19 May 2013

Their Language of Love

This review was first published in The Sunday Guardian.

If Their Language of Love had been published two decades ago, it would have been the exact same book. Nothing – neither the stories nor the writing – would have been any different. This is the unsettling thing about Bapsi Sidhwa’s new collection of short stories. It has no hint of stylistic distinction from the upsurge of books in the nineties from the South Asian diasporic communities of the USA. Often, they were short stories, and often they were written by female authors (Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee, Shauna Singh Baldwin), authors who are among the brightest and most beloved voices in world literature today. The books were characterised by nostalgia, otherness, migration difficulties, dislocation, cultural longing and belonging. There was always a story of a woman moving from a small town in North India to the USA to live with a man she has married but hardly knows. There was always a story that relied on oral tradition and mystical folklore. There was always a story of a child sent to America who falls in love with an American, much to the chagrin of her parents. The style was usually the sort that is described as sensuous or jewel-toned or evocative. The imagery usually involved tamarind and vermillion and spices. And often, when the subtext was not clear, it was explained in the next paragraph, like an attached study guide, with words like ‘marginalised’ and ‘identity.’

This takes nothing away from that decade or the writers who contributed to its literature. It was not even formula (can everyday occurrence be classified as formula simply because it is repetitive and frequent?). These books gave a world of understanding to an as-yet-unshrunk universe inhabited by the flurry of South Asians who had blunderingly found their way to North America. The stories gave them representation on the bookshelves of the world, assurance that their lives were being documented, that their troubles didn’t go unnoticed. And the issues they covered were terribly important for the time. But when one watches the progression of the genre (if one might call it that), or even of these individual writers, one sees how easily (and, in some cases, how magnificently) the authors have adapted themselves to the changing ways of the world, the newer concerns of immigrants, the reinvention of the self, the reconstruction of the homeland, the shift of the diasporic struggle from maplessness to mapping, from distance to re-engagement, even the rejection of well-worn Orientalist metaphors.

Sidhwa, though, seems not to have noted these changes. Her collection remains rooted in the time between Partition and the nineties, clinging to the many anxieties of that dynamic period without ever lurching towards the new century. Thematically, this is not so much of a problem, we could even consider it historical fiction. But in terms of style, tone, and voice, the datedness can be gnawing. Sometimes, the reasons for this are apparent enough: the final story, ‘Defend Yourself Against Me,’ was a chapter omitted from the final draft of Sidhwa’s seminal work, Ice Candy Man, first published in 1988. The second story, ‘Breaking it up,’ was the short story that was later expanded into her novel An American Brat, first published in 1993. In this story, when the protagonist Zareen travels from Lahore to Denver to visit her daughter, Sidhwa writes: “They breakfasted at McDonalds and lunched at Benihana, where the Japanese chef performed a fierce ballet with his sharp knives. At night Zareen sank her teeth into a thick slice of medium-rare roast beef and shut her eyes the better to savour it. Never had she tasted the natural flavour of meats, fish and vegetables quite this way – always eating them drowned in delectable concoctions of spices at home.”

Sidhwa’s tales are certainly well-written and her characters are vividly etched-out. Two stories from the perspective of an American woman living in Lahore are particularly astute and full of sharp observations. The language is evenly elegant and the stories explore the experiences of women with the eagle-eyed insight that Sidhwa is best-known for. In ‘Sehra-bai,’ a relationship between an ailing woman and her granddaughter is described: “Although Sehra-bai indulges her granddaughter brazenly, there is a limit to the familiarity she will permit. She stops short of allowing it to undermine her authority of grandmother. Perin frequently skirts the periphery, and tests the limits of her grandparent’s tolerance. This mixture of devotion and teasing, obedience and indulgence, has forged an inextricable bond between them.”

It is a slim volume of eight stories, and each is touching in its own way. Sidhwa’s strong-willed women are intense, intelligent, witty creatures. At one point, Sehra-bai recalls with peals of laughter that when she visited the bank in her youth the employees were given official sanction to put down their pens and admire her beauty. In the title story, Roshni astutely decodes her new husband’s flamboyance and bossiness as insecurity and deals with it in her own sensible way. The final tale is one of heartrending pain, culminating in a beautiful sort of forgiveness. All of these are very lovely, as Sidhwa’s work is bound to be. But the book, finally, is a time capsule, buried for twenty years, and emerging tremulously into a world it does not acknowledge.

02 May 2013

The Blind Man's Garden

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books.
In the winter of 2001, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Centre, war tears into Afghanistan, altering the lives of so many people across the world. Nadeem Aslam’s fourth book, The Blind Man’s Garden, is the tale of two young men, Jeo and his foster-brother Mikal, who travel from Pakistan into the heart of the Afghan war to help care for wounded civilians. But war can be cruel and deceitful and they find themselves soldiers for a cause they’re not entirely sure they believe in. The worlds they have left behind are meshed together so closely that the people they love blur into one. Mikal’s brother Basie is married to Jeo’s sister Yasmin, and Jeo’s wife Naheed is in love with Mikal. Jeo’s father Rohan, the blind man of the book’s title, loves Mikal and Basie like his own sons, for their parents have disappeared in mysterious circumstances. And the two boys share “blood-love in everything but name.”

