Thursday, June 11, 2015
Maps for Lost Lovers
Aslam spent 11 years writing this book; according to an interview, the first chapter alone took him 6 years to complete. The novel received widespread acclaim on publication, with critics repeatedly referring to the quality of its prose, its remarkable characters, and its exposé of the tortured immigrant experience.
In the opening paragraph of Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Aslam writes: "The snow storm has rinsed the air of incense... but it is there even when absent, drawing attention to its own disappearance." There, though we don't know it at the time, is the very heart of the novel. The lovers, Chanda and Jugnu, have disappeared from the English town of Dasht-e-Tanhaii, and though they have been gone five months when the book opens, they haunt it, and the lives of those who occupy it, until the final pages.
The English town of Dasht-e-Tanhaii? It sounds more like something out of a fairytale than a place off the M4. But no, it is a town with a large community of Pakistani migrants who have renamed their new home Dasht-e-Tanhaii: The Wilderness of Loneliness or The Desert of Solitude. Aslam has populated this place with a remarkable cast: Jugnu's brother, Shamas, a gentle, liberal man with no time for the orthodox form of Islam to which so many in his community cling; Shamas's sons and daughter, part of the generation that must attempt to forge a link between the Pakistani and British parts of their lives without being consumed by anger or pulled apart by conflicting demands; Suraya, who was "mistakenly" divorced by her husband in Pakistan while he was in a drunken rage, and now (by the precepts of the Islamic sect she follows) must find someone else to marry and divorce her before she can return to her former husband and their son.
But the most extraordinary of the characters is Shamas's wife, Kaukub. A woman brought up to believe in an unforgiving, narrow-minded version of Islam, she could, in the hands of a lesser novelist, have become a monster. But in Aslam's hands she is transformed into a woman entirely human, entirely heartbreaking. She is the devoted mother behind the headlines about the parent who sends her British-born-and-raised child back to Pakistan into an arranged marriage; she is the young bride who used to step out of the bath and wake up her husband by twisting her hair into a yard-long rope and letting beads of water fall over him, but then grew into a woman who equates sex with shame and sin; she is the voice of condemnation raised against all transgressions from orthodoxy and also the voice telling us: "Islam said that in order not to be unworthy of being, only one thing was required: love."
In this book, filled with stories of cruelty, injustice, bigotry and ignorance, love never steps out of the picture - it gleams at the edges of even the deepest wounds. Perhaps this is why the novel never gets weighed down by all the sorrows it carries: there is such shimmering joy within it, too. Here are characters hemmed in on one side by racism and on the other side by religious obscurantism, and yet they each carry remarkable possibilities within them.
Nadeem Aslam's first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, was published in 1993. Over the past 11 years, I have often wondered what Aslam was up to. Now, here is the answer. Maps for Lost Lovers, according to the dates the author gives us at the end, took 11-and-a-half years to finish. If it was half as much fun writing as it is reading, it was time well spent.
Aslam opens the novel with a beguiling set piece about the first snowfall of the season in an English town. These pages, rich in detail, languid in cadence and iridescent with remarkable images, set the tone for the rest of the novel. Here, the earth is a 'magnet', 'pulling snowflakes out of the sky towards itself'; an icicle 'drops like a radiant dagger'. Aslam takes us by the hand and, scattering his trail of bewitching images, leads us into his story. Within the first 15 pages, we have been seduced; he has firmly placed us at the centre of the world of his novel.
What a world it is. We are in a town populated by poor, abused immigrants, losers on the margins of society whose grim lives are untouched by hopes of redemption. In this setting lives Shamas, a former poet and current social worker, who declines to leave his wretched neighbourhood, who refuses to 'put aside [his] principles when there was talk of an OBE'... because he 'neither seek[s] honour among men nor kingship over them'. With Shamas is his wife, Kaukab, who, in a touchingly accurate self-portrait, says: 'I know I can't seem to move without bruising anyone, but I don't mean to cause pain.' Their children, two of them divorced, all live apart. Shamas's brother, Jugnu, and his girlfriend, Chanda, live next door.
