- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005


By Nadeem Aslam

Knopf, $25, 384 pages


For several decades now, English literature has been enriched by a veritable explosion of talent emanating — directly or indirectly — from the subcontinent containing those ominously uneasy neighbors India and Pakistan, along with Bangladesh and the troubled island nation of Sri Lanka. Even in a field this crowded, however, Nadeem Aslam seems destined to stand out. His first novel, “Season of the Rainbirds,” set in rural Pakistan and published in England in 1993 (unaccountably still not published here), won two awards, was short-listed for two more, and made the long list for the coveted Booker. His second novel, “Maps for Lost Lovers,” is the product of more than a decade’s labor.

Born in Pakistan in 1966, Mr. Aslam came to England as a teenager when his father, a poet, filmmaker and communist, fled to escape political persecution after Gen. Zia’s takeover. The family landed in a working-class section of Huddersfield in northern England, a provincial backwater, uncelebrated and unsung, a place that might be described as “a bit off the map” (to borrow the title of an Angus Wilson story collection). But in his powerfully imagined, exquisitely crafted novel, “Maps for Lost Lovers,” Mr. Aslam brings just such a locale to life.

“Dasht-e-Tanhaii:” The wilderness of solitude or the desert of loneliness is what its immigrant inhabitants call it, though its official name is never given. Seen afresh, intimately and insightfully, through the prism of Mr. Aslam’s poetic, sensuous, precisely descriptive and lavishly allusive prose, this nameless, nondescript place grows vividly present.

“Shamas stands in the open door and watches the earth, the magnet that it is, pulling snowflakes out of the sky towards itself.” From the opening sentence, where we meet Shamas, the thoughtful 65-year-old who has lived here with his family for many years now, we are immersed in the splendors of the everyday physical world: the world of nature, the world of art, music, literature, and other man- and woman-made artifacts. Although writing about urban life, Mr. Aslam firmly locates this town in the natural world surrounding and infusing it, from winter’s snowfall to springtime’s hawthorn, the wooded pathways and nearby lake, the troop of parakeets (also immigrants from the old country) and the wealth of moths and butterflies.

Shamas, a promising poet and naively idealistic communist who left Pakistan for political reasons, now works as director of the Community Relations Council, helping his fellow immigrants and trying to foster respect and tolerance, not only between darker skinned newcomers and native whites, but among the various, often mutually distrustful groups in a community comprising Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. It is bitterly ironic, though all too believable, that the most destructive prejudice and devastating violence in this story come not from outsiders or strangers, but from coreligionists, neighbors, and, most of all, family members. More often than not, the victims are women.

As Shamas reflects, this is a culture where appearances are often more important than reality: “What the ideas of honour and shame and good reputation mean to the people of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh can be summed up by a Pakistani saying: He whom a taunt or jeer doesn’t kill is probably immune even to swords.” — a far cry from “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

As the novel opens, Shamas’ younger brother Jugnu, an engaging, highly educated lepidopterist, has disappeared along with Chanda, the woman he’d been living with. The lovers had been unable to marry because Chanda’s husband had refused to grant her a proper Muslim divorce. But in the eyes of many, including Shamas’ devout wife, Kaukab, the couple were living in sin, and in the eyes of some, in particular Chanda’s bigoted pair of brothers, butchers by trade, the sinners deserved to die. The brothers have been suspected of having killed them, and now, after five months, the police have uncovered the evidence to charge them with murder.

The story unfolds via several different viewpoints, primarily Shamas’ and that of his wife, Kaukab, each strongly and poignantly rendered. Mr. Aslam is just as adept at limning the perspectives of other characters, including Shamas’ and Kaukab’s three adult children, who in different ways have turned against or away from their mother’s rigid brand of faith. The oldest, Charag, a gifted artist, has married a (perfectly nice) white woman, a fate regarded in the neighborhood as a curse. The youngest, Ujala, whom his mother fondly hoped would become a holy man, has become a passionately outspoken critic of the faith she tried to force on him.

Some of the most affecting and revelatory scenes in a novel full of them are between Kaukab and her 27-year-old daughter, Mah-Jabin. The former sense of easy closeness between mother and daughter has been frayed by years of disagreement. Mah-Jabin is appalled by her mother’s narrow-mindedness, her refusal to countenance other opinions, and her stubborn inability to see the ways in which her religion consigns women to a status far worse than second class.

Yet she loves and pities her mother, and is extremely reluctant to hurt her feelings. This is the reason she’s never told her mother why she left the abusive husband she married at age 16 in an arranged match: She knows her mother would feel even worse to think her child had suffered than to believe the lie that Mah-Jabin has allowed to her believe — that she simply abandoned a loving spouse who wanted her back.

Kaukab has a rather grim view of marriage anyway: Women are obliged to put up with whatever their husbands demand. Mah-Jabin remembers her saying “the first fifteen or twenty years of the marriage belong to the man but the rest to the woman because she can turn her children against their father by telling them of all his injustices and cruelties while they are growing up, patience being the key to happiness.”

A woman who means to do good, Kaukab is a fine housekeeper, a kind neighbor, and a superb, infinitely painstaking cook whose skillful work in the kitchen is portrayed in delectable detail. Yet, as Mr. Aslam also shows us, whenever the least glimmer of doubt about some of her religion’s strictures creeps into her mind, whenever she feels even a tiny sense of levity, she immediately recoils from it as a satanic trick. Nonetheless, although Kaukab knows full well from her faith that every time a wife denies her husband his sexual rights, the houris who wait for him in Paradise weep on his behalf, she still won’t let Shamas touch her. She holds him and his freethinking ways responsible for the way their children have turned out.

Poor Shamas, a sensitive, high-minded soul, has thought of resorting to a prostitute, but rejected the idea. But when he meets Suraya, an alluring younger woman who seems to share his love of books, the temptation is harder to resist. Little does he suspect that Suraya has her own motives for seeking out his attention. Still less does he realize that, although she seems as enraptured by their lovemaking as he is, her views on men, women, religion and tradition have more in common with his wife’s than with his.

Mr. Aslam has peopled Dasht-e-Tanii, this “wilderness of solitude,” with a wealth of souls as trapped and lonely as Kaukab’s. Many feel like strangers in an alien and alienating land. What the novel reveals as the chief source of their desolation, however, is not white racism (although it exists) nor their being exiles in a land of infidels and sinners. Through an accretion of brilliantly insightful and deeply moving detail, Mr. Aslam paints a picture of a community whose members are cut off from one another: neighbor from neighbor, husband from wife, parent from child.

In the great tradition of the Persian poets, Mr. Aslam weaves a gorgeous profusion of images — similes, metaphors, allusions and exquisitely detailed descriptions of the natural world — into the tapestry of his story. From Jugnu’s beloved butterflies to Shamas’s love of literature, music and nature, and his efforts to spread tolerance in his community, the prevailingly tragic atmosphere is shot through with luminous gleams of beauty, hope and light, making “Maps for Lost Lovers” not only an important and memorable achievement, but a book that is deeply satisfying to read.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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