Nadeem Aslam sent his first manuscript to Andre Deutsch after discovering the publisher’s address in a copy of A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul. He was called within a week. For the next 10 years, Aslam read everything from Nabokov, Conrad and Hardy to D.H. Lawrence, Joyce and Dickens. “That’s how I learnt English, looking at the sentences,” he says. His second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, took 11 years because he was educating himself during that time. “I copied the whole of Lolita by hand because I wanted to learn. I copied the whole of Moby Dick because I wanted to see how the commas fell. That’s why Maps took 11 years. The Wasted Vigil took less time because I was in a better place by then. Now I feel I have backing — does that make sense? At least I have some understanding about how the world works,” he explains. Following are extracts from the conversation with Aslam about his writing and why his characters are planned so carefully.
Your first two novels — Season of the Rainbirds and Maps for Lost Lovers — are rich in symbolism and imagery. Maps for Lost Lovers is magical, pastoral. How do you do that?
The language in Maps for Lost Lovers differs from that in my other books. It was a linguistic project I set out to do. The characters are from Pakistan, living in England, and they belong to a previous generation. They constantly compare this new place to their old home. They don’t say it is cold today; they say it’s cold ‘here’ today. My mother still does that after living in England for 30 years. If this is ‘here’, where is ‘there’? ‘There’ is Pakistan for them. I wanted to bring in as many images as possible. If you look at an Islamic miniature painting and zoom into the trees, you’ll see in that one square inch an incredible amount of detail. Every bird has character … one of them has raised a wing and is scratching under its armpit. The other one has joined beaks with another. That was not what I sat down to do in other novels.
In The Blind Man’s Garden, Rohan’s character is complex. He condemns militancy in the name of religion and prays for the soul of his wife. What is he thinking when the students of Ardent Spirit turn the institute into a jihadi playground?
The school is taken away from him earlier on in the novel. What do you think he feels? Do you think he approves? Of course he doesn’t. On page two of the novel, we have a line that says, “The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation.” He is not referring to the American bombing of Afghanistan alone but is saying the same of 9/11 as well. That’s his view on fundamentalism. He is a central character and I wanted to withhold certain things about him deliberately. He is the blind man of the garden. The school was at first called PureLand and that is Pakistan. Then I thought this too obvious. At the beginning of chapter three, I tell you that the boundary wall of the school is draped in jasmine, Pakistan’s national flower; at one point I say Rohan is dressed as Jinnah when he goes to rescue Mikal [his adopted son]. For me the garden is Pakistan and Rohan is someone like Jinnah who made this garden based on the ideals of Islam and decency and the six main centres of Islamic civilisations. One of the most moving ideas that I know of is that of Pakistan and it has been corrupted. On a day-to-day level, we look to the future. People will say that they hope to build a new home, like in 1947. The idea of this immense movement of people during Partition — my family moved from India and came to Pakistan and lost relatives who didn’t get on planes and ships but came on foot. The garden is Eden and layer by layer I reveal the corruption. These are things if the reader wishes to read into, he or she can.
There is intensity and a layer of sadness in your characters that appears to come from you. You talk of Mikal’s fingers being cut off, about Rohan’s blindness, a tattoo that reads ‘infidel’ on the back of a Special Forces soldier …
I went to talk to two people who were blind but I couldn’t ask intimate questions about their blindness. And so a year went by and I had no character. So, for a week, I shut my eyes 24/7. I did it again for two week-long periods. In total, I was without my sight for three weeks. As research, I was expected to find out in an hour what one learns to live with in a lifetime.
The American soldier’s tattoo boasts of his power. The image came from a magazine photo of a real soldier that I cut out and taped into my notebook. Tattoos saying ‘kafir’ basically are taunting us. It depicts the confidence of youth, of men and of someone who belongs to a powerful nation.
How important is it to mix politics into your writing?
I vote every time I write. Ultimately what we are talking about are human beings, what love is, what hate is, what compassion, honour and dignity are. These are human issues but with a socio-political and religious background. If two people are in love what is the background and why aren’t they coming together? The aim is ultimately to talk about the human issue. There is something called imaginative sympathy. If you blindfolded a Russian writer and me, and fed us both oranges, we would feel the same.
You once said that nothing in Maps for Lost Lovers was imaginary, that it all happens in communities where religion is important. Can that have an adverse effect, like 7/7 and the radicalisation of young men?