Nadeem Aslam’s novels are permeated with a poetic prose that juxtaposes history, literature and art with blind prejudice and violence — fostered in the name of faith by vested interests — and the impact of these polarities on individuals and the communities they inhabit. His new novel The Golden Legend returns to, and expands upon, a subject central to his very first, Season of the Rainbirds — the growth of politicised religious extremism in Pakistan and its impact on minorities, particularly the Christian community.
In The Golden Legend Aslam creates a fictitious Pakistani city, symbolically named Zamana, on the banks of the fictitious river Vela. Here the real and surreal merge to portray the fallout of Pakistan’s role in geopolitics and the use of religious extremism as an instrument of war. The novel provides a harrowing portrait of a hapless people overtaken by the growing empowerment of the prejudiced, violent and hypocritical. The daily threat in the name of faith to those committed to Pakistan’s intellectual heritage, its mystical Sufi traditions and a tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multicultural society, is central to the plot, as is the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism.
The accidental killing of Massud, a gifted architect in Zamana, during an encounter between two armed motorbike riders and a trigger-happy American man has resonance with the Raymond Davis affair, as does the American offer of blood money to the heirs of the murdered men in exchange for the killer’s freedom. Massud’s grief-stricken widow and fellow architect, Nargis, is asked by a man from military intelligence to accept the generous amount of blood money offered. When she refuses, the man slaps her around. He also tears up, page by page, a rare and precious book written by Massud’s father. This becomes an act of personal violence as well as repudiation by “the deep state” of history, literature and culture: Massud’s father had created a gargantuan text celebrating the commingling of cultures and ideas across continents and centuries. This book also refers to the pre-Partition, egalitarian, anti-British Ghadar Party which Massud’s grandfather had joined when it was first established in California by a group of South Asians.
Nadeem Aslam’s latest novel continues his focus on the sufferings of the marginalised
Aslam’s skill lies in the interweaving of past and present to create a multi-layered narrative. The dreams that Nargis had shared with Massud of a more inclusive, tolerant culture act as a foil to the unrelenting aggression and prejudice that Nargis, who was born Margaret, a Christian, has experienced and sought to escape — long ago, before she met Massud, she had left her home in Lyallpur for university in Zamana, forging documents that reinvented her as a Muslim.
Aslam’s use of metaphor and allegory includes the description of a spacious home belonging to Massud and Nargis. The library is so vast that it includes two large, cabin-sized models of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, Spain, and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey — both historic buildings created by Christian and Muslim influences. The house stands in a historic and once-leafy area called Badami Bagh where the erstwhile almond trees had once provided shelter to rebels during the 1857 Ghadar. Now treeless and edged by the houses of the rich, it is the poorest neighbourhood in Zamana, a cluster of hutments occupied by impoverished Christians including Massud and Nargis’s housekeeper Lily, his wife Grace, and their bright daughter Helen.
Helen has been given the best of education by the childless Nargis and Massud who treat her virtually as their own, but she is haunted by the brutal murder of her mother Grace by a Muslim fanatic who was sentenced to life in prison. The upright judge who pronounced the sentence was promptly shot dead, while the killer’s demonstration of piety in prison led to his premature release. This is one of several fictitious incidents with clear echoes to horrors reported in the Pakistani press, including the wanton burning of houses — or even an entire basti — belonging to Christians by enraged mobs on false charges of blasphemy. Added to this, the kindly old cleric at the mosque in Badami Bagh and his widowed daughter Aysha find themselves virtual hostages to Aysha’s late husband’s brother, a fierce extremist who occupies the mosque with his armed friends and spews hate from the loudspeakers every day. Aysha’s husband in turn had been killed during an American drone attack in Waziristan.
Cause and effect are central to Aslam’s work. His focus on Pakistan’s poor Christians reflects his continuing preoccupation with the suffering of people considered the alien other by the majority community and stigmatised further by poverty. His depictions of the marginalised include his portrayal of an all-Asian working-class community in Britain in Maps for Lost Lovers. Even so, in The Golden Legend, it remains uncertain why Aslam describes all Pakistani Christians as the progeny of sweepers, including Nargis and her uncle, the sophisticated and learned Bishop Solomon.
Aslam extends the discourse on minorities to India where Imran — nicknamed Moscow — grew up as an Indian Muslim of Kashmiri origin. In Kashmir, Imran’s family suffers such brutalities at the hands of Indian authorities that he crosses over to Pakistan and joins a military training camp for Kashmiri freedom fighters. However, he finds his left-wing beliefs at odds with the right-wing extremism of his fellow guerrillas, and has to flee. He is now a hunted man on both sides of the border.
At a short distance from Zamana, the river Vela flows past a secluded island that Nargis and Massud bought long ago, where they had dreamed of creating a multi-faith community. Imran is given refuge there by Nargis and Helen. They, too, are in hiding: Nargis from “the deep state” and Helen from false accusations of blasphemy. In this secluded space, they repair Massud’s father’s book, their conversations permeated with references to music and song, literature and learning, but the tensions and dangers of Zamana soon encroach on their lives. Aslam’s intricate tale of sadness and loss does not end there, however: ultimately he holds out a ray of light as the very title of the book suggests.
The reviewer is a writer and critic
The Golden Legend
By Nadeem Aslam
Penguin Random House, India
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 7th, 2017