack of communication festers individual, societal and political hatreds by race, class, gender and belief.
Nadeem Aslam is not for everyone. For me, it is a marvel how he composes sentences and paragraphs that at times are lyric, learned and fluid. His characters are well-drawn and the plot, here languid at times, is engaging. He is someone whose writing you should experience at least once.