In the dying pages of Nadeem Aslam’s impressive new novel, The Golden Legend, a ghost reviews his last living moments, surrounded by a posse of policemen: “All their lives they had lied, deceived, neglected prayers and fasts…brutalised innocent fellow Muslims, engaged in sordid acts…and here was salvation, the instant guarantee of paradise.” This collective hypocrisy stands for the religious and state policies that have manacled Pakistan, and which tears into and staINS the lives of all characters in this novel.
The scenes are set in Lahore, or Zamana, as Aslam calls it—a byword perhaps for Pakistan’s zeitgeist (he even replaces ‘Zamana’ for ‘Lahor’ in Paradise Lost). Nargis and Massud, an architect couple, part of Pakistan’s liberal, westernised elite, live in a tastefully adorned bungalow. The house is in Badami Bagh, a Christian—and poor and neglected—neighbourhood dominated by a mosque. Nargis and Massud are close to Lily and Grace, their former Christian servants, and their sensitive, brilliant daughter, Helen, whom they have educated as their own. Their contented world is disrupted when Massud is killed in a crossfire between two jehadis and a CIA agent on the Grand Trunk Road. The American is caught, a pious nation bays for his blood, but the ISI plans to use him as a bargaining tool with the US. An act of public forgiveness is expected of Nargis; when she refuses, she is brutalised by ISI’s Major Burhan, who also rips in half a valuable book. When Lily starts an affair with Aysha, the daughter of the old mullah of the mosque, he is only teasing fate, for this is a nation in the manic thrall of ‘blasphemy’. At this juncture, Aslam introduces Imran, a Kashmiri jehadi who has run away from a militant camp, horrified at the dehumanising savagery he is expected to inhere, and whom Nargis shelters.
When a mysterious voice announces over the mosque’s loudspeakers Lily’s ‘illicit’ affair with Aysha—Aslam doesn’t explain this promising construct—unhappy lives are tossed into the raging wind. A manhunt is on for Lily, now a blasphemer. Helen is tainted too, and her picture appears alongside her father in ‘wanted’ lists. Worse, their ‘crime’ triggers an opportunistic riot; houses of Christians are burnt down in Badami Bagh. The plot, from then on, is a story of evasion and adventure.
The Golden Legend is a state-of-the-nation novel, and Aslam has his say through many voices. Aysha’s husband hated “the politicians who were ambitious snakes, ...the arrogant military man and the fraudulent and superstitious mullahs”. Jehadis have their say too—one articulate leader lays bare the mad logic of his credo. This, while the age-old, inclusive Sufism gives way to an unsparing Wahabism. The military, the jehadis and the mullahs, locked in an often-hateful embrace, use each other craftily, creating a net of unreason that traps godfearing Pakistanis.
The brooding violence apart, Nadeem is contemplative of the nature of being, describing the natural world in lyrical, yet muscular language. He controls the plot well too.
Nowhere is this felt more deeply than in Aslam’s unflinching portrayal of the plight of Christians (Hindus get no mention)—harassed, bullied, treated as outcastes; their every touch defiling the ‘pure’, trumped-up blasphemy charges dogging their every step. Some wilt and make soul-crushing compromises; some, like Lily and Helen, stay true to their religion. Aslam turns to Kashmir and the atrocities of the ‘Indian occupation’ through Imran’s memories: ‘disappearances’ of parents and uncles, torture at the merest whim of a man in uniform, a landscape despoiled; the music of the santoor drowned out by the march of hob-nailed boots. To be sure, in the driblets of narratorial information Aslam offers to his (Western) readers about Kashmir, he repeats the Pakistani line. In the architectonic of the novel, it’s juxtaposed as a parallel to the oppressive nature of life in Pakistan.
Notwithstanding the brooding violence, Aslam is deeply contemplative of the nature of being; as a counterpoint, he descri bes the natural world in loving detail—foliages and flowers, the sky in its many hues, the turn of seasons—in language that is lyrical and limpid, yet weighted down with a lean muscularity. He proves skilful in controlling plot too—crucial details are held back, lax pools of narrative tossed at the reader, to be tautened and fleshed out later. One of his achievements has to be in maintaining a palpable sense of claustrophobia throughout.
The Golden Legend is a book-haunted novel, and the book that features prominently is That They Might Know Each Other, written by Massud’s father, about the shared history of and contact points between western and Islamic worlds. Nargis and Helen use a golden thread to mend its halved pages, a thread that stitches up the novel. Reflecting upon the chain of influences bartered on the ancient Silk road, Helen realises, “The word ‘Pakistan’ meant ‘Land of the Pure’…. And so it was that there was no absolute purity anywhere.... The Land of the Pure did not exist.”