Monday, January 16, 2006

Maps for Lost Lovers (1)

When I went to university, I shared an assumption with those that taught and studied there that the study of books, of novels and poetry in particular, would give me something beyond an exit from the mundanity my world; it would give me entry to that of others', the most alien reality of all, and thus would I grow in what was one of the most important ways a human being could grow. This tenet of Victorian education may look a little ridiculous now; however, it was the bearer of an optimism that I cannot reject when an equally delusional writer puts it on offer. Amin Maalouf's Leo the African makes me feel like this. So does Maps for Lost Lovers, the second book by Nadeem Aslam, though a brief plot summary would make you wonder if, to draw any positive feeling from such a story, I nurtured an implacable sadism towards all humanity.
Set in the Pakistani ghetto of an unnamed English town, its central characters are Shamas and Kaukab: he, an unreformed communist and non-believer who now works in 'community relations' and occasionally opens an Urdu bookshop; she, a mother who has lost her children to an alien and godless culture and whose faith is the only firm rock in a world that has not been kind to her. The three children are long gone, assimilated, westernised. Worse still is the disappearance of Shamas' brother Jugnu and his twice-divorced lover Chanda, presumably murdered by Chanda's brothers to avenge their outraged honour. Now the police have arrested the brothers. Most of the plot of the book takes place between this arrest and the trial.
The picture Aslam paints of Islamic culture as lived by these people is not a pretty one. Its colours are those of fear, superstition and violence to maintain the dominance of a religion that encourages or condones forced marriages, the subjection of women and punitive murder for any threatening infractions of its code. The violence done to Jugnu and Chandra is only one instance of many. Moreover, the one character who survives more or less as she started is the character who most fully belongs to this suffocating world, Kaukab.
Now if I had read the two paragraphs above, I wouldn't have even looked at this book. Fortunately, I hadn't. (cont)

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