Imagine a town called ‘Dasht-e-Tanhai’ (Desert of loneliness), a town with Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi immigrants... A town whose residents struggle to hold on to their customs, beliefs and traditions in the face of changing times and circumstances... and you can be sure that the story will be one that is familiar... it doesn't matter that the town is in England.. Far from the roots of the immigrants who have rushed there to escape their fate in their homeland, and yet struggle to grasp the frail threads that tie them to their origins. Yes, the story is familiar. We have heard, or at least read in the papers, about the young lovers who are killed for going against the wishes of their elders.....we are so aware of the fear parents have, that their children will fly the coop someday... find their wings and live their own life.. their own way... Today, as I opened the newspaper, the first article I set eyes on, was one of a minister suggesting that the best way to avoid girls being raped was to get them married at an early age! Yes, we are familiar with such stories, however shocking they may be. It is such stories which make up the book, ‘Maps for Lost Lovers’, by Nadeem Aslam. What sets the book apart, from the ‘familiarity’ of the stories, is Aslam’s beautiful prose and the way he handles the characters, who stay with us long after the book is over and done with!
The central thread running through the book is the story of Jugnu and Chanda – lovers who decide to live together, and thus invite the ire of not just their relatives, but almost all the residents of their town. The book begins with Jugnu’s brother Shamas welcoming the first snow of the season and mulling over things.... we learn of the happenings through the characters themselves, but it is always the author telling us their story.
Of Shamas, the well educated, literate man who marries a woman from his hometown, finding a way to break the customs that forbid him from making any contact with his betrothed.... a man who immigrates to England in search of a job....who might have been awarded the OBE, but chose to hold on to his principles, who chooses to live out his life in the small town he came to, helping his fellow immigrants find their foothold in their adopted country... helping them deal with issues they have never faced. Not surprisingly, Shamas is one of the few residents of the town who actually thinks clearly, without being held back by the tenets of his religion. But, like many men from the subcontinent, he chooses to hold back his thoughts, and it is rarely that his soft voice of reason is heard above the much louder shouts of faith, which dictate rights and wrongs.
Shamas’ wife Kaukab is beautifully portrayed. She is the daughter of a cleric, and her thoughts and ideas remain true to those she has been brought up to believe are right. She fulfils the role she believes is hers – to cook and clean for her husband and children, to make sure they are well fed, taken care of, and taught the same things she had been taught as a kid. She is completely cut off from the outside world. She meets only those of her own kind in the town she inhabits, even hesitating to talk to a white woman or go outside the town’s boundaries to buy groceries from another store than the one she is used to. Is it any wonder then, that she lives in another era, and expects her children to toe the same line that she did? She is a character who is common even today, we see them all around us, and usually, we would at least dislike such a person, for the wrong they inflict on their family in the name of love, but Aslam makes us feel sorry for her... Her shock at her children breaking free of her restrictions is no surprise, and in many ways, well deserved, but you can’t help feeling sorry at her bewilderment at their actions.
Jugnu is Shamas’ brother – a lepidopterist – who collects moths and butterflies. He has been around the world, and is just as open minded as his brother, but unlike him, outspoken. It is he who introduces his nephews and niece to the outside world, telling them interesting things about butterflies and what he has seen and experienced on his travels.
Chanda is the daughter of the local shopkeeper – the loved daughter after whom they have named their grocery shop. Thrice married, twice divorced, Chanda has had her share of troubles and has earned the disapproval of her family as well as her neighbours.
Chanda and Jugnu fall in love, but can not marry, since her third husband, an illegal immigrant, has disappeared, and thus she finds herself tied to him against her will. She can not divorce him, but she can not marry Jugnu either, so the two decide to live together, thus sowing the seed