Every now and then you read a book that surprises you by its combination of contraries. No matter how rich a lode of raw material a writer may have struck, nor how vast or variegated a canvas he may have appropriated, regardless even of how talented or dedicated he might be, he evokes exasperation rather absorption in his reader. Not consistently, not always but every now and then, sometimes every few pages but enough to make you put down the book, and pick it up again through sheer dint of will power. For, I must confess, were it not for the purpose of writing this review I would have abandoned Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden after the first 50-odd pages. I must also confess that the loss would have been mine. For all its ponderousness and portentousness, The Blind Man’s Garden, hides within it a story that was waiting to be told.
Shortly after the American bombing of Afghanistan, we had heard of the countless Pakistanis who volunteered to help the victims of the west’s ‘war on terror’; some crossed the porous border into Afghanistan, others flocked to shelters and refugee camps to help the waves of Afghan refugees who sought safe haven on Pakistan soil. But save for stray newspaper reports, largely one-sided depending on where or by whom they were being published, no substantial account emerged of the compulsions of those who offered help, of what they saw and experienced, let alone the reception they met at the hands of the ‘victims’. In this, his fourth novel, Nadeem Aslam takes off from his previous book, The Wasted Vigil, which had dealt with the depravity and horrors of Taliban territory. In fact, all of Aslam’s literary offering have been marked by the confrontation of the East and the West, the Islamophobia that has gripped the West and the murder and mayhem unleashed by the events of 9/11.
‘History’ is the third parent,’ so begins The Blind Man’s Garden as it sets off to explore the flawed marriage between politics and religion. It is October, a month after the attacks on the Twin Towers. American forces have launched a military offensive; the buildings, orchards and hills of Afghanistan are being bombed, for an aggrieved America has decided that there can be ‘no innocent people in a guilty nation’. Rohan and his son, Jeo, travel from Heer, an imaginary town somewhere in Pakistan, to Peshawar where the wounded and injured are being brought in. Mikal, Rohan’s foster son and the son of Communist arrested and never seen again, is also planning to offer help; while Jeo is a third-year medical student, Mikal works at a gun repair shop where a day after the West invaded Afghanistan a ‘piety discount’ is being offered to those who wish to buy an AK 47 to go to jihad. Jeo and Mikal cross the border and are promptly sold to the Taliban; they find themselves amidst a ragtag army of jihadis from the wider Muslim world: Egyptians, Algerians, Saudis, Yemenis, Uzbeks and Chechens. Jeo is killed shortly thereafter in an American attack on a Taliban fortification and a grievously wounded Mikal taken prisoner by a warlord ‘who cut off the trigger finger on each of his hands and nailed the two pieces to a doorframe along with those taken from dozens of other captives.’
What follows is an unimaginable litany of horrors: A game called ‘Nail’ where a captive is asked his age; if the boy says twelve, he is raped by twelve men, if he says fourteen, then fourteen men are sent to him all of whom keep shouting ‘Nail! Nail! Nail” as they go about brutalising him. Desperate parents of captive boys who sell off a kidney to pay the ransom seekers who may be defeated or banished Taliban, al-Qaeda gangs or rogue warlords. A room filled with the rubble of the broken Buddha and his companions. A graveyard of vandalised Russian helicopters, MiGs and Hinds covered with lichens. Blood-thirsty bandits bartering their prisoners for ransom, or failing that putting them to hard labour like galley slaves from an ancient age. With all the solemn ponderousness of a church bell, Aslam’s voice pierces through the veils of dispassionate reporting as, for instance, when he observes:
‘The opposite of war is not peace but civilisation, and civilisation is purchased with violence, and cold-blooded murder. With war. The man [a warlord] must earn millions of dollars for guarding the NATO supply convoys as they pass through his area, and for the militia he must have raised to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda soldiers alongside American Special Forces.’
Interspersed with the brutalities of a war-ravaged land and horrifying vignettes of a people desensitised by a relentless, never-ending chaos and carnage, is a tender love-story – between Mikal and Naheed, Jeo’s widow. Mikal, who reminded me constantly of Ayn Rand’s iconic protagonist, Howard Roark, because of his self-destructive idealism, who has come to Afghanistan to fight a holy war, instead finds himself wounded and enslaved, brutalised and humiliated, trapped and sold for $5000 to the Americans. Through a series of incongruous twists and turns – no less incongruous than the war that has devastated countless lives – Mikal rescues an American stranger. In the end, while the American is rescued and spirited away in a Chinook helicopter Mikal’s own fate is left ambiguous. ‘Damaged and scarred, he is still perfect’; he appears as a ghost to convince Naheed, the love of his life, to continue with her life without him. Aslam’s last words are moving and prophetic: ‘The insects weave a gauze of sound in the air. She moves towards him and her eyes are full of a still intensity – as though aware of the unnamed, unseen forces in the world, and attempting in her mind to name and see them.’ Perhaps, it is these unnamed unseen forces that govern history and the complex weave of time and circumstance.