I first met Nadeem Aslam briefly at the unveiling of his latest novel The Blind Man's Garden at the South Asian Literature Festival in London (southasianlitfest.com/ - United Kingdom) and was intrigued by his story of having made so much out of so little in several ways - he led a spartan life, was no stranger to destitution and had very little English in his teens on arriving in Britain. At the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival ( jaipurliteraturefestival.org/), I observed that his only concession to fame - or perhaps sartorial luxury - was a Paul Smith tote which he slung around his shoulders - while we looked for a suitable nook to interview him in at Diggi Palace - with the nonchalance of the major celebrity-author he has become some proof of which was furnished by the gaggle of girls who began to coo and gather around him even before his publicist had descended on us and said, 'It's a wrap!'
Nauman: The Blind Man's Garden is a return to the themes and concerns of your earlier two works, works of maturity, I should say. Could you tell me a little about what led you to the idea for the novel?
Nadeem: Well, I had just finished writing The Wasted Vigil which was my novel set in Afghanistan and I realised when I was nearing the end of the book that I hadn't dealt with how the CIA-sponsored Afghan jihad of the 1980s affected Pakistan. Zia was propped up, who was a pariah around the planet because he had hanged Prime Minister Bhutto. But on Christmas day, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, he became a hero because he needed to be cultivated so everything bad he had done was totally forgotten and he was basically given license to do anything he wanted to with Pakistan and Pakistanis which he went on to do... and changing the very texture of Pakistani life. You know, bringing in this thing called 'Islamisation' whatever that is. And, so while that was happening, the infiltration into Kashmir intensified.
When I finished the Afghanistan novel, I realised that there had been a point earlier when I thought I will tell Pakistan's story in The Wasted Vigil as well but it became too unwieldy. So I thought I will just detach it and tell two stories. And of course, by that time 9/11 had happened etc, etc. and, as I said in London, we just lived through an extraordinary decade, beginning with 9/11 and ending with the Arab spring. You know Mohammed Atta's suicide at one end and Mohammed Bouazizi's suicide on the other who was a Tunisian fruitseller if you recall. He set himself on fire in December 2010 and died the following month in January 2011 and his suicide led to the Arab spring. And between that we had the war on terror, the call to jihad - this new jihad, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo bay, Abu Ghraib, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the execution of Osama bin Laden - this clash between an incomplete understanding of the East and an incomplete understanding of the West.
If you remember I said the other day (at the Jaipur Literature Festival) if you were to google and type in 'Pakistan is' the four auto-fill choices you are given are: dangerous, evil, stupid, a terrorist country. If you type in 'America is' the choices you are given are: not the world, evil and not a country but a business (laughs) so I wanted to find a novel, I wanted to find a story, that would hold as many of these elements within it without losing anything; any of the integrity of a work of art because first and foremost it's a novel, it's not a non-fiction book, not a tract. And writers don't tell you what to think, they tell you what to think about. You know, so the attempt was to place all these elements next to each other and see what spark jumps between them.
Nauman: Your novels tend to have a central, what should I say... call it a motif, or an image: With Maps for Lost Lovers, it was the butterflies and The Wasted Vigil, it was books nailed to the ceiling and here, of course, we have the bird Snares, you know, as you say 'the network with thin steel wires hidden inside trees that hold unsuspecting birds.' Could you tell me what the purpose of these images is, or the role they are meant to play in the unfurling of the larger narrative?
Nadeem: Well, can I ask you this? As a reader, what role do you think they play and then I'll come in as a writer to see, and I think, the interesting thing is that the answer would probably be the same... you tell me?
Nauman: (slight hesitation)
Nadeem: (almost immediately as if answering his own question) They are intensifiers which actually enforce the power of the storytelling... you know the crucified books etc. and only if the reader wishes to deconstruct the narrative in that sense - what do the nailed things mean? A spike driven through the pages of history; a spike through the pages of love; a spike through the sacred... that's on the first page of The Wasted Vigil. But you don't have to deconstruct it. If you don't deconstruct it, they are just books nailed to the ceiling by a mad woman.
Nauman: And here you also have the school, 'Ardent Spirit' and the six...
Nadeem: (interjects enthusiastically) The school, the buildings, absolutely and the man with the chains etc. A man with chains is a man with chains. But if you want to read into it, you know... And I think I would rather leave the interpretation to the reader... I saw the man with a huge cage, attached to the back of his bicycle, who is selling birds and I thought that they would be used as pets, and then I asked him and he said, 'No, no, no, no, you are supposed to pay me and I will release them and your sins would be lessened.' And I saw the man with the chains as well. So, as I said, I'll let the reader decide.
