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.

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