Perhaps the one thing I like more than Nadeem Aslam's writing is the title of each of his books. First, there was Season of the Rainbirds. Then, there was Maps for Lost Lovers. Then, there was The Wasted Vigil, equally a painting and a poem. Now, there's The Blind Man's Garden, which is neither about a blind man nor a garden. For part of the book, the man is not even blind. But the title conveys a heightened sensory perception, of intoxication almost, that odd amalgam of sensations that can only be felt in a vivid dream – or after a heavy dose of mild narcotics.
The book is set in the fictitious town of Heer, perhaps based on Aslam's own birthplace of Gujranwala. Neither the irony nor the significance of the name is allowed to escape us. Can we speak of diamonds in a town that is as drab and industrialised as this one? Perhaps we can, when a woman paints murals throughout the city, when she lovingly coats the rooms in her own home with figments of her imagination. Of course, to every South Asian, the name immediately calls to mind the doomed love story of Heer-Ranjha – a story of hope held on to, of steadfast emotions, of love treasured, of promise belied, of innocence lost, all made more tragic because they were wrought by near-misses.
And love is the primary emotion in his work – fraternal, filial, parental, paternal, spousal, impassioned, lecherous, sinful, frantic, pious, rigorous, patriotic, destructive, misguided. How many shades of each kind of love there are, one thinks, almost as many as those Aslam perceives in ‘red' – "crimson, vermilion, scarlet, maroon, raspberry, obsidian, russet, plum, magenta, geranium, the tearful eyes of the woman from three doors down".
When he describes love, so intense are the terms, so flowery the metaphors, so defined the similes that they should be tinged with the saccharine ostentation of translated ghazals. Incredibly, they are not. There is poetry in them, but it doesn't feel contrived. It is like the Romantic poetry of Wordsworth and Shelley, worshipping and yet contained.
One can almost see Nadeem Aslam pick his words and blend them as carefully as the artists he describes choose their colours. One can almost see him surround himself with his characters, with their lives, with the whimsical houses they live in, even as he writes in isolation, in the silence of the night. One can believe that he taped his eyes shut for a week, to live the life of a blind man, without noticing the bruises he incurred until he pulled off the tape. One can believe he denied himself the use of his index fingers to come as close as possible to the anatomy of a man whose digits have been amputated. One can believe he went sixteen months without meeting a single human being, as he crafted these characters and the story that binds them.
To speak about the story would be to simplify the novel. In some ways, it appears to be a counterpoint to The Wasted Vigil. In both, the statues of the Buddha become symbolic of a quest. In both, despondent, disabled fathers search for their children, in the crippling loneliness of widowerhood. In both, there is a wife who paints, beautifully, patiently, vibrantly, accurately, stoking her creations to life.
In The Wasted Vigil, the father was Marcus, a white man gone native, a man who has learnt the habits of the land he lives in, and rejected their principles even as he absorbs their diktats. Here, the father is Rohan, an ardent Muslim now disillusioned, a man who rejected the vitality of his wife's interests for the piety of Islam, a man who slowly comes to understand that there is place for only one kind of piety in Islam, at least in the contours of his particular geography.
Marcus goes in search of his wife's paintings, as does Rohan – there to recover, and here to destroy. For Marcus, it results in the loss of a part of him, whereas Rohan gains something that will complete his family and soothe the pain of what he has lost. Where one nails books to the ceiling, for fear that they will be confiscated by the Taliban, another burns paintings for fear that they will stand in the way of his wife's entry into Paradise. Where each room represents one of the senses in The Wasted Vigil, each room of the house here represents a region that is crucial to the spread of Islam.
Despite all this beauty, we are led into theatres of war, into interrogation rooms, into the memory of Zia's Pakistan and the dungeons of Lahore Fort where Communists were tortured, into long rides through desert sands, into the fatiguing hope and masochistic hopelessness of waiting. Throughout the book, there is a motif of navigation – through rooms, through trees, through philosophies, through ideals, through language, through emotion, through life itself.
