The prose is softly lit with the djinns of myth and lore, much like the “pale sphere” of light cast by the many lanterns that appear in the narrative. But this is a violent tale. Nadeem Aslam’s fifth novel, The Golden Legend, recounts with knifelike precision the lives of the devout and the infidel as they converge and explode in that terrible beauty of a state, Pakistan.
Pakistan is what Aslam is fixated upon, and he scrutinises it in fiction, either geographically or by examining its politics through the lives of immigrants. His first novel, Season of the Rainbirds (1993), is about the murder of a judge in a quiet Pakistani village. His next, Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) is set in an English town that has been renamed Dasht-e-Tanhaii (the Desert of Solitude) by its population of Pakistani migrants. Jihad, honour killings and fanaticism reverberate in subsequent fiction as well, but it is in The Golden Legend that he returns to the country that his family had escaped from, during President Zia-ul-Haq’s rule.
The Golden Legend opens with the formation of a human chain on the Grand Trunk Road, to transfer Islamic books by hand from one library to another in the fictional town of Zamana. Fifty-five-year-old architect Massud and his wife Nargis, who have designed the new premises, are part of this chain. A motorcycle pulls up and in the shootout that ensues, Massud is killed.
Massacres that wipe out neighbourhoods are frequent in Zamana, but emblems of tenderness and vulnerability are always retrieved from the wreckage, heightening the cruelty of the occurrence. In the commotion that follows the killings on Grand Trunk Road, a goldfish seller’s poles, from which dangle several nylon bags filled with water and containing one goldfish each, come crashing down. Goldfish writhe on the footpath; a young man cups one in his hand, wondering what to do with it, as children scream and people lie dead or dying around him.
There are other perils of living in Zamana. An anonymous tattletale has been entering the mosques and announcing people’s acts of blasphemy and immorality through the loudspeakers on the minarets. The citizens have convinced themselves that the voice is that of Allah. When the voice reveals that Aysha, the widowed daughter of a cleric, “…had developed a sinful, immoral and criminal association with Lily Masih…” – a Christian rickshaw driver – all the Christian houses of Badami Bagh, the neighbourhood in which they live, are set on fire. But the most conspicuous image of the butchery is a metaphor both grotesque and delicate – rose petals wafting down from the sky. The petals, a “…vertical red curtain, undulating,” have been released from a politician’s aeroplane, as a congratulatory message for the “…blessed deed that had taken place at Badami Bagh.”
Macabre deeds are finished off with flamboyance and even loveliness. After Massud’s murder, an American intelligence officer visits Nargis, seeking public forgiveness for Massud’s assassin – an American who is in custody, but must be released because “The American government insists he is a diplomat.” In an attempt to threaten her, and as a precursor of things to come, he takes out a blade and cuts the pages of a book written by Massud’s father: That They Might Know Each Other. “The pointed tip of the blade reached down towards the angel Gabriel’s face,” the narrative informs the reader with a silent urgency that is about to detonate in Massud’s study, “He perforated the face with the steel tip, and then the blade continued upwards through the angel’s headdress, the various ribbons and gems. Continuing, it cut into the sky full of gold stars. Half of the page had been incised now. Never once did he lose the sense of ceremony.”
Ceremony, or the ritualistic fervour with which acts are performed, becomes an expression of both coercion and deep affection. After the American “soldier-spy” has left, Nargis, her body bruised and aching from the intelligence agent’s assault, undertakes the task of stitching the mutilated pages of the book: “She looked for a needle among the spools in the box. She threaded it with great difficulty, having to lean towards the lamp, and then she opened the book and examined what remained of the first page.” She embarks upon stitching the 987 pages with golden thread – the missing fragments form a heap that is almost one foot high. The stitching of the missing pages becomes a ritual that mends or heals, even though the relief is temporary: “Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken.” Yet again, Aslam establishes a pattern of chaos followed by stillness, death followed by regeneration, tragedy that leaves an exquisite sorrow and kindness in its wake.
The various episodes of violence in The Golden Legend chronicle the politics of Pakistan as a sectarian state, its confounding laws and its problematic relationship with the world. The Muslim cleric, who is also Aysha’s father, pleads with Nargis to refuse to grant public pardon to the American who is in custody for the mayhem on Grand Trunk Road: “You must show the government that, unlike them, you face Mecca when you pray, not Washington.”
Several homicides are reminiscent of recent world events. Lily’s daughter Helen, who, like her parents, is a housekeeper in Nargis and Massud’s home but has been brought up like a chid of the family, also writes for a current affairs magazine, the Tilla Jogian. Its editor is killed at gunpoint for a variety of reasons, as enumerated by his assassin: “You can print pictures of near-naked women, print lessons on lust and greed. You can write that history has to be understood as a result of human actions rather than the will of God. You can print an advertisement from a phone company before Mother’s Day that reads, ‘Because God couldn’t be everywhere, He created mothers,’ without realising how shockingly disrespectful it is to suggest that God is not omnipotent.” There are references to a “magnificent brother in Boston” who hid in a boat after the marathon bombings; Amir Abdur Rehman Cheema’s arrest and subsequent death in prison over the murder of the editor of the German newspaper Die Welt, which reprinted Norwegian cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, is also brought up by the killer: “Would I be right in thinking that you condemned Amir Abdur Rehman Cheema’s actions, you son of a dog?”
Aslam offers plausible accounts of the historical delineations of Islamic militancy inside Pakistan and the CIA’s drone campaigns in mountain terrains. But these fragments of chronicled history are the impressions of a foreigner. Aslam then, is unlike writers like Mohammed Hanif, who, in an interview to the New Yorker, tells of his connection to Pakistan: “I was born here,” and “I went to a government school in a village. My brother and sister still live here – all my childhood friends are still here. I served in the armed forces…” Aslam fled Pakistan. His characters are on the run. His narratives offer the poetry of violence, not the squalor of the street that one find’s in Hanif’s prose.
Salman Rushdie mentions the dilemma of those whose art is wedged in the countries of their birth – terrifying homelands they are compelled to leave but revisit through literature, as outsiders. “I am conscious of the shifts in my writing. There was always a tug-of-war in me between ‘there’ and ‘here’, the pull of roots and of the road. In that struggle of insiders and outsiders, I used to feel simultaneously on both sides. Now I’ve come down on the side of those who by preference, nature or circumstance simply do not belong,” he writes in an essay ‘February 1999: Ten Years of the Fatwa’, from the book Step Across This Line: Collected Non-fiction 1992-2002.
It is through the lens of the outsider that Aslam’s narrative ventures into insurgency in Kashmir. Imran, a vagabond who has escaped a militant training camp on the outskirts of Zamana, is Aslam’s fictional representation of the ousted Kashmiri. Nargis and Helen are compelled to leave Zamana – both their lives are in danger after Massud’s death and Lily’s disappearance. Imran, who arrives in Pakistan from Kashmir only to escape the militant camp he has been training with, chooses to assist Nargis and Helen as they flee Zamana. They find precarious safety within an island, which was formed “…when the soil caught in the hoof of a winged horse-like creature was dislodged and fell to earth, landing in the river.” It is here, in this island with its beautiful but abandoned mosque and its unkempt foliage, an “Islamic Paradise garden” of almonds, walnuts, peach, apricot, mulberry, apple and other fruit growing in abundance, that Imran recalls Kashmir.
“The mass graves of Kashmiris, who had been killed and buried in secret by Indian soldiers, were beginning to be discovered by then, and thousands of young men were missing – either murdered, or crossing the border into Pakistan for guerrilla training. The grandfather began to advise everyone to carry bulbs and seeds in their pockets, and to inform their family and friends what specific plant each was carrying upon their person, in order that they would know what flowers to look for after the Indian soldiers had tortured them to death.”
A profusion of flowers, sprouting from the graves of the anonymous dead – what better way to delineate the rhythm of a novel that swings from anguish to joy, from unspeakable terrors to unspoken pleasures, from the sheer exhaustion of running away to a quiet resilience, which finds “pockets of love and comfort” amidst the carnage.
Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.