Nauman: (trying to complete the question) Yes. And what about the houses, you know with 'Ardent Spirit' and the six houses... what do they?
Nadeem: (intervenes again) Well exactly, the houses... it was a school and they wanted to teach the children about Islam's past and so, if we leave it at that, that too works. The teachers and the headmaster and the builders of the school can do that, they would do that. It's fine to actually reinforce the children's teaching that way, that they are in an interesting building. But this is a novel.
Nauman: And to an extent you are setting that against what's happening in Afghanistan and the confrontation between cultures.
Nauman: East and West.
Nadeem: Of course (pause). The idea of politics... I am not one of those writers who say that politics has no place. I am perfectly willing to accept that there might be other writers who think I don't care about politics - Nabokov was one of them - fine you know - but I am interested in the politics of my time and I am happiest when I do something which pays off some of the political debt that I feel I owe to the world as well as being a work of art.
Nauman: Art for art's sake? ( laughs)
Nadeem: Yes exactly, so bits of both, I mean one doesn't succeed all the time, you know, and bits of both, it's fine, but that tradition is a very long one. Zola, you know, Dostoyevsky, James Coetzee, Orwell, Nadine Gordimer, Vargas Llosa, Marquez.
Nauman: Yes, Mohammed Hanif, for instance, says, you know, that I am not setting out to change the world and I mean...
Nadeem: Oh no, no, no, that's different. Nor am I setting out to change the world.
Nauman: (trying to complete) I mean, that's not the purpose of literature, or...
Nadeem: I wonder what that is ... maybe I am not the right person to ask what the purpose of literature is because I am the writer. No, no, no. This is, this is for academics. But if it's used, and if it's germane to the work that you are doing... I mean political horror is at the centre of the new testament. What is the death, the story of the death of Christ about, if we look at it through a purely non-religious, secular point of view? It's about political corruption, political intrigue, etc. etc. So some of the more basic stories we know are about that.
So politics is not the only thing in my novels. And I perhaps am not the right person to say what a novel is for because as I have said it so many times before I never ever think of a reader or an audience when I am writing. My only critics, my only audience etc. etc., are the characters in the novel. So the main central critics of the novel are the people inside the novel, they will tell me while I am writing: No, no, no I wouldn't say that; no, no, no I wouldn't speak like this; no, no I don't believe this; think about me purely enough; go back and rethink me, because no, I don't think I would do this.'
Secondly, the idea that I have always expressed is that I never try to connect with any one I am not interested in. I am just exploring my own life and my own - the workings of my own consciousness, the workings of... the workings of the world around me with its various elements, political, social, anthropological, economical, historical and how they come into me. But I, but the books do seem to connect with people. I give readings and people come up and say, this spoke to me. I get letters that say I spoke to you, that this spoke to me. I think that happens because I always begin with the conviction and I said in my Granta piece as well... When Granta did the Pakistan issue, they asked us to write something for the website and I wrote a piece called 'Where to begin.' You can look at it. And I said that (pause) I, and it is my deepest conviction that I am... that there is nothing extraordinary about me, that I am an ordinary man... who is just one of the six billion people on this planet. So once you begin on that level of feeling, you immediately begin to think of what is universal.
If I am feeling this, there is every possibility that somebody else out there is feeling it too. But if I begin from a pedestal thinking I am higher than anybody else, I am better than anybody else, I am more intelligent, more wise than anybody else, this thing is happening because I am all these special things, there will be a disconnect. So the thing is that, that, true writing perhaps is writing on a mirror in that when you are writing it's your own face behind the words, so you're writing. But when you finish and hand it to the reader, it's not your face behind the words, it's the reader's face behind the words. Does that make sense?
So those universal things then speak to the reader or the reader looks at them and says, that looks like me, the person behind the words is me. And so that is why the things connect. That is how you end up thinking I am worried about the Iraq war (pause), right? Then you begin to think that well, I have a feeling that someone else might be worried about the Iraq war as well.
Nauman: Okay, why the conscious decision to include a cameo by Wamaq Salim?
