Borders of mind

Lead review

Borders of mind

The clear, earnest writing carries in its flow a placid everyday life, the quick of young love and the fine structures of a gentle overriding symbolism. But an undercurrent of unease and hatred, of suspicion and intolerance, erupts into periodic explosions of unspeakable horror and tragedy.

Nadeem Aslam writes like a soft-spoken poet whose word is smeared with blood. He returns again and again to the difficulties of existing in a world where religion is the only criterion: religion and its absence, its many hues — from the rigidly true to the merry mixes, almost as good as belonging among the nonbelievers.

The story begins with a middle-aged couple of Pakistani architects, Massud and Nargis, who’ve set out to contribute their presence to the stocking of a new library. They are joining a human chain that will pass sacred texts from the old to the new venue, designed and built by them. The books are too pure to be transported in trucks. But once there, Massud is shot dead in a crossfire between motorcycle-borne gunmen and an American.

The stage is set. Nargis is bullied by a Pakistani ‘military intelligence agent’ to forgive the perpetrator, to fulfil a deal with the Americans. Her ward Helen and her father Lily are terrorised. Lily’s lover Aysha and her legless little son are watched by fanatic vultures. When Nargis and Helen reach the sanctuary of an island haven designed by Massud and Nargis in the company of a Kashmiri refugee, Imran, they don’t know when the peace will break.

Like the gentle movement of a Hitchcock film where you know you’re only suppressing your scream, Aslam fashions an elaborate world of physical and abstract configurations, weaving together hope and doom, love and death. His symbolism is a gauze veil, below, over, and interleaving the real.

His copy of his father’s book returns fortuitously to Massud’s hands in the hour of his death. Nargis and Helen, and later Imran, stitch the damaged book back together with a golden thread. The architects’ study has two elaborate paper structures that can be raised and lowered, using the actual room’s floor for itself, each a private haven. The island itself, with its idea of providing all ways for all men, is the place we all escape to when the world is too much for us. Lily’s horror in the basement of the saint’s mausoleum and his bloody escape through underground sewers conjure a bizarre landscape that inures us from disbelief when he re-emerges as a ghost.

When an anonymous intruder enters the city’s mosques at night and reveals the intimate secrets of citizens through loudspeakers, there’s a general scare, but besides providing a reason for the core disturbance in the novel, the scattering and separation of its characters and also, a coming together, it’s like a voice of providence, remaining a mystery, with nothing pinpointed.

Aslam’s writing is less magic than poetic realism. Which incorporates poetic justice too; not always in reality, but within the cosmos we create in our minds as we read him. His words and whimsical word-pictures work, and touch us crucially, because even the most harrowing events are painstakingly descriptive. He does not need to use dramatic adjectives or effects, because we are made to see and feel, and even if it doesn’t shock us in the moment, we leave carrying those scars.

Imran’s grandfather in Kashmir quotes the words of a mistakenly shot shepherd: “Yes, the soul is a pocket, in which you carry the names of those you love.” The grandfather advises people to carry bulbs and seeds in their pockets, and to tell family and friends what plant they’re carrying, “in order that they may know what flowers to look for after the Indian soldiers had tortured them to death.” The bulbs would have germinated and sprouted on the hillsides.

As Aysha stands thinking of her maimed little boy, Aslam writes: “Tears were a magnifying glass. All the world’s faults were seen sharply, as well as its beauty, all the things that were meaningless in the final analysis, and all that was worth treasuring.” The little boy tells his friends that his ankles have wings and so he must hide his legs from a jealous sorcerer. In the same way that geographical regroupings are a result of borders of the mind, and our perspective can move the toughest physical barriers, we can carry our relationships over shifting sands depending on how steadfast we are. This applies to the love between man and woman, and their children or parents, as well as between the fundamentalist and his ideology.

Here we have blind belief, self-interest that masquerades as duty, and the sheer helplessness of those who are decidedly on the other side. Or in the shifting shadows that make nothing very certain.

The Golden Legend
Nadeem Aslam
Penguin
2017, pp 361, Rs 599

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