Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam
First thing that I loved about this book was its soothing cover in many soft colors depicting the butterflies, insects and moths that I would later discover serve as the metaphors throughout the story. Divided in four seasons, the story takes you through a year in the lives of the residents of Dashte-e-Tanhaaii – a fictional town in England where the immigrants from Indian subcontinent, primarily Pakistan live. The family through whose eyes the story is told comes from another fictional town in Pakistan called Sohni Dharti. The names of two imagined towns depicting the state of mind of the characters as they always see what they left behind as beautiful and what they have as lonely place. Author puts the torch inside the Pakistani immigrant society living in England sometime in 1980s and 90s as indicated by the presence of Nursat Fateh Ali Khan.
Story looks at the mental state of the first generation migrants who are torn between their home culture and adopted culture. The children in next generation adopt the new culture to a different degree depending on if parents or friends had more influence on them, but having grown in the western world they understand that culture more easily and comfortably than their parents. There is conflict when it comes to following the religion and the attitude towards it. There is a conflict between what is acceptable on the basis of religious norms and what the society of the place expects. There is a conflict between parents and children all the time, between husband and wives and between people of same subcontinent but different religions. The protagonist family is a couple with three grown up children all of whom have left home to lead their own lives. The wife is devout Muslim lady, daughter of a cleric and she takes the burden of this very seriously on herself especially when she discovers that her father in law was a Hindu by birth. Her husband is a liberal, does not get caught in the dogmas of religion and thinks of the larger society before thinking about himself or his family. They depict the two ends of a continuum and rest of the characters fall somewhere between them. Each character has a secret life that they think no one else knows but fiber of the society is such that some people always know about it.
The thread that binds the story together and provides movement to it is the unraveling of the mystery of the murder of two lovers who were living together without being married. The unwinding of the story introduces many characters, who are either linked or get linked in the process. It takes you through the minds of characters most of whom are so rigidly bound by the expectations of the society that they can get barbaric without even blinking an eye, even towards their own kin. Women are so concerned about what others will say that they stop living and they are so bound by what the religion says that they can get inhuman towards themselves and their families. The longing in both the countries to be in the other shows the human nature that is always ignoring what it has and longing for what it does not have.
The language and treatment of the story is what you can fall in love with. The use of names, metaphors in nature and non-judgmental approach of author lets you go around the characters and situations. Events unfold slowly and in every chapter you learn something new or see a twist that keep your interest intact in the story. You do not hate or love any character. You almost go through their situation and probably get a hint of what is in their hearts and minds. At places he introduces you to the nuances of the society he is describing like what are considered marks of excellence in a man. Like here he describes how even things in England spoke different language: ‘A heart said boom boom instead of dhak dhak, a gun said bang instead of thah, things fell with a thud not a dharaam, small bells said jingle not chaan chaan, trains said choo choo instead of chuk chuk.’ Through the love story of Sassi Punnu , he talks about how women from time to time have tried to rebel against the world held in their fist by clerics, and how Sufi poets have tried to give voice to them by making them an integral part of their poetry that is still sung after many centuries.
Poetry has been used to convey the subtler mood of loneliness, of standing alone in a crowd, like these two lines by Munir Niazi:
Kuj sheher de loke vi Zalim san
Kuj mainoon maran da shauk vi si
His own translation is’ On the one hand, the city surrounding me was easily provoked. On the other hand, I was curious about ways of dying’. Thank God for the Punjabi I understand, I loved his small little poems and references in Punjabi.
Read this sensitive book to understand a society that you might have seen, for the lovely language and for the sensitive treatment of the story by the author.
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