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The Wilderness of Solitude

Religion, a young Muslim character in Nadeem Aslam’s extraordinary novel observes, is often another source of torment for millions of deprived peoples. This is certainly true of the main characters of Maps for Lost Lovers, which spans a troubled year in the life of a Pakistani immigrant community in a working-class English town. Shamas, a left-wing social worker in his mid-sixties, has long been estranged from his devout, conservative wife, Kaukab, whose belief that “too much freedom isn’t good for anyone or anything” has driven her children away from home. Fear of Allah’s wrath also blights the life of Suraya, a divorced woman, who tries to seduce Shamas into a quick marriage and then a quick divorce in order to be able, in accordance with Islamic law, to remarry her previous husband in Pakistan, who had divorced her in a drunken moment.

In his previous novel, Season of the Rainbirds (1993), which is set in a small Pakistani town, Aslam described, with Gogol-like shrewdness and wit, landlords, government officials, and mullahs hustling for power within a community that is enclosed almost entirely by rumor, prejudice, and superstition. A rigid religious morality also appears to control minds and bodies in the Pakistani-dominated neighborhood Aslam portrays in Maps for Lost Lovers. It is “a place of Byzantine intrigue and emotional espionage, where when two people stop to talk on the street their tongues are like the two halves of a scissor coming together, cutting reputations and good names to shreds.”

Everyone here is “imprisoned in the cage of others’ thoughts.” And these thoughts grow more oppressive when two brothers in the neighborhood kill their sister, Chanda, and her lover, Jugnu, who is Shamas’s brother, for living out of wedlock—the central atrocity in a novel that, though full of beauty, describes a cruel world where mothers abort female fetuses, an exorcist beats a girl to death, and a mullah at the local mosque is caught with his penis in a child’s mouth.

Born in Pakistan, Aslam has spent much of his own life among poor immigrant Muslims in northern English towns. Like many Pakistani artists, Aslam’s father, a poet and filmmaker, was forced into exile—and menial labor in England—by the CIA-backed Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. He may appear to exaggerate when he claims that family life in many Muslim ghettos in England is “frequently reduced to nothing more than legalized brutality.”

But the facts, as presented in government and media reports, are grimmer than his fiction. The UK police are investigating more than a hundred murders as “honor killings”—instances of men killing their female relatives for bringing dishonor to their family. Most of these murders have occurred in towns such as the one Aslam describes, whose radical Islamists, in recent years, have burned books they deem blasphemous, and in some cases gone to Afghanistan and Iraq to wage jihad against the West.

Insisting on a separate culture and identity for themselves, many of these Muslims immigrants reject the modern European belief in individual rights, which they blame for everything from teenage pregnancy to growing violence in the world. As a Pakistani character in Aslam’s novel says,

The West is full of hypocrites, who kill our people with impunity and say it’s all a matter of principle and justice, but when we do the same thing they say our definition of “principle” and “justice” is flawed.

At the same time, many young Muslim immigrants feel as thwarted as Kaukab’s children, who

were born…in England and had grown up witnessing people taking pleasure in freedom, but that freedom, although within reach was of no use to them, as a lamp with a genie was of no use to a person whose tongue had been cut off, who could not form words to ask for the three wishes.

These young Muslims also believe that they ought to assimilate into British society or at least move away from what Kaukab’s daughter, Mah-Jabin, denounces as “your [Islamic] laws and codes, the so-called traditions that you have dragged into this country with you like shit on your shoes.”

But an austere Islam offers the only consolation to many older immigrants living among people whose language they do not understand and whom they consider racist and hostile. The certainties of faith especially sustain such lonely women as Kaukab, who “doesn’t know what to do about the fact that she feels utterly empty all the time” and chants the Koran in Arabic without knowing what the words mean.

These uneducated and often fanatical believers embarrass those Muslims who are affluent enough to be immune to the severe forms Islam assumes in poor immigrant communities. When in Maps for Lost Lovers a white British man calls an upper-class, Cambridge-educated woman from Pakistan a “darkie bitch,” she blames the insult on the poor Pakistanis in the area, whom she thinks are “sister-murdering, nose-blowing, mosque-going, cousin-marrying, veil-wearing inbred imbeciles.”