Or did. Because as the novel opens, we are told that they are missing. We learn soon enough that they were murdered - an honour killing by Chanda's brothers because they cannot accept the couple living in sin.
The manner in which the year after they have gone missing unfolds, how those months come to have a bearing on all those close to the couple, how it splinters relationships and changes lives provides the narrative spine of the novel.
FROM Adam on, exile has been man's (and God's) cruelest punishment. "An exile's life is no life," lamented Leonidas, the ancient Greek poet. Dante, banished from Florence, described the pain in more concrete terms. "You will leave everything you love most," he warns in "The Divine Comedy." "You will know how salty / another's bread tastes."
The characters in Nadeem Aslam's powerful novel, "Maps for Lost Lovers," are well acquainted with such desolation. Migrants from Pakistan (like Aslam himself), they live in a cold and inhospitable English town they call Dasht-e-Tanhaii -- the Desert of Loneliness. It's a grim place, marred by racism and violence, where the grayness of the sky seems to have filtered into the inhabitants' souls. "We should never have come to this deplorable country," someone complains early on, calling it a "nest of devilry from where God has been exiled."
Yet as lonely as these people are, they can't complain, like Dante, of having left everything behind. This is an era of mass exile, and today's migrants arrive not as individuals but as communities, armed with all the cultural and social paraphernalia of home. Indeed, although it's in the English Midlands, the town in Aslam's novel can resemble a transplanted Pakistani village, its language and customs and religion more or less intact. It is a place where ancestral feuds and gossip are carried over from the homeland, where the diktats of clerics supersede English common law and arranged marriages are the norm. The society at large is kept resolutely at bay: one character, Kaukab, has only three interactions with "a white person" in a year; when she leaves home, she puts on her "outdoor clothes" to minimize contact with "a dirty country, an unsacred country full of people with disgusting habits and practices."
Aslam was 26 when he embarked on his second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers (Faber & Faber, £16.99), thinking it might take two years to complete. "The only time I'm ever fully alive is when I'm writing. When I'd finished this book, I felt like a cage from which the songbird is being removed. For a month I just didn't know what to do."
Although culturally a Muslim, Aslam describes himself as a "non-believer". His Communist father - a poet and film producer in Pakistan - worked as a bin-man and in factories in Huddersfield. There was no money, so Aslam has never been back to Pakistan since his family arrived when he was 14. But he was raised with "a feeling for the life of the mind". Home was full of books, with pictures cut from magazines framed on the walls. His father always told his son to "live a passionate life" and not to worry about money. When Aslam received a Royal Literary Fund grant, he turned part of it down. "I said, 'I don't need that much'."
Aslam began writing his debut novel, Season of the Rainbirds, knowing little about agents or publishers. He sent his manuscript, unsolicited, to Andre Deutsch and within 10 days it was accepted. The book won two awards and Aslam lived on prize-money and various grants, writing Maps for Lost Lovers between Huddersfield, Edinburgh, Leicester and Reading - wherever friends could lend him a flat.
Draping the windows with black cloth, he wouldn't go out for six weeks at a time. Sometimes he would fall asleep on the floor rather than go to the bed. If he did go out he would feel disoriented. "I'd wonder, 'Why is it snowing?' because it would be summer in the town I was writing about." But seclusion was essential. "I always think of the silence and the darkness of a root that enables the flower to grow."
The fruit of this silence and darkness is a richly poetic and poignant novel. Maps for Lost Lovers spans a year in a Muslim community in a nameless English town. The 65-year-old Shamas, director of the Community Relations Council, and his devout wife Kaukab, are waiting to learn what has happened to Shamas's brother Jugnu and his young lover Chanda, who has vanished five months before. Although their bodies have never turned up, several pages into the narrative Chanda's brothers are arrested.
This is a working-class community suffocating in its intimacy and secrets. "I'm from a working-class family and I've always lived in these places," says Aslam. Shoppers gossip at Chanda's parents' grocery store over the loquats and hibiscus-flower hair oil. Here it's a neighbourhood curse to say "May your son marry a white woman", and Pakistanis with halting Eng- lish might only talk to three white people in a year - and that's three too many.