The Blind Man's Garden calls for a degree of indulgence, and there are parts of it that leave one with mixed feelings about the book. There is the fantastical – a great beast rising out of the earth, where it had been buried alive with a dozen others, to be hidden from rebels in the Revolt of 1857. There is the romantic – a loved face looking at the bereaved, from beyond the grave, immortalised in forbidden depiction. There is the charming – a mendicant dragging around heavy metal chains, each link standing for a wish, self-imposed shackles his soul can apparently shed. But what niggles is the implausible – how can two brothers adopted into the same household grow up so differently, one becoming a teacher who reads the Russians, another a mechanic who can't speak English?
However, the implausible is easy to overlook when the prose is suffused with this description of the memory of grief: "a strange kind of hurting, like someone has lost a razorblade inside your soul". Or, when a sentence jumps out of its surroundings with words as stark as: "The opposite of war is not peace, but civilisation, and civilisation is purchased with violence and cold-blooded murder. With war."
There's something about Aslam's language that makes it not quite English, and not quite any other. It's almost a shared code that only people born in these lands, so ravaged by religion, can relate to. Those in a country shredded into three by religion. Those in another country, formed on the basis of religion, which disgorged people on the basis of religion – Hindus, Sikhs, Communists, Ahmadis, Christians, Shias. Those in another country whose marketplaces would once break out into spontaneous song and dance before they were taken over by a regime that layered the skin of its men with welts and its women with sky-blue shrouds, that severed limbs from the living, and incomes from the dying. It seems a comparison such as "the sky changing colour like someone switching from one language to another" was written only to be understood by this select group of Indians, Pakistanis, Afghans, and Bangladeshis.
Set against the flourishes of this exclusive language are passages whose punch is in the writer's economy of words. For instance, a man who goes to the police station to lodge a complaint notices a signboard, saying: "Politeness, Obedience, Loyalty, Intelligence, Courteousness, Efficiency", even as a single policeman undermines each of these qualities with a few questions.
And then, there is a passage that should justify the invention of the word ‘bibliorgasm':
A laughter tinged with contempt for him and his nation where the taps don't have water, and the shops don't have sugar or rice or flour, the sick don't have medicines and the cars don't have petrol, his disgusting repulsive country where everyone it seems is engaged in killing everyone else, a land of revenge attacks, where the butcher sells rotten meat to the milkman and is in turn sold milk whose volume has been increased with lethal white chemicals, and they both sell their meat and their milk to the doctor who prescribes unnecessary medicines in order to win bonuses from the drug companies, and the factory where the drugs are made pours its toxic waste directly into the water supply, into rivers and streams, killing, deforming, blinding, lacerating the sons and daughters of the policeman who himself dies in a traffic accident while he is taking a bribe, an accident caused by a truck the transport inspector has taken a bribe to declare roadworthy, a country full of people whose absolute devotion to their religion is little more than an unshakable loyalty to unhappiness and mean-spiritedness [...], delusional morons and fools who wanted independence from the British and a country of their own, but who now can't wait to leave it, emigrate, emigrate, emigrate to Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, Dubai, Kuwait, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan, China, New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa, South Korea, Norway, Germany, Belgium, Chile, Hong Kong, Holland, Spain, Italy, France, anywhere, anywhere, anywhere, anywhere but Pakistan.
Reading his tender description of how each one of the eighty-six bullets pumped into a man shot dead a memory of him in his wife ("one for the way he frowned to himself when he read, one for the way he liked eating mangoes with skin still on them, one for the way he didn't know how to say his prayers, looking for surreptitious guidance to the people praying beside him..."), it's hard to believe that Nadeem Aslam didn't speak English till he was fourteen, that he learned the language by reading.
And closing the book, it's hard not to feel a sense of optimism, even in that "caliphate of rubble", a sense that we will survive, that we haven't lost our memories of the rich land our colonisers plundered, our colonisers who now laugh at us as we follow them to their shores.