Aslam himself seems far from this snobbish distaste for Islam and Muslims. He is aware of the extreme inequalities of wealth and power that often divide secular and modern peoples from the religious and the supposedly backward. As Kaukab says, in response to the Cambridge-educated Pakistani:

We are driven out of our countries because of people like her, the rich and the powerful. We leave because we never have any food or dignity because of their selfish behaviour. And now they resent our being here too. Where are we supposed to go?

At no time in history,” Orhan Pamuk wrote in a moving essay in these pages soon after September 11, “has the gulf between rich and poor been so wide.” The fact is inescapable for such writers as Aslam and Pamuk, who have chosen to live among and write about individuals oppressed, often simultaneously, by fundamentalist religion and an aggressively selfish materialism. But it may not appear very useful to most contemporary novelists in English. Preoccupied with desire and disappointment in middle-class Western lives, they rarely deal with the longings, fears, and hatreds of people outside the West. When confronted with them, they seem best equipped to amplify their own bewilderment: a recent British novel, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, responds self-consciously to such recent events as September 11 and the war in Iraq by describing, in some detail, a day in the life of a middle-aged, self-absorbed surgeon, whose insular outlook the disasters and tragedies in the wider world appear to harden rather than shatter.

However accomplished and enjoyable, fictions detailing contemporary bourgeois narcissism may not solve what Pamuk called “the problem facing the West,” which is “to understand the poor and scorned and ‘wrongful’ majority that does not belong to the Western world,” and that suffers from a “feeling of impotence deriving from degradation, the failure to be understood.” Pamuk wrote about “the inability of such people to make their voices heard” and added that people in the West are “scarcely aware of this overwhelming feeling of humiliation that is experienced by most of the world’s population,” which “neither magical realistic novels that endow poverty and foolishness with charm nor the exoticism of popular travel literature manages to fathom.”

Expatriate writers from such countries as Iran, India, and Pakistan may appear to fulfill the task that now seems more urgent than when E.M. Forster first defined it in 1920: that “the nations must understand one another, and quickly; and without the interposition of their governments, for the shrinkage of the globe is throwing them into one another’s arms.” These writers are often seen in the West as literary spokespersons for entire societies, even nations and continents. But most of them belong to, and tend to express the concerns of, the tiny minority of the Westernized middle class of their respective home countries.

Their own powerlessness before religious and political authority in their countries was eventually allayed by migration—either physical or imaginative and ideological—to the modern West. Not surprisingly, such recent best-selling books as Reading Lolita in Tehran and Brick Lane describe a similar journey: the steady liberation of individuality from external constraints, through reading Western literature, as in Azar Nafisi’s memoir, or, as in Monica Ali’s novel, through an extramarital affair and ice-skating. These books appeal easily to Western readers, who are accustomed to reading about the struggles of the bourgeoisie, especially women, with convention and custom, in the great novels of nineteenth-century Europe and America.

The same readers may have trouble with the literature produced outside Western metropolises, by what Pamuk calls the poor and scorned majority of the world—people still far from enjoying or celebrating bourgeois freedoms. Qurratulain Hyder and Intizar Husain, two of the greatest prose writers in Urdu, Aslam’s first language, have translated American and Russian fiction, and in their own writing they draw unselfconsciously upon not just Western literature but also Islamic history, Buddhist tales, Hindu myths, and Persian chronicles.* Unfortunately, even the better translations with footnotes or glossaries seem unable to recreate the richness of a prose shaped by many cultural traditions and a history—colonialism, the bloody partition of India, military dictatorships, and religious extremism—that may seem as remote to Western readers as the Great Depression and McCarthyism do to readers in Urdu.

What makes Aslam’s novel especially remarkable is how it manages to translate into English a cosmopolitan sensibility of the Indian subcontinent—a sensibility deeply marked by a particular historical experience and formed as much by children’s magazines in Urdu and Hindu myths as by Dostoevsky and Nabokov.

