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?
My uncle in the 1970s would go with the Tablighi Jamaat to England and it was seen as a great thing that Unclejee was going off to spread the light of Islam in the West. He would stay in a town called Dewsbury in the north and helped form a mosque there. When 7/7 happened, it was the same mosque where the kids had been radicalised. That’s how strong my connection is to these issues. But it’s been that way before 9/11. On the first page of Season of the Rainbirds, the character who destroys children’s playthings, calling them idols, is based on my maternal uncle, the same one who objected when my mother took off her burqa years after she was married and had children. He is the extreme. I know there isn’t one way of being an uncle. I have 50 first cousins, and every person has their own kind of belief or disbelief. I always knew there was no one way of being Muslim.
Your previous novels have older protagonists but after young characters like Chanda and Jugnu, there’s Naheed and Mikal.
Naheed and Mikal are two of the best characters I have ever created. Their idealism … and they are young. When I wrote my first novel in my early 20s, I wrote about characters who were older and in their 60s and 70s. I wasn’t confident enough to write about the young. But now that I am an older man I can do it. We underestimate the grief of the young. They’re brought up with a set of ideals, given the idea of love and dignity and then sent out into the world. Then the world says, are you going to be corrupted, or are you going to say no, like Mikal, and live a heroic life. Mikal and Naheed are told to do the wrong thing throughout: in the last 100 pages Mikal has to sell an American soldier but he relents. Idealism is possible.
Did the American soldier realise Mikal’s forgiveness?
Don’t you think he did?
Well, I can imagine that he did.
As a writer I made you imagine that he did. The important thing is that Mikal should meet the American and he should meet Mikal: the chapter is called ‘Equal Sons’. It was about throwing two people into the desert and seeing what happens.
Even in my third novel, I did the same with four characters of diverse beliefs staying in one house. I wanted to show that Mikal is noble — that he will not do the wrong thing although someone says to him that [the American solider] will do the same to you. They say to him: they tortured you, you should spill his blood. And you should want to torture him but Mikal says he doesn’t.
People say your books are sad. That the future looks shadowed.
People say that Naheed is sad and I say my books are about hope. At every level, when people are thrown into bad situations, they behave normally. The hope is that these people acted with humanity and in the last chapter the garden is full of children. Beyond that, what else is hope. In Islam, to despair and lose hope is a sin. A novelist can’t tell you what to think, I can tell you what to think about. When I told Mohammed Hanif that I was writing this book about two boys going to Afghanistan, he sent me a recording where a 17-year-old girl says her husband was sent to Afghanistan by a mullah. She says that he is still here, but her husband is gone. You find plausible story lines. The hope is how we stand up against these issues. The key sentence by Naheed when she and Mikal meet at the end of the novel is: “It’s been 479 days since I saw you last. I feel like I have been in 479 wars.” Naheed tells Mikal that if he had been with her at least they would have battled this together. There’s the hope.
— Razeshta Sethna