ON 15 SEPTEMBER 2001, Ian McEwan wrote this in a British newspaper: “If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed… Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.” It is part of the job description for writers, and readers, to do just that — imagine what it is like to be someone other than yourself. Empathise. “Among their crimes”, McEwan wrote about the men who piloted those jets into the World Trade Centre, “was a failure of the imagination. As for their victims in the planes and in the towers… snatched and anguished assertions of love were their defiance.”
I thought about these stirring words as I finished The Blind Man’s Garden, Nadeem Aslam’s fourth novel (“It’s the best thing I’ve done,” he says quietly, shyly, when we speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival), and his second set, at least partly, in Afghanistan. Love — vulnerable, easily ruined, neglected, suppressed, betrayed, but above all resilient — is at the core of Aslam’s novels; it is the fleeting beauty, and heartbreaking precisely because so fleeting, that makes numinous the lives of his embattled characters. “History,” begins The Blind Man’s Garden, “is the third parent.” If so, it fucks you up, as the poet Philip Larkin observed, just as blithely, just as totally as your other two parents, the flesh and blood ones.
But back to McEwan. I thought of his article because the imaginative failure in what is now more than a decade since 9/11 has been his and that of his fellow British and American novelists. It is they who have, as McEwan did in Saturday, pulled up the drawbridge, retreated behind the thick ramparts of the known. How many contemporary American novelists have made an honest reckoning of their country’s involvement in the Middle East? And of that handful of novelists, how many have tried to imagine themselves as Afghans, as Iraqis, as Pakistanis? “They could walk away,” says Aslam of the West’s financing of the mujahideen to resist the Soviets, “so there were no consequences. The consequences happened 10 years later and everybody reacted like it was an ahistorical moment, like it didn’t belong to the West’s engagement with that part of the world for the past 30 years.”
Aslam looks gentle, solicitous; he is tall, slight and easily startled like some sort of deer. It is obligatory in profiles to mention how much time he spends alone, how he throws himself physically into his writing, approaching it like a method actor might a role. For this book, he taped up his eyes for weeks at a time to simulate the experience of blindness, denied himself the use of his index fingers. He is zealous about his work, zealous about the necessary solitude and privacy, the long hours devoted to thinking; he took 11 years to write his second novel, spending months writing 100-page biographies of a single character. At Diggi Palace, though, he is garrulous. His English, particularly as now, when he is speaking quickly, passionately, retains the slightest Punjabi inflections, just as Urdu sits beneath his prose, accounting for some of its sonority, its orotund music.
“So when you say,” he tells me, “that Western novelists are not dealing with their recent history with as much conviction, as much robustness as the Pakistani writers, well, it’s because we have a set of moral dilemmas that are so huge that we need for our minds to be sharp.” In an interview with Indrajit Hazra, Salman Rushdie, searching desultorily for contemporary Indian writing to praise, remarked, “I actually think that the Pakistani stuff is more interesting.” It has been, Aslam notes wryly, an “interesting decade”, bookended by the suicides of Moh amed Atta and the fruitseller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation on a Tunis street catalysed a revolution, “and in between we had the war on terror, the call to jihad, Guantanamo Bay, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the murder of Benazir Bhutto, the assassination of Osama bin Laden, this clash between an incomplete understanding of the East and an incomplete understanding of the West.”
We are talking politics and the prosaic nature of that conversation perhaps undermines the poetry with which Aslam’s novels are almost too suffused, like one of those Iranian pilafs doused in saffron milk and studded with pomegranates. His style has been the one reservation reviewers have consistently expressed, prose that to the Western ear is too lapidary. “[O]peratic effusion,” wrote a critic in the New York Times about The Wasted Vigil. “Aslam’s unexpectedly florid writing… often makes reading this novel painful.” Certainly, the music of Aslam’s prose is clotted, thick and tangled like the trees in the gardens that feature in so much of his work. Florid is probably the mot juste, but it is intentional; the lushness of the prose like that of the titular blind man’s garden is a deliberate contrast to the otherwise scarred, parched landscape. Aslam writes about terrible things — torture, rape, female infanticide, honour killings — but his prose is a reminder of beauty, about the possibility of beauty in the most horrifying circumstances. Also, I think he’d largely agree with Sidney’s ‘defence of poesy’, the idea that writers through their art are better placed than historians and philosophers to edify. In other words, Mary Poppins’s words, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
And it is medicine Aslam intends to feed you. “I always begin each book with a subject,” he says, “some writers begin with an image, some begin with a character, some claim the storyline just comes to them. With me, it’s the subject matter. I wanted to write about what happened to Afghanistan over the past 30 years and with The Blind Man’s Garden, what happened to Pakistan in the past 10 or so years. So I choose a subject and then go looking for characters who will best help me illustrate the complexity, the various struggles, the various layers, the despair, the hope.” It’s not that Aslam has a particular position on an issue that he’s seeking to propagate through art; he doesn’t seek to untangle knots. “Novelists don’t tell you what to think,” he says, “they tell you what to think about.”
