Nadeem Aslam’s book, Maps For Lost Lovers starts with this sentence in its opening paragraph: “The snow storm has rinsed the air of incense… but it is there even when absent, drawing attention to its own disappearance.”
Throughout the book, the reader has a similar sense of loss – yet, without truly being lost by the sorrow that results.
Aslam’s book, first published in 2003, talks about the lives of Pakistani immigrants in Britain – comprising of different characters each representing one aspect of society. All the characters live in the English town of Dasht-e-Tanhai (The Wilderness of Loneliness). Don’t get confused – the immigrants in the story have all given their own names to the various streets in London, and have renamed their area Dasht-e-Tanhai, the better to remember it in a foreign land with a foreign people.
The cast is a hybrid of different people, with Shamas – a gently bred, liberal man who hates the orthodox religion his wife and the community members follow – trying to find a path back to his brother, Jugnu who was killed along with his lover Chanda. Shamas’ children represent the new generation that has to somehow bridge the gap between traditional Pakistani immigrants and the Britons they grew up alongside.
Suraya, who “mistakenly” got divorced in Pakistan when her husband used the ill-fated words of “Talaaq” one night when drunk; and who, according to the sect of Islam she follows, must now contract another marriage before she can be free to rejoin her husband and son in Pakistan.
However, perhaps the most powerful character is Shamas’ wife Kaukab, who was raised in a Mosque in Pakistan and then married off to Shamas who brought her to England. Her character encompasses the young bride who used to wake up her husband by twisting her still-wet hair into a yard long rope over his sleeping form and who now, after so many years of matrimony, equates sex with shame and sin; she is the mother who sends her daughter to Pakistan for an arranged marriage because she only has her best interest at heart, oblivious to the dangers her daughter might face in a land as foreign to her as its people.
And lastly, she is the woman who just can’t stop doing the right thing for everyone. As she herself puts it in a touching self-portrait, “‘I know I can’t seem to move without bruising anyone, but I don’t mean to cause pain.”
At Aslam’s hands, she becomes – instead of a complete monster at the heart of every ruined life – a mere human, with faults and pains of her own; who despite of receiving one setback after another refuses to quit and continues to do what she deems best for those around her.
Aslam’s book is a brilliantly worded masterpiece with a pot-pourri of the different social issues Pakistani muslims face, at home and abroad. He touches on the subject of honour killings by bringing into the limelight the characters of Jugnu and Chanda, who have already died five months before when the book first starts. His plot centres around cruelty, injustice, bigotry and the hypocrisy of being a Muslim.
But what is most prominent in the entire script of the book, is that despite the numerous failings of its characters, the many wounds inflicted on each person through their life; each person in the novel searching for love, despite the suffering they have been through. Love never truly steps out of the picture.
I have never been much of a fan of South Asian literature, but Nadeem Aslam’s masterpiece left me both bereaved and dizzy with the little joys of life found within its pages. This is not a book easily put down; neither is it a book easily got over.