Book: The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

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The Blind Man’s Garden tests plausibility to the limit. Pointy-headed literalists and probability theorists may find its leaps of hope and faith a touch more risible than balletic. Dough-headed romanticists and believers in love’s ineffable power to subvert the forces of evil will kiss its pages and hail its ending with a tear of sobbing joy.

The Blind Man’s Garden by Nadeem Aslam

Faber & Faber, 409pp, £18.99

The book is a poem disguised as a symphony painted in colours cataclysmic. If read from a distance it stirs the heart and makes you gawp – with admiration or incredulity. Read it up close and it reveals itself by increments as a work of subtle intelligence and craft. If it thinks with its heart it’s because it possesses both intelligence and passion.

The story bestrides Pakistan and Afghanistan, “a cold and barren frontierland of life.”

Nadeem Aslam was born in Pakistan in 1966 and came to Britain in 1980 during his father’s political exile. Subsequent visits to his birth-land and frequent forays throughout Afghanistan seem seminal to the creation of stunning descriptions of that beautiful, tragic terrain, underpinned by the author’s engagement with and compassion towards the politics, hypocrisy and corruption that have yielded the ugly facts of human conflict there.

Pakistan echoes through the mind of the book’s hero, Mikal, as “a disgusting, repulsive country where everyone it seems is engaged in killing everyone else, a land of revenge attacks… a country full of people whose absolute devotion to their religion is little more than an unshakable loyalty to unhappiness and mean-spiritedness, and (where) the white man continues to laugh with eyes full of hatred and accusation…”

In Mikal’s mind there is bewilderment and anger at the thrust of these allegations, specifically anger at the role the white man’s culture (perceived as American intervention) has played in Pakistan’s demise. It is to the war zone where Americans, allied with warlords, take on the Taleban (are they “Warriors of Allah” or “Thugs with Korans”?), that Mikal proceeds from the town of Heer with his brother, Jeo, a trainee doctor, to help the wounded in the conflict, eager altruists to the slaughter.

At home they leave Rohan, Jeo’s father, (Mikal’s foster-father), Naheed, Jeo’s wife by an arranged marriage, and Tara, Naheed’s superstitious mother. Rohan’s sight is fading. His garden – surely a metaphor for his life, replete with its cruelties and balm, its colours and shadows – brings him plangent, bitter-sweet memories of Sofia, his long-dead wife, Jeo’s mother, a liberal humanist whose doubts about Islam’s teachings he’d disrespected.

Yet by far the greater guilt – and the nub of the narrative as it unfolds – is that shared by Mikal and his sister-in-law, having pledged themselves in secrecy to each other prior to Naheed’s marriage to Jeo. When the foster brothers find themselves in battle, Jeo glimpses Mikal’s cache of secret letters in Naheed’s hand. Is brotherly enmity unavoidable?

Nadeem Aslam dodges the question, for, at this point the plot reels shockingly in a Hitchcock-moment of unexpected horror, bringing a narrative change of direction.

Whatever has happened up to that instant feels like a pretext for what is to follow. Mikal is captured by the Americans, and our attention shifts to Rohan, Naheed and Tara, sick with anxiety, not knowing the two men’s fates. This double focus is maintained — cutting between Mikal’s adventurous escape and the domestic turmoil back home, where Islamic militants are planning to bomb a local Christian school in which two of Naheed and Rohan’s and Tara’s extended family are employed.

Of the several pursuits that drive the action, the search for reconciliation with loved ones dead, and the search to recover those still alive, are the most compelling. While Aslam provides dark lessons in history – distant and recent – to contextualise the militancy of Islam in its conflict with western powers, it is at the level of love and intimacy, of simply being accountable unconditionally for one’s actions, that the themes of the novel cohere.

Will Mikal succumb to a beautiful village girl (thus betraying his feelings for Naheed)? Will the undercover American stalking Mikal, seeking revenge, succeed in his mission? Will Rohan and Tara come to terms with their awful memories and guilts?

From these weighty concerns floats a wishful conclusion, set in the garden, where flowers like Braille caress Rohan’s finger tips and Naheed awaits her true love, and hope takes flight.