06 May 2011
This review was published six years after its submission to a small literary magazine, Oyster Boy Review
Oyster Boy Review Volume 19, Summer 2011
Maps For Lost Lovers
384 pages, $25 (hardcover).
Reviewed by Hemant Sareen
The 2004 Man Booker longlisted Maps for Lost Lovers' release was accompanied by quaint, almost embarrassing, stories of the author’s self-confinement—complete with blacked-out windows—during the eleven years it took to write a book that had come to possess him. Even the more fetching prospect of a Muslim, a Pakistani one at that, writing a courageous book taking on big themes of Islam and the West, Identity and Immigration—themes that evoke book-burning mobs and fatwas as much as jumbo jets jabbing concrete—hinted at a self-conscious earnestness bordering on the vain. In fact, the absence of fatwas belies the potency of the statement on Islam and cultural conflicts of our time that Aslam’s beautiful,though often self-indulgent and an obsessively crafted manifesto-like, book makes.
In an unnamed English town, a live-in Muslim couple, Jugnu and Chanda, have been missing. The novel opens with the news of the arrest of the suspected murderers. Apparently an “honor killing”—a common phenomenon in Pakistan and as recent reports suggest, the U.K. too— carried out by the girl’s brothers for bringing shame on the family and Islam. The book follows a year in the life of the two families living in the shadow of the gruesome murder. The illusion of the effect having preceded the cause soon vanishes as the family, while coming to terms with grief and their own humanity, finds itself inching inexorably towards more potential tragedies, averted, if at all, only through either enlightened or timorous com- promise and the more drastic and often hazardous flight from the oppressive Islam and family.
Peacocks, moths, and parakeets flit across the brooding and menacing sullenness of Dasht-e-Tanhaii—“Desert of Loneliness,” a sobriquet the immigrants give their adapted town as much to claim as to repudiate it—their natural and instinctual existence mocking Islam’s un- natural repression. Moths, the creatures of light and darkness, are leitmotifs—used along with a profusion of symbols, almost to the point of contrivance—to resonate the ambivalence of human desire that Islam seeks to negate. The fatal attraction of moths for flame is a kitschy staple of popular Urdu and Persian poetry: flames of both love and religion allure and then burn the seeker. They add to the sense of tragedy that hangs over Dasht-e-Tan- haii’s garden of Eden rife with whispers of love, prayers, blasphemies, rumours, and confessions.
Shamas, Jugnu’s liberal brother, is drawn into adultery, as he strives to retain a humanity that, the book suggests passionately, Islam erodes. Kaukab, Shama’s wife, is the perfect hostess and matriarch, feels her authority waning amongst her near-apostate and rebellious children, the westernized second generation: they instinctively place Kaukab at the centre of the forces that killed their uncle. Silencing her mind to bring her own instincts to conform to her faith in a Mobius-strip logic, Kaukab condemns her brother-in-law’s murder, but can’t help denouncing his “sin” also.
Aslam uses Kaukab to look unsparingly at the practise of Islam and at the Koran that lends itself so easily to literal reading. She is the zealot-in-the-kitchen, who raises the bar of everyday piety to such heights that the suicide bombers’ jacket is the logical and just a small step away in the continuum.
There is no reconciliation in the family, representing various tensions within modern Islam.
A Little Pakistan, that cohabits with an indifferent West, and in continual hostility to it, the town is populat- ed with characters, major and minor, all fleeing from liv- ing hells from across the Islamic world, only to find them replicated here in cruel exactness: another place where a million mutinies flare up and are continually quelled in the name of Islam. The enclosing West’s primary act of hostility is not its racism but its alluring permissiveness, that threatens to entice young Muslims away from their faith and families. The causes for the West’s Islamopho- bia are sought in the unmindful indoctrination of hate against the “brothel” West, that “ordinary,” “decent” Muslims subject their children to. Around Dasht-e-Tan- haii, a common curse is to wish someone that their son marries a white woman. The huge chasm between the two cultures makes the crossover to freedom and sanity of the West an extremely hazardous journey.
Aslam is more faithful to his literary roots than he might seem to his creed. His immersion in Urdu lan- guage and literary culture makes the prose redolent with “perfumed longueurs of an Urdu lyric”—full of nuanced observations, if at times epicene. Abundant references and similes mnemonically link the twin milieus of the Pakistani immigrant—the immediate, and the lost and constantly recalled—vividly recreating the ethos of a Punjabi Muslim family and community. The book’s main achievement is the near-accurate, piquant translation of an elusive subculture, that often gives rise to tawdry and comic interpretations, into an international literary idiom—the breakthrough Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children achieved. Maps is a worthy follow up act.