Saturday, 6 June 2009






Nadeem Aslam became a name to reckon with after his second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers hit the reading public and won the Kiriyama Prize as well as the Encore Award, and was later short listed for the British Book award in2005. It was long listed for the Man Booker Prize as well in the same year. His latest novel, The Wasted Vigil, is set in modern - day Afghanistan, the scene of a long line of war - torn country side.

The story spans nearly a quarter century, often interweaving and overlapping. The narrative vividly describes the terrible afflictions that have plagued Afghanistan since the time of Soviet invasions in 1979 when Kalashnikovisation of Afghanistan began in earnest and later when radical Islam reared its ugly head in the form of Taliban.

A Russian woman named Lara arrives at the house of Marcus Caldwel, an English doctor and widower, who lives in an old and abandoned perfume factory beneath the shadow of the Tora Bora Mountains. Their painful histories are interlinked. It is possible that Marcus’s daughter Zameen born of an Afghan woman named Qatrina may have known Lara’s brother, a soldier in the Soviet Army. Both Qatrina and Zameen are dead, becoming victims of the age in which they were born.

More people follow them in the following days, including two men from the CIA, Dunia, a young Afghan teacher and Casa, a radicalized youth intent on his mission. Casa is the atypical Islamic fundamentalist, having been indoctrinated since childhood into the cadre of a jihadi. The inner turmoil of all these characters, linked inextricably together, forms the crux of the plot.

The unrelenting and unforgiving landscape of Afghanistan and its steppe came alive in the novels of Afghan writer Khaled Hossieni in his novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Aslam takes up the rest of the narrative in what has come to be known as the worst human tragedies of present day. The violent news stories and the clippings that we read about in the newspapers and watch rushing past in front of our eyes on the television screens. With the arrival of the Taliban, the story takes on the colors of terrible tragedy and this comes alive in Aslam’s novel, as though it was part of a modern day parable. The thought that it could be real, comes as a jolt to people like me, living as I do in a zone where war is a gory drama staged in the visual media, as far removed from reality as the horrendous landscapes of human misery and medieval violence. More so because these atrocities are practiced on women, the all time soft target of mankind from the dark ages, in the name of religion. I have enough reasons to augment my belief that there exists no god, and if at all there is one, it must be a man. It is for the very same reason that no religion has ever been founded by a woman – thanks be to women.

I reproduce here some of the unforgiving acts of brutality ever practiced on the face of this planet from this book by Nadeem Aslam.

‘Women are always dying in repeated childbirth because the husbands didn’t listen – Qatrina had to struggle with the mosques because they said birth control was the west’s attempt at reducing the number of Muslims in the world. And then the Communist regime came and closed down the family planning centers, saying it was an Imperialist policy to detract attention from the real causes of poverty’.

Lara herself had failed yet again to carry a pregnancy to full term. For a Russian woman an abortion was one of the more obvious options when it came to birth control, the men not agreeing to consider any preventive methods themselves …

‘A man from Usha kept making his wife pregnant year after year. The young woman was twenty – two and had seven children in six years. He never allowed her body to recover, despite warnings and pleadings from Qatrina. When he brought his wife to us for an eighth time, she was almost dead’.

David saw a woman in a silkworm village being paraded naked through the streets. She cowered as she was beaten by several men for having committed adultery, for having taken a Russian lover… he watched as a man came forward and placed around her neck one of the Korans he had brought.

Qatrina, a doctor and Marcus’s wife is flogged and forcibly made to amputate her own husband’s right hand, with the threat that if she does not relent, he would be shot dead. Their crime is that she is a Muslim who dared to marry a British doctor, but also because their marriage was sanctified by a woman. A microphone is thrust on her howling mouth as a crowd of Taliban automatons cheer around them.

Aslam does not take sides, as his critics have pointed out. But the condemnations of such mindless violence do take on a slant towards Western sensibilities. No doubt that these acts are condemnable, but there is a thread of overzealousness in Aslam’s narrative. The Wasted Vigil is neither for the weak hearted nor for the passionately patriotic. He writes with a quaint lyricism and the book is littered with peculiarly fresh imagery. Paradoxically, I felt that the kind of lyrical narrative does not fit inside a novel about violence spanning three decades.

Western critics have many times recorded the lush lyricism of the orient, but at times, it palls for no reason whatsoever. As I said, perhaps the subject does not suit either the subject or the narrative. I am told that Nadeem Aslam’s much acclaimed earlier novel Maps for Lost Lovers which is the story of an honor killing, does indeed warrant lyricism of the kind Aslam dabbles in.

The painting that you see above is done in pastels and depicts the front cover of Nadeem Aslam’s book. I think it has come out rather well. It shows ripe pomegranates, with one of them wrenched open and beginning to rot.


1 comment:

redkazim said...

Going by the excerpts, it looks NA is a good writer -- but certainly not as good as KH of The Kite Runner.
By the way I stupidly wonder how one can write a novel on Afghanistan being an expat Pakistani living in the UK -- I mean he doesn't belong to Afghanistan -- and according to NA himself -- he went to Afghanistan (and Peshawar too) just for once -- i.e. when he decided to write a novel on the subject.
Don't know whether one can write a novel based on superficial knowledge that a tourist acquires after 'visiting' a country.