Sunday, December 2, 2012

Maps for Lost Lovers – Nadeem Aslam

Blurb on the back: Set in a nameless British town that it’s Pakistan-born immigrants have renamed Dasht-e-Tanhaii, the Desert of Solitude, Maps for Lost Lovers is an exploration of cultural tension and religious bigotry played out in the personal breakdown of a single family. As the book begins, Jugnu and Chanda whose love is both passionate and illicit have disappeared from their home. Rumours about their disappearance abound and finally, on a snow-covered January morning, Chanda’s brothers are arrested for their murder.

Seen principally through the eyes of Jugnu’s brother, the cultured, poetic Shamas, and his wife Kaukab, mother of three increasing estranged children and devout daughter of a Muslim cleric, the event marks the beginning of the unravelling of all that is sacred to them. It fills Shamas’s home with grief and discloses a legacy of miscomprehension and regret not only for Shamas and Kaukab but also for their children and neighbours.

An intimate portrait of a community searingly damaged by traditions, this is a densely imagined, beautiful and deeply troubling book written in heightened prose saturated with imagery. It casts a deep gaze on themes as timeless as love, nationalism and religion, while meditating on how these forces drive us apart.

My Thoughts: There are some books on the horrors of religious impunity and licensed misogyny in the Indian subcontinent and its various avatars around the world which are so gory and ghastly that one wishes they would end soon. “Maps for Lost Lovers” is not one of those books. The narrative is so compelling and haunting and even though it’s obvious from the first chapter onwards that thing will not end well, I wanted the book to continue on forever. Coming from India, the most fertile of birthplaces for world religions, I am no stranger to the blinding power religion exerts on even its most rational of followers. The events mentioned in the book which might appear exaggerated, even fictional to the western mind are sadly more commonplace than should’ve been allowed even in the medieval ages.

For me, the hero of the book is the language. I understand that flowery, poetry disguised as prose, metaphor heavy, imagery laden sentences interspersed with bits of un-translated couplets in a foreign language is not everyone’s cup of tea but I like this exquisite mesh of beautiful words. When something terrible is presented in the form of poetry, it takes away half of the pain.

And pain reigns supreme in this book of forbidden loves. There is Jugnu and Chanda (love before the sanctity of marriage), Shamas and Suraya (love outside marriage), Charag and Stella (interracial love), the love of the Muslim girl and Hindu boy (interreligious love) but the love which wrenched my heart and made me reacquainted to the taste of my own fears was the love story of Kiran and Kaukab’s brother. Its love of a lifetime of longing and sacrifice and a love failed at the hands of society. For me Kiran’s love is the same mantel as the loves of Catherine and Heathcliff, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza and, Yuri Zhivago and Lara. But sometimes this pain overwhelms and you wish for at least something to go right, for at least one love story to have a happy ending, for at least one life to have meaning. The last chapter tries to bring some warmth but too little too late.

Leo Tolstoy famously said,"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." then why does the unhappiness of Shamas’s family feel so familiar? Why do we all know the feeling of being conflicted between love and society? People in exile, both internal and external will have a mirror to their pain in these pages. The only criticism I can raise is the amount of Islam-bashing and making Pakistani immigrants look ignorant at best and self-hating, inbred, uneducated, god-fearing, sadist-psychopaths at worst. The narrative swings between fanatism and indifference without stopping at any points in between. A modern religiously moderate character could have balanced the arguments which start to read like the author’s one-sided rant against religion. Quite tedious even though I do not disagree with him.

Highly recommended for anyone who loves beautiful prose and tragic love stories.

Rating: 5/5

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