The master story-teller is back, weaving the usual magic with his words, writing a familiar yet brand-new tale of love in the times of bigotry and xenophobia.“ I wake up every day approaching life’s problems through fiction,“ says Nadeem Aslam. Which explains the prose that soars even as it touches upon, examines, parses all the conflict life can contain.
Aslam sets The Golden Legend in his country of origin, Pakistan. He tells a heart-rending (of course) tale of Christians, a wretched minority in the Land of the Pure. There is Lily, his deceased wife Grace, his daughter Helen, all who live in the shadow of Masood and Nargis in Badami Bagh, in the imaginary town of Zamana. These are `quiet people for whom the gestures of protests are too loud.` The Christians in the ghetto don’t live half-lives, they live lives that amount to less than nothing. Lily, angry at the daily, sometimes hourly humiliations he had to endure, felt that if the country were a person, he would kill it. His wife tells him: They think we see fewer stars when we look at the sky. Or no stars at all.
Grace is killed in a riot, Helen is more or less brought up by Masood and Nargis, and Lily toys with the idea of wreaking revenge on the man who killed Grace. That amounts to nothing, but the love affair he embarks upon, with Aysha the maulvi`s widowed daughter and sister-in- law to Grace`s murderer, is fraught with unimaginable danger. Masood is hit by a stray bullet on a busy thoroughfare, the nightly revelations from the loudspeaker at the mosque outs Lily and Aysha, and mayhem follows. Helen is attracted to Imran, who has fled a terrorist training camp. A crucifix goes missing. Elsewhere it would mean a personal loss, not here though.
There is no question of staying to fight, it is time for flight. Nargis, who carries within her a dreadful secret all her own, takes Helen and Imran to their own Avalon, a secret island in the middle of a river. Lily disappears, is he dead in the rioting? Aysha is locked up but must gather her inner resources to live for her crippled son. The denouement happens at a Sufi shrine.
The reader reads Aslam with the usual jagged lump that is lodged sharply in the region of the heart, hoping that by the time they reach the end of the story, the lump would have dissolved into liquid, but knowing fully well that it wouldn’t be so. This, Aslam`s fifth book, is the least subtle of them all, contains the least amount of the imagery which mark his work.
So. What is The Golden Legend all about?
‘At times to pretend to be courageous was difficult. She felt like someone held within lightening.’
It’s a tragedy cloaked in gossamer- fine strands but the reader is not fooled; life and its tumultuous passions will tear these strands apart.
` We Muslims are being murdered and insulted and persecuted everywhere, in Kashmir, Burma, Palestine, Chechnya…`
It’s a tale of victimisation with some amount of truth, some amount of phobia, in it.
`There are rocks that shatter into small pieces when struck and then, there are rocks that withstand the blows. These are carved and worshipped as gods and goddesses.’
It`s about how love triumphs all, perseveres in these times of endless rage and tumult.
`She was not religious but she was sympathetic to the idea that religion might offer a consolation to those who had been humiliated by life. ‘
It’s the story of those who are consumed by their faith, and even as they burn, they pull others into the all-consuming fire.
`Termites and white ants had marked most of the books. The holes they had bored through the thickness of a book appeared as though a bird`s long beak had pierced the covers in order to extract words, as a beak would reach into a trees bark and pull out insects or caterpillars.’
The lyrical flourishes shine like gold throughout the book but this is what the reader has come to expect of Nadeem Aslam.
Look at this passage on loss and mourning: ‘She knew she would never really recover. It was though it was as though her pen ran out of ink while writing a letter. She had picked up another containing ink of a different colour and continued but even if the words and lines of thought remained the same, something had altered.’
There is no message for the hopeful here. Things being as bad as they are, this world won`t last much for longer, an old shopkeeper tells Imran. Imran`s reply? ‘The world will survive forever, with everything staying exactly as it is now.’
Sheila Kumar is an independent writer and manuscript editor, as well as author of a collection of short stories titled Kith and Kin Chronicles of a Clan (Rupa Publications). She writes at http://www.sheilakumar.in/