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Book review: The Blind Man’s Garden

March 17, 2013

Nadeem Aslam’s new novel shifts between Afghanistan and Pakistan, narrating post-9/11 stories of love and war, brilliantly exploring trauma and tragedies that are traced to historical circumstances.

“History is the third parent,” reads the opening sentence to The Blind Man’s Garden, in which Aslam continues to traverse territory similar to that of previous works, including The Wasted Vigil (2008). That novel was set in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion and had militant radicalisation at its centre. Similar thematic threads — militancy and terrorism, conservative attitudes towards women, religious justifications of honour crimes — have appeared in most of Aslam’s novels, evidence of his understanding of how the world works, how women are forced to suffer patriarchal traditions and the effects war leaves in its wake.

The Blind Man’s Garden explores the aftermath of conflict through the lives of ordinary people who become victims of an ugly war that uproots their happiness. Much of it is about the perils of living with bombings, torture, disappearances, beheadings and terrorism. The novel is set in Heer, an imaginary town in Punjab, where portions of the plot unfold slowly, often quietly, amid an exquisite garden surrounding a house that has seen much sorrow. We follow the sadness of Naheed who waits for years for her lover, of her mother Tara and her sister-in-law Yasmin, of the family’s elderly patriarch, Rohan, who is blinded as he attempts to rescue the son of a bird-catcher from the prison of a warlord in Afghanistan. Aslam knows his backstory. There are references to warlords selling prisoners to the Americans for money, the torture of young boys for information, drone attacks on Taliban compounds obliterating families, patronage for Arab insurgents by rogue military officers.

Rohan’s sons Jeo and Mikal (the latter is adopted) travel secretly to Afghanistan to help the wounded (“wishing to be as close as possible to the carnage of this war”) while their families and lovers are left to pick up the pieces when death and destruction slowly take over. Jeo is killed (his wife Naheed is unable to visit the graveyard because local female vigilantes forbid women from praying at graves) while Mikal is taken prisoner by a warlord, unaware that his brother has died. And so begins his search that further sucks him into a war in which he has no interest. In the wake of 9/11, hundreds of young men travelled from Pakistan as jihadi fighters recruited through religious schools. Other global recruits also joined the Taliban insurgency because they prescribed to Al Qaeda’s world view, despite the apparent differences in the goals and modus operandi of the Afghan Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s fighters. Pakistan’s new generation of fighters were often boys too young to fight, as Mikal notes while crossing the border in a bus packed with first-time insurgents. There are detailed, harrowing scenes of boys being raped in Taliban compounds and descriptions of American-led torture (interrogations that Bagram and Guantanamo prisoners are known to have suffered) that Mikal narrates. When captured by the Americans in Afghanistan, they photograph him against a height chart, shave his head and beard and interrogate him at an unnamed prison. When he is unable to answer whether he’d spent time in Sudan or had links with the man who blew up an American airport, he is put into a sleep deprivation cell and beaten, arms shackled to the ceiling — Mikal becomes the character we see interrogated in a secret prison for information in Zero Dark Thirty. This novel could easily be termed Aslam’s best: executed with perfection, with an understanding of territory and of ordinary emotion, and with the ability to numb the senses. There is an emotionally charged sentence that runs through a page when Mikal imagines being derided by an American interrogator for “being worthless, for the disaster that is his love for Naheed, for not being able to help Jeo, for Pakistan and its poverty … [for] his nation where the taps don’t have water, and the shops don’t have sugar … his disgusting, repulsive  country where everyone it seems is engaged in killing everyone else … a land of revenge attacks.”

As anger and unrest caused by the war escalate, the narrative progresses with gripping scenes inserted at intervals alongside stories belonging to Naheed and Tara. The question is whether Mikal will make it back to Naheed before she is married off a second time and whether life will be worth rebuilding after all that has been suffered. At moments the novel resembles a war thriller in which one of the most intensely drawn characters struggles to untangle himself before he can get to his love; a Heathcliff-like dark character with hidden virtue. Escapades with death, prisoners, guns, trucks and a bullet used to replace a fuse in the headlights of a van that can overheat and fire into the driver are all packed tightly into the story.

Character complexity and intimacy is something Aslam says he does deliberately to move the imagination. Much of the action in this novel has a fulcrum in Rohan’s character, a retired school teacher whose former school, Ardent Spirit, has been taken over by “thugs with Korans,” and under the influence of former military generals, turned into a breeding ground for jihad. His religious convictions are complex: Rohan refused medication to his dying wife because she had denounced her religion and when she died, he burned all her paintings. But he still prays for her soul and condemns militant Islamists when they take over a school and kill teachers. Poetic language and rich imagery work well with emotions portrayed through landscape. Flora and fauna, as also observed in Aslam’s previous novels, are described with magical finesse: “moths that look like shavings from a pencil sharpener”.  As Rohan slowly goes blind, Naheed paints over each flower so that he is able to see a glimmer of colour when he walks through the garden with the assistance of a wire that runs through its length. Characters like Rohan and Naheed and the lesser explored Salomi and Yasmin are fixed on the novel’s landscape, barely changing course or repenting but not accepting of their lives. Rohan frustrates as a character who is accepting of his fate and that of his country as it changes course.

“What strange times are these, when Muslims must fear other Muslims,” says Tara. The clash between extremist Islam and liberal narratives is apparent in Pakistan today and Aslam’s characters in this novel serve as a direct reminder that we haven’t learnt the history lesson that this and previous conflicts might have taught.

The reviewer is a staffer at the monthly, Herald

The Blind Man’s Garden


By Nadeem Aslam

Knopf, US

ISBN 9788184001099

384pp. Rs895