“How easy it is to create ghosts, he thinks as he begins to die a minute later, feeling his mind closing chamber by chamber, the memory of Naheed contained in each one. Just before the world vanishes, a hope surfaces in him that this wasn’t necessarily everything, that he will return somehow. His arm rises remembering when it used to be a wing”.
Nadeem Aslam is from the rarest breed of writers. His prose has the power to grip you – in one moment it horrifies you, but in another it saddens you beyond belief. His characters, with all their flaws, follies and naiveties, will come back, invading all the senses of your mind long after you have finished reading him.
The ultimate strength in his writing lies at the heart of his description. Aslam not only makes his reader understand the emotion and reasoning of his characters, he can make one empathise and connect with their respective thinking. For most characters, this is not a problem, however, when you find yourself beginning to sympathise with, for example, a mother who intends on spiking her own daughter’s food to initiate an abortion – you have to pause, think and get over the “Wait, what…” moment. That is the strength and brilliance of Nadeem Aslam.
The Blind Man’s Garden is set a few months post 9/11, shortly after, the US announces the War on Terror and invades Afghanistan. The narrative takes place in a fictional Pakistani town of Heer as well as the Afghanistan mountains, where fighting between USA and the Taliban has broken out. The story starts with a medical student, Jeo, wishing to go from Peshawar to Afghanistan, in order to help with the casualties of war. Accompanying him is his foster brother, Mikaal, who is an able mechanic. They leave behind in Pakistan, their father, Rohan, and Jeo’s wife, Naheed, who must learn to await their return, and in the meantime, fight a war within a war, on homeground.
I would not say the book holds a grand mysterious plot – it is the simple but brutal tale of a family, which suffers on both sides of the border. The reader experiences the search of a father for his son; the wait of a wife for her husband; and the helplessness of a man torn between the duties of a brother and love for a woman.
Aslam does not pick a side – he gives no rationale for the Americans and he does not sympathise with the Islamist hardliners. This backdrop of the novel, however, is an effective canvas describing the issues faced by ordinary families in this specific context. Important themes are explored, which have always existed but further highlighted post 9/11 – these include religious identity, corruption, freedom, and the vulnerability of minorities in Pakistan.
Religion has been a key source of ignition whenever the ordinary Pakistani Muslim began to process the War on Terror, because it was not a war on terror for him, it was a war on Islam. Historically, this thinking, coupled with the exploitation of often uninformed and zealous followers, has led to countless hundreds picking up arms and crossing the border to Afghanistan to fight. It was therefore refreshing to see Rohan, the religious father, to not share a similar sentiment. However, in parts, it was also sad to see glimpses of his religious and moral standing, for example, when he expels a student upon finding out his mother solicits or the withholding of medication from his wife, in an attempt to make a believer out of her.
The power of faith and conviction is at its strongest, when it makes you question the definitive decisions in your lifespan. In the case of Rohan, it was whether he would marry his wife, if he could go back in time. The same woman, with whom he has been hopelessly in love for the best years of his life.
“We should make one of the children stand up on the windowsill wherever the firing is heaviest. It will silence the guns. The solution was revealed to me by an angel during sleep last night”.
You also get the other type of religious person; the fanatic. The unwavering conviction that the death of innocent people and their destruction is the way forward for a greater good. The above passage was a chilling reminder of this.
Tied in with the problems of a certain type of religious person, come the issues of the farce of a high moral grounding, which are intertwined and plaguing the minorities in patriarchal, muslim majority Pakistani society. The following passage beautifully captures the ugly face of this:
The police officer smiles. “Don’t worry. She’ll probably return. And when she does I want you to bring her here”.
“You won’t look for her now but you want to see her when she returns?”
“We might have to investigate her for immorality and wantonhood. She must explain to us, as against of decent society, where she has been all these days. A charge of decadence and wickedness might have to be brought against her”.
My attempts to make an argument for the beauty of this book have tried to not give out any plot details, however, I sincerely hope that I have been able to put across a few salient points, which would enable more people to read this book. I have laid out reflections specifically on religion, since this has unsettled me the most. The book has a wealth of other themes, which must be read to be appreciated as no review could do them justice.
If not for the crucial understanding of how religion, society and war can scar people; and if not for narratives of those not with the US or Taliban, yet destroyed by both; then, read this book for the sheer beauty of Aslam’s prose, which leaves you, the reader, in a vulnerable state somewhere between the blurred lines of sorrow and bittersweet joy.