Not quite a year ago, I read Nadeem Aslam’s admirable first book, Season of the Rainbirds. Now that I have just finished his fourth work of fiction, The Blind Man's Garden, Aslam is firmly on my “favorite authors” list. An outstanding lyricist, Aslam writes phrases embedded with simple beauty:
…the noise of the train unable to disturb them behind the
thick door of sleep.
A stunning storyteller, Aslam consistently delivers unique tales, transporting readers in time, circumstance and place. Most often, Aslam explores life in difficult parts of the world, furthering understanding and compassion. His settings are often fraught with fighting in the name of religion and love, both external and internal varieties.
The territory of clans and tribes. Where along with jewellery
and land, children inherit missiles.
…the new bandages overlapping each other like a basket being woven…
….the sky changing colour like someone switching from one language
Other authors require pages or paragraphs to reveal a character’s essence; Aslam can do it with a few words. One of the primary characters in this book, Mikal, is described as having “the face that held a look of unbreakable isolation.” The father of the family, Rohan, ”senses the two women on either side of him, full of that care beyond exhaustion that makes every woman in the world a heroine.” But what I most adore about Aslam’s perfectly painted characters is how fond I become of them, regardless of whether I agree with their beliefs and decisions. They exude a humanity that makes every action understandable, a humanity that makes me hope for their safe deliverance.
In The Blind Man's Garden, several versions of brotherhood are presented, as well as the usual makeup of Muslim families. Rohan is the compassionate patriarch (although readers quickly grasp that his behavior was less than admirable when his late wife was dying, when he proved blinded by the demands of his religious beliefs). After Sofia’s death, it was Rohan who brought the orphaned Basie and Mikal to live in his home with Jeo and Yasim, his own children. Fast forward to post-9/11 Peshawar, Pakistan, when everyone is grappling with the difficulties of living among extremists of all kinds. Jeo is now a med student who decides, secretively, to go to the aid of Afghanistan civilians in spite of the fact that he just got married. Mikal, seeming to have nothing better to do than watch out for Jeo after a chance meeting, accompanies him. (Although Mikal has most definitely not been thinking of Jeo’s happiness in the recent past.) Not surprisingly, their plans quickly go awry, thanks to malicious machinations back at the school which Jeo’s parents innocently founded years ago.
Opening the book with “History is the third parent,” Aslam depicts characters representing all positions regarding the US: strict Islamists, nonbelievers, terrorists, warlords, Pakistani military, extended families striving to survive internal wars, guarded females hoping to choose their own way or at least escape from arranged marriages, students attempting to acquire Western learning, students blocking change, etc. Aslam’s writing enables readers to envision what is behind the various perspectives held by Pakistanis and Afghans about the U.S. (and even the view of one United States soldier)—most typically born out of grief for a lost loved one. One character, Major Kyra, thinks, “we are not men of hate, but we must be men of justice.” Then, enveloped in his grief and anger, he wrongly endorses an agenda that goes well beyond avenging the death of his brother, an agenda that brings even the wrath of his own kind, leading to further deaths.
When Mikal mistakenly kills several American soldiers, his perceived stature becomes heroic. An admiring terrorist asks him: “We have the right to kill four million Americans, two million of them children. And to exile twice as many and wound and cripple hundreds of thousands. No?” The reader can’t help but think of the oft-quoted “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
But The Blind Man's Garden offers hope on individual levels, with the lives of Naheed and Yasmin looking to the future. Tara’s gentle change from the superstitious, sexist mother of Naheed to a woman supporting the happiness of her daughter is a delight. The tone of the novel is not excessively dark, but there are sections that illuminate the probability of continuing conflict—the turning of schools into jihad training centers, the destruction of any “Western” books, and the casualness of comments about battle:
’It’s the world,’ one of the other men says. ‘The world sounds like this all the time, we just don’t hear it. Then sometimes in some places we do.’
Aslam’s fiction has been nominated for many prestigious awards, received a Betty Trask Award and been named a New York Times Notable Book. The author has received a Lannan Literary Fellowship and has been made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
Closing this book, I can’t help but hope this is the sentence that stays with me:
The sky is a blue so clean it verges on joy.