In­tol­er­a­ble cru­elty

Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine - - Front Page -

Nadeem As­lam’s grip­ping tale set in modern Pak­istan is un­likely to rec­on­cile read­ers to pol­i­tics or re­li­gion.

The Golden Leg­end is Nadeem As­lam’s fifth novel, and a re­mark­able one. No sur­prise there; he is a re­mark­able writer, born in Pak­istan and brought up in York­shire af­ter his fa­ther, a com­mu­nist and poet, was obliged to leave his na­tive coun­try some 40 years ago af­ter the mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor Gen­eral Zia im­posed a hard­line, more se­verely Is­lamic regime, sup­ported (pre­dictably) by the USA in the years of the Cold War, when anti-com­mu­nism made Wash­ing­ton sus­pi­cious of lib­er­al­ism and ten­der to­wards dic­ta­tors.

As­lam wrote his first novel in Urdu but now writes in English. Pak­istan, that beau­ti­ful, tur­bu­lent, con­fused na­tion, re­mains his sub­ject. Founded as a Mus­lim state when Bri­tish In­dia was par­ti­tioned, it re­mains a di­vided coun­try where Is­lam ranges from the in­creas­ingly in­tol­er­ant and nar­row to the re­laxed and gen­er­ous; it is a coun­try rich in mi­nori­ties, Chris­tians and sec­u­lar lib­er­als among them. So, amidst the beauty and in­tel­li­gence, there is fa­nati­cism and cru­elty. It is a state where you may be sen­tenced to death for blas­phemy, where mur­der is fre­quent, and of­ten the work of the Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence forces. As­lam recre­ates the at­mos­phere bril­liantly, be­guil­ingly and alarm­ingly.

It be­gins with a death. Mas­sud, a lover of beauty and a dis­tin­guished ar­chi­tect, is shot one morn­ing, caught in the cross­fire pro­voked by an al­ter­ca­tion. The killer is an Amer­i­can, prob­a­bly a spy, but claimed as a di­plo­mat by Wash­ing­ton. Mas­sud’s wife, Narghis, is ap­proached and threat­ened by an of­fi­cer of the Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence who or­ders her to go to court and de­clare that she par­dons the killer – who will then be set free, as the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Pak­istan Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence and the CIA re­quires he should be.

Narghis re­fuses and the of­fi­cer beats her up; he also de­stroys a beau­ti­ful book writ­ten by Mas­sud’s fa­ther, a book which traces the in­flu­ence of the world’s civ­i­liza­tions on each other; not an ar­gu­ment wel­come in Pak­istan to­day.

Narghis has a se­cret. As a young girl she was reared as a Chris­tian. Mas­sud was lib­eral and tol­er­ant – they have all but adopted (and paid for the ed­u­ca­tion of ) a Chris­tian girl called He­len, whose mother was mur­dered by a thug, now re­leased from prison af­ter a year as a re­ward for hav­ing mem­o­rised the whole of the Ko­ran. He­len, along with a Kash­miri friend, Im­ran, with whom she is fall­ing per­haps per­ilously but yet re­ward­ingly in love, joins Narghis as the hero­ine of the novel.

Strange things are hap­pen­ing in the city on the Great Trunk Road. For weeks some mys­te­ri­ous per­son has been broad­cast­ing peo­ple’s se­crets from the minarets of the mosques. Narghis, who had never told Mas­sud about her Chris­tian child­hood, is afraid that her se­cret will be one of those re­vealed. Would her im­per­son­ation of a Mus­lim be seen as blas­phe­mous?

The plot is in­volved, no­tably well­man­aged, and the story is grip­ping. It is beau­ti­fully writ­ten and the lu­mi­nos­ity of the writ­ing ren­ders the cru­elty and in­tol­er­ance of the so­ci­ety and regime

As­lam de­picts all the more hor­ri­ble. This is not a novel to rec­on­cile you to ei­ther pol­i­tics or re­li­gion; both as pre­sented here are cruel and dis­turb­ing. They are also ab­surd man­i­fes­ta­tions of power and moral cor­rup­tion. To say that As­lam con­trasts them with the re­deem­ing in­flu­ence of love, beauty, schol­ar­ship and art might make the novel seem sen­ti­men­tal. But in lit­er­a­ture it all de­pends on how things are done, on how ideas are ex­pressed.

His Pak­istan may seem a fright­en­ing

MI­DAS TOUCH: Nadeem As­lam, who was raised in Hud­der­s­field af­ter his fam­ily fled Pak­istan.

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