Mikal soon becomes the centre of the complex story; he is bought by Taliban soldiers, abducted by an Afghan warlord, sold to the American army, tortured by the CIA, and nursed back to health by furious Pakistani jihadists before even half the novel is over. Meanwhile, a different sort of trouble brews for the women back home. Lecherous landlords eye Naheed’s youth and beauty and fundamentalists forbid women from entering graveyards to mourn their dead. Naheed’s mother Tara has had endless tribulations since her widowhood and Rohan’s wife Sofia had to, in her own lifetime, hide her loss of faith in Islam from the world around her. The women of Aslam’s Pakistan are a distraught and fearful lot, marginalised and harassed in the name of religion. Rohan himself is a man whose zealous faith and fear of damnation have misled him to unspeakable cruelty in the past.

Where Aslam is at his best is when he conjures two-edged tonalities for his greyer characters. In Rohan, the idea of religion is seen as a source of desperately needed reassurance even as it acts as a force of tyranny. The students of a school funded by Pakistani intelligence agencies are practically brainwashed into acts of terrorism with loosely-coined inspirational talks of heroism and jihad. The pointlessness of war turns the protagonists quickly to frustration. Whether he is detained by the Taliban or the Americans, Mikal finds that he is physically abused and psychologically intimidated, often for information that he simply does not have. At one point, Mikal wishes he knew English just so he could ask his American torturer, “If I agree with you that what you say is true, would you agree that your country played a part in ruining mine, however small?”

For the story to unfold, Aslam relies heavily on coincidences: in searching for his son, Rohan ends up saving the life of another young lad called Jeo with the help of a ruby that miraculously appears just in time; after his wife’s death, when Rohan looks out at the city of Heer, he catches sight of a self-portrait by his wife in a distant house, leading to his first encounter with Basie and Mikal; and in the course of a desperate search for redemption, Mikal finds salvation with neat precision. The serendipitous nature of the story is perhaps justified by a narrative model that borders on magic realism, with characters who occupy dual spaces in the real and the mystical—a fakir who is weighed down by heavy chains as he wanders, looking for forgiveness; a warlord who buries his horses alive, only to have them burst out of the ground; a bird-pardoner who traps birds and sets them free for people’s prayers. This may come with a perturbing sense of primitivism when clothed so strictly in neo-Orientalist imagery, though, as Aslam’s humourless prose exploits the comforting otherness of Eastern mysticism without ever explicitly delving into the supernatural.

One terrifying thing about The Blind Man’s Garden is how willingly beauty lends itself to tragedy. The book describes acts of war, terrorism, torture, and radical ideology with alarming sophistication and nuance. Aslam’s prose is so endlessly poetic that it belies, sometimes, the starkness of catastrophe or the debilitating repercussions of aggression; at other times, while describing more mundane events, it borders on tiresomely evocative. Love and murder, war and peace, brutality and intimacy, shock and routine are all described with the same sort of sensuous magnificence. Very soon, the few straightforward and direct sentences come as rare moments of relief.

For instance, almost every chapter has a well-placed and potent description of the sky, and the book almost starts to read like a laboured, poetic exercise in weather reportage. Be it the terrorist siege of a school, a wander through the garden, or the recollection of dreams and torrid memories, a sketch of the sky is inevitable. Dawn is described as “pulsing like the bloodbeat of a living creature,” while dusk “begins to darken the air.” The sky changes color “like someone switching from one language to another” or is “full of quivering incidents of daybreak, the light slipping on the hillsides, inventing colours.” Even in the shuddering speed of escape, Aslam will pause to paint the evening sky:

"In deep twilight they cross a broad flat valley with a river and river flats in it, every bit of it scorched black where a Daisy Cutter bomb had been dropped, reducing everything to ash, pumice, lava, the sides of the hills torn up into segments, and scattered over it all is the yellow haze of the unrisen moon, the cold night falling on them out of the east, the stars beginning their slide through the black slopes."

In isolation, these are all lovely, but they blare out of Aslam’s prose with suffocating volume and intensity. Sometimes, the metaphors are so tangled and prolific that the result is a paragraph defined almost entirely by a series of dangling modifiers.

By the end, it becomes difficult to empathise or even engage with the characters’ troubles or their grim circumstances. This is especially tragic because in the light of whitewashed American rationalisation in popular media, The Blind Man’s Garden could have been a terribly important book for those trying to understand and come to terms with the decade that just passed.