IN THE Blind Man’s Garden, we are asked to think about love: religious, sexual, filial, brotherly, patriotic. Love, like hate, in the novel requires a special zeal. The school Rohan, the blind man of the title, founds and then sells — so that it goes from being a school that prides itself on Islamic achievement (the houses are named: Baghdad, Cairo, Córdoba, Mecca, Ottoman and Delhi) to one funded by the ISI to train jihadis — is named Ardent Spirit, a name as suited to the love on which the school was founded as to the centre of hate it becomes. Similarly, another character, who loves a woman, ardently of course, but is forced to relinquish her to his foster brother, strikes his head on the floor of his room in despair leaving a mark not unlike the bruise on the foreheads of the most devout Muslims who bow their heads in prayer five times a day. The novel is set in the months after 9/11, in the fictional town of Heer. The Americans are invading Afghanistan and two brothers, Rohan’s son Jeo and foster son Mikal, set off to help the wounded. Jeo is married to Naheed who is in love with Mikal. The two have long been attached, clandestinely, unknown to Jeo, whose father and Naheed’s mother arrange the marriage. Mikal’s love for Jeo prevents him from running away with Naheed before the wedding. It is also his love for Jeo that leads him to Afghanistan.
The two brothers are betrayed, sold to the Taliban to fight the Americans. The novel is operatic, full of astonishing coincidences and cinematic action sequences, the pace and the drama of the plot slowed down by Aslam’s sentences, languid like smoke curling out of a chimney. It is a long novel, extravagant and occasionally implausible. But what remains, at least for me, is Aslam’s absolute sympathy for his characters, his understanding of the anger, frustration, humiliation and poverty that mar so many lives in Pakistan (and India). Mikal is intrinsically decent, a working-class man who strives to remain good, to remain principled despite undergoing trials that make Job seem like a whiner. “Whose side am I on,” Aslam says plaintively, when I point out that his criticism of his own society is harsher, more stinging than any criticism that he levels at the United States, “what India, what Pakistan, what England, what America? These things are irrelevant. I am on the side of the just ones, the ones who are struggling to change the system. I am on the side of the oppressed.”
PANKAJ MISHRA, reviewing The Blind Man’s Garden, argues that Aslam “writes with a special feeling for the conservative Muslim mind — unusual in someone working in the predominantly secular tradition of the novel”. Unlike most Indian and, for that matter, Pakistani novelists writing in English, Aslam comes from a working class background. He knows his people. Born in Gujranwala, he immigrated to England with his family as a 14-year-old. Heer, the madeup town in The Blind Man’s Garden, is located not far from Gujranwala. The drab, industrial English town which is the setting for Maps for Lost Lovers, his second novel, the one which took 11 years to write, is intimately familiar to him, as is the conservative, cloistered community so bereft in England, so filled with longing for home and the traditions they cling to with unrelenting ferocity that they call their new ‘nothome’ Dasht-e-Tanhaii.
“I was working class,” Aslam says, “even in Pakistan. Most Pakistani writers are from the elite, they went to posh universities in England. I am from a mohalla.” His father, like Mikal’s, was a communist, a poet who fled Zia-ul-Haq’s sclerotic, newly theocratic Pakistan for Huddersfield, the sort of cold, northern market town where so many immigrants from the subcontinent find themselves marooned. When the family moved in 1980, Aslam spoke so little English that he began university as a student of biochemistry. He waited till he was confident enough about his English to drop out. It took Aslam 13 years from when he first moved, at 14, to publish his first novel, to begin to do with the English language what he wanted. He liked VS Naipaul, he says, and was naïve enough about publishing to just pop his first manuscript in the mail to Naipaul’s publisher, André Deutsch.
Aslam taught himself to read and, much more painstakingly, to write by copying novels out in longhand. He copied reams of Faulkner; a glutton for punishment, he copied out all of Moby Dick, feeling the language through the nibs of those clapped-out ballpoints, learning where to put a comma, how to construct a sentence. “I copied out Blood Meridien,” he says, “The Autumn of the Patriarch, The Street of Crocodiles.” The evidence is in his novels. Afghanistan is desolate, bleak Cormac McCarthy country; Aslam’s elaborate metaphors, the eccentric, sometimes studied beauty of his turn of phrase is reminiscent of Bruno Schulz. Reviewers have even used the term ‘magical realism’ to describe his work, though he might argue that, like Garcia Marquez, there is little that is magical about his realism.
Like Conrad and Nabokov, Aslam has built his house in a second language. “My library is bigger,” he says, “my alphabet makes room for 38 Urdu letters.” His is not an ersatz cosmopolitanism — privileged, worldly, deracinated; it is an intellectual fellowship with storytellers across the world, a recognition that some questions remain the same in any language. I’ll leave it to Aslam to explain: “John Banville said Nabokov didn’t write in English, he wrote in a private, mysterious language which was somehow magically comprehensible to English speaking people.” It’s a serendipitous connection to be grateful for because Aslam is that rare, valuable thing: a writer with something to say.