Though committed to the novel as a form of social and existential inquiry, Aslam is clearly not content with conventional realism. Thus, parakeets, fireflies, and peacocks appear in his English town even as the murder of the two lovers, Jugnu and Chanda, deepens the schisms within Shamas’s family and the larger Muslim community. Like his character Shamas, Aslam looks “at the world as though it is a bright toy,” infusing everyday sights with a sense of wonder. Thus, the Perspex roofs above the freezers in a grocery store “slide open like the glass coffins of fairy tales.” Birds, insects, flowers become as much of a protagonist in his novel as the troubled Muslims. Moths have fur neckties. Dead tulips in the rubbish bin are like the necks of drunken swans, and icicles plunge to the ground like “radiant daggers.” A mundane perception such as “for almost a week now the country has been draped in daisy chains on the television weather maps” suddenly opens out into an enchanting conceit:

During the nights, the condensation on the windowpanes has frozen into sparkling patterns of bird feathers, insect wings and leaf skeletons, as though each home contains within it a magical forest, tangled with fables and myths, the glittering foliage growing pressed against the glass.

But such is Aslam’s mastery of the fantastic that he never lets it become, as it does in many magical realist novels, a license for artistic and intellectual laziness, for an indulgence in the merely bizarre and outlandish. Stories generate other stories, as in many Eastern traditions of storytelling. They initially seem far-fetched—such as the one about how British bombing of disaffected Indian towns in 1919 separated Shamas’s ancestors and obscured his Hindu origins—but they eventually lull one into belief. We come to be persuaded by Aslam’s apparent conviction that individual lives are connected in more ways than we can see, and that they are shaped more by fate, or chance, than by our most conscious motives and actions—a belief illuminated best by the powerful last chapter which maps the accidents and coincidences leading to the murder of Jugnu and Chanda.

Despite its frequent references to Islamic and Hindu myths, Aslam’s prose remains exact and rational, its meditative grace well suited to creating still-life portraits of people alone with their emotions and memories. The novel sounds its major note of exile and loss with its very first images of Shamas, standing in the open door of his house as snow falls outside, his “arm stretched out to receive the small light pieces on his hand.”

A habit as old as his arrival in the country, he has always greeted the season’s first snow in this manner, the flakes losing their whiteness on the palm of his hand to become clear wafers of ice before melting to water—crystals of snow transformed into a monsoon raindrop. Among the innumerable other losses, to come to England was to lose a season, because, in the part of Pakistan that he is from, there are five seasons in a year, not four…. The snow falls and, yes, the hand stretched into the flakes’ path is a hand asking back a season now lost.

Determined to make his adopted language yield all its resources, Aslam occasionally strays into banal similes: “The tips of the table-player’s fingers are moving on the skin of his drum very fast like a skilled typist’s on a keyboard.” At their most nuanced, the metaphors and similes in Maps for Lost Lovers bring us closer to the nostalgia of the Muslim immigrants for their lost homelands. In the bleak English town, which the Muslim residents rename Dasht-e-Tanhaii, “the Wilderness of Solitude,” and which Aslam’s prose transfigures into a mystical landscape reminiscent of the English countryside in John Cowper Powys’s wonderfully strange novel Wolf Solent, maple leaves trapped under ice “are as intricate as the gold jewellery from the Subcontinent—treasures buried under the snow till a rainy day” and an Urdu bookshop stands at the edge of a lake where ghosts of dead lovers are rumored to wander. Here, Shamas meets Suraya, the divorced woman looking for a husband to quickly marry and then divorce, and begins one of the tender romances that coexist in this novel with much brutality.

While describing Pakistani immigrants enraptured by Count Basie and Louis Armstrong on the turntable, Aslam says that the jazz musicians knew “that part of their task is to light up the distance between two human beings.” His own prose often undertakes this task by using the images and rhythms of Urdu lyric poetry. Meeting Shamas for the first time, Suraya

takes the edge of the veil and covers her head in a gesture of infinite grace, handling the fine material gently—one of those actions that reveals a person’s unspoken attitude to things; the thin, sun-flecked fabric settles on her hair in a wonderfully slow yellow wave.

At such moments, Maps for Lost Lovers appears unlike anything in recent Indian and Pakistani fiction in English, and reminds one most of the work of writers—Mishima, Kawabata, Kobo Abe—who infused the European art form of the novel with a distinctively Japanese aesthetic. Aslam himself appears to be that rare writer who can explore large and important political themes by evoking, with artistic form and economy, the private life of emotions.

Aslam’s most successful creations—what really suspends our disbelief in an English town with peacocks and parakeets—are his characters, particularly the two God-fearing women, Suraya and Kaukab. In his first novel, in which a servant girl is stripped naked and paraded through town for living in sin with a Muslim man, Aslam gave a complex moral life to even people with repugnant political views. He showed how a mullah offends his own fundamentally decent instincts by initiating the public humiliation of the servant girl. His portrait of Kaukab, a simple, pious woman grappling with her faith as the world created by it collapses around her, is even more nuanced.

The move to England,” Aslam writes of Kaukab, “had deprived her of the glowing warmth that people who are born of each other give out, the heat and light of an extended family.” “Her children were all she had” but she knows that “she herself was only a part of their lives, a very small part.” Toward the end, Kaukab begins to realize how her own fear of social and religious stigma has led to the murder of Jugnu and Chanda and turned her own children against her, particularly her daughter Mah-Jabin, whom she persuaded to marry a man in distant Pakistan.

She cannot forgive Mah-Jabin for ending her marriage, and discovers late in the novel how her daughter was forced to run away from her sadistic husband. Aslam captures the often very violent emotions of this mother– daughter relationship with some especially delicate perceptions. Here is Kaukab combing Mah-Jabin’s hair, cut shorter than she remembers it:

The hair does not fill the lap anymore and Kaukab misses the weight; she draws the comb of her fingers along the length and when it ends suddenly—shockingly, as in the dream in which the dreamer stumbles off a kerb—her fingers groping the empty air are an illustration of what is now missing from her life, what was once so palpably there—so palpable here.

Mother and daughter have an argument, and Kaukab, in a fit of rage, hits Mah-Jabin. “The hard open palm of Kaukab’s hand lunges at Mah-Jabin and in striking her face takes away her breath.” The impact breaks Kaukab’s string of prayer beads and scatters the beads on the floor. But just as we recoil, Mah-Jabin is suddenly overcome—Aslam has a keen sense of the unpredictable workings of human consciousness—with memories of her mother: how she had once spoken wistfully of her unfulfilled childhood dream of owning a bicycle; how on catching Jessye Norman on television once she had risen to her feet in spontaneous homage and unexpectedly said, “I love people who accomplish great things.”

Mah-Jabin can remember other times when “an idea would seem to come to Kaukab and disappear immediately so that her face was dark once again but not as dark as before, this being the darkness left behind in the flight-path of a firefly.” Though aware of her mother’s stifled inner life, she cannot forgive Kaukab for denying her freedom. But, as Kaukab asserts, “I did not have the freedom to give you that freedom, don’t you see?” She is “pained and broken at the realization that someone as close to you as one of your children can make so many mistaken assumptions when they take it upon themselves to evaluate your life.”

As always, Aslam makes moral judgment difficult by showing how most people have to stick to, for better or worse, the way of life that they and their ancestors created with the limited means at their disposal. In a brief, poignant scene, he shows Kaukab after her act of violence. She is on her haunches, slowly picking up her prayer beads off the floor:

There is a sense of consolation to the activity her fingers are engaged in, almost as though contact is being made with the dead: as a child she had seen her mother and grandmothers, and the other women in the house, similarly bent over the myriad daily tasks of the day, and sometimes—but not today, not now—the feeling is close to celebration, a remembrance and a praising of those now dead and absent but still living in her mind, unsung elsewhere and otherwise. Gone so thoroughly it is as though she has dreamed them.

Writing such as this not only gives dignity to people that we see, if at all, as benighted and lost; it deepens our knowledge of life. Describing the Muslim world’s reaction to September 11, Orhan Pamuk spoke of the “troubled private sphere” where most people in the world today try to overcome their spiritual misery “without losing their common sense, and without being seduced by terrorists, extreme nationalists, or fundamentalists.” This is the hard, everyday struggle for a personal ethic that Maps for Lost Lovers describes so artfully and movingly, without lapsing into pathos and gloom, and without contriving for its characters the modes of private liberation—sexual or intellectual rebellion—that the bourgeois art form of the novel almost appears to prescribe to its characters. Combining within himself the social historian with the poet, the realist with the romantic, Aslam has created a novel which—grave yet exultant, brutal but compassionate—achieves its complex humanity, and its final affirmations of love and beauty, through a real reckoning with despair and heartbreak.

















  1. *

    See Qurratulain Hyder, River of Fire, translated by the author (New Directions, 1999), and Intizar Husain, A Chronicle of the Peacocks: Stories of Partition, Exile and Lost Memories, translated by Alok Bhalla and Vishwamitter Adil (Oxford University Press, 2003).

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