Print Edition - 2017-11-11  |  On Saturday

Reflections in a single mirror

  • Samara, where the novel is set, means ‘world and all it contains.’ The novel beautifully juxtaposes the ugliness and the beauty of life
- Atul K Thakur
Aslam has triumphantly managed to weave a story that explores the endurance of the human soul, and the novel is yet another testament–like Aslam’s previous works–of the tyranny of mankind.

Nov 11, 2017-Given the ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan, it is a daunting task to come to terms with the reality of the situation by finding the right expressions. But Nadeem Aslam, one of the most iconic fiction writers from Pakistan, has managed to find a voice to depict the beautiful but the troubled land of Pakistan. Aslam’s new novel, The Golden Legend, is as engrossing as his previous novel, The Blind Man’s Garden. Set in the fictional town of Samara, somewhere in northern Pakistan, which borders Kasmir and Afganisthan, The Golden Legend tells the story of Nargis, a Muslim widow who lost husband to an American bullet and her Christian neighbours, whose community is being consumed by the blind wave of fundamentalism and bigotry. 

“A few hours before he was killed, Masud, [Nargis’s husband], woke at the call of the predawn prayer. It was issuing from the loudspeakers attached to the minaret just across the lane. He imagined the worshippers approaching the eighteenth-century mosque in silence, some of them carrying lanterns. The sight of empty shoes at the threshold of mosques had always made him think that the men had been transformed into pure spirit just before entering.” But his imagination served him his death—Aslam is beautifully able to contrast the reality with the character’s inner reflection. 

Nargis is worried that her husband’s death will reveal a truth that she has kept hidden for years. Violence ensues as Nargis tries to keep her secret, and a religious conflict erupts in the city when the loudspeakers reveal the forbidden love of a Muslim girl with a Christian boy. Nargis is caught in the centre of the violent tussle in the city.

The omniscient narrator, who seamlessly moves in and out of his characters’ minds, reflects Nargis’s inner turmoil: 

 “She thought of the boy thrown into the cauldron of war, the girl beset by various bigotries, her life in danger, and saw how unjust it all was, her fury limitless for a few moments. And she felt a sense of shame, something akin to accusation from them towards her and her generation, for not having constructed a better world to welcome and contain their beauty, to house their spirit. ”

What follows is a tale of a horrifying story of destruction, though it must be added that the writer has taken pains to sensitively portray the human-ness of religious militants who are often associated in the west as the face of evil in the Muslim world. 

There is violence, despair, and systemic collapse; but there is also conditional hope, which the better human spirits can offer at times. Although, the ‘hope’ is fleeting and does not necessarily give traction to everyone who actively tries to cope with the emptiness and disaster. Between the lines, The Golden Legend reflects it unforgivingly:

“She lets out a sound as though bitten by something and moves towards it. And she opens it and sees that all the pages have been mended. The gold sutures run in a thousand different directions. The density of stitches has made the book one and a half times its original thickness. It is somewhat splayed open. It is true for the first time in history all people on earth have a common present…She reads the first words on the very first page, the epigraph. She looks up and stands listening, waiting to be approached. But there is no one, no noise or call.”

Samara, the fictional town in which the story is set, means ‘the world and all it contains’ in Urdu and Persian, and the novel beautifully juxtaposes the ugliness and the beauty of life. In The Golden Legend, Aslam has triumphantly managed to weave a story that explores the endurance of the human soul, and the novel is yet another testament–like Aslam’s previous works–of the tyranny of mankind. 

The tyranny of mankind, in the context of Aslam’s new novel, is the religious conflict and the deep seated patriarchal culture that does not let women any breathing room. In the novel, everybody suffers, but nobody suffers as much as Nargis and the other women characters. At one point in the novel a character thinks: She had never realised how alone women were in the world.

- Thakur is a New Delhi based journalist and writer, he can be reached at  summertickets@gmail.com

Published: 11-11-2017 07:45

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