Nadeem: Well, that's the pen-name of my father. When he was young, he used to write poetry and coming from a non-affluent background and (pause) meaning by that time he was 21, 22, 23. His wasn't an elite background or an upper-middle class background where you had certain leeway. By the time he was a young man, he had to go out and earn a living. And the social setup was that a marriage was arranged for him, then the kids came very early. He had no say in all those things, so there was never time to write, so all my life I felt that there was a kind of wound in my father, that he felt that his real life didn't happen. And so now, Wamaq Salim is mentioned in all of my novels and he will be mentioned in all of my subsequent novels as well. And I will now, I will then write a trilogy. I am now working on a novel about Pakistan's blasphemy laws. And after that I am going to begin a trilogy which is about the poet Wamaq Salim. So once the trilogy is out, certain things in my previous novels will be understood. People will think, oh I see, this is the man whose story we are reading over 1500 pages of the trilogy. So, I decided way back when I was 23 that was what I wanted to do with my father's life. I have done for him in my books what he couldn't do in real life because of me. I've made him Pakistan's great poet.
Nauman: It just seems amazing, I mean this not a question, do you plan, do you plan in advance, I mean because you plan to do these novels and everything seems so, sort of, connected and thought out and I mean, how do you do that? I mean in retrospect, I mean, its...
Nadeem: No, no, no, no well certain things happen in retrospect, certain things you do plan. I have eleven more novels to write.
Nauman: How do you know that at this stage?
Nadeem: No, I, no, no, I will tell you. I always begin with the subject matter, always. People talk about... I write that a character appeals to me or a character came to me or a situation came to me, a story came to me, or an image came to me and I decided to write a novel about - no! I always begin with the subject matter. And then I go and look for the characters who are most suitable and will illustrate best the complexities within that subject matter; the despair in that subject matter, the hope in that subject matter. So, it's a very conscious decision. I wanted to write about honour killings, I wanted to write about female infanticide, I wanted to write about the war in Afghanistan. So subject matter comes first. And you say how much of that is planned? Some of it is planned, some of it isn't. I mean, this book takes place in Heer (a fictional town).
Nauman: In Heer, that's what I was going to ask you about next, you know that...
Nadeem: (Irrepressibly) Heer Ranjha, you know what the story is about... It's a Romeo Juliet story. The legend of Punjab. And, um, it is quite a simple story. You know two lovers in love, and they can't be together and they die but over the centuries, over the decades, it has been imbued, has become infused with an element of rebellion.
There are moments which poets, writers, painters have taken and elaborated upon and turned this basic love story into the story of rebellion - Heer (the heroine) becoming the rebel because she was the one who rebelled, if you remember. She said to Ranjha, let's run away and Ranjha said no. He actually accused her of treachery... that women are treacherous, that you want to break away from the family ... no, no, no, we have to find another way and she was saying no, to hell with it all, let's, let's just leave them behind because this is unjust and he was saying no, we need to negotiate, you know woman, you can't run away. So it becomes a very complex thing.
So, Udham Singh, who murdered General O'Dwyer, who was the Governor General of Punjab at the time that the Amritsar Massacre took place in 1919; Udham Singh held General O'Dwyer responsible for... and he shot him dead. He was put on trial in 1940 and he was hanged in London. When he was on trial in London in 1940, he asked to take the oath on Waris Shah's Heer. Not the Bible, not the Geeta, not the Guru Granth Sahib, not the Quran. He said bring me Waris Shah's Heer. So that, and the greatest... arguably the greatest Punjabi poem of the twentieth century, Amrita Pritam's poem about partition, in which she invokes Waris Shah's Heer, 'Aj akhaan Waris Shah noon mein, kithay qabraan wichon bol, Aj kitaab-e-ishq da koi agla wurqa phole.' You know, 'I say to Waris Shah, speak from beyond the grave.' (Dramatically) Oh! so emotional! so beautiful!.
Nauman: (muffles a guffaw)
Nadeem: So I wanted to connect myself to the legend of my land. And (I need some water). Heer (the heroine) is from a Pakistani town called Jhang, city called Jhang. And, her descendants still live there, her clan still lives there. To the rest of Punjab and subcontinent she is a heroine but to them, to that clan because she rebelled against them, she is a disgraced woman because she was the one who ran away with a lover. So, when a movie was made about Heer Ranjha, Heer's clan said it will not be screened in Jhang, not while we are alive, not while we have a say in the matter. Yeah. So, that was another thing again which a writer does privately. As I said, okay you don't want her in your town; I am going to give her an entire town (Heer, named after her). So from now on, all my novels will take place in Heer.
Nauman: Right! And it's, it's not connected to Gujranwala in any way?
Nadeem: Oh, it is... it is near Gujranwala. It's a fictional town. I think elements of it will actually be from Gujranwala, but I am... I like to have a certain freedom from the real geography. My landscapes do tend to float slightly, an inch or two, above the ground so that I can veer into a fairy tale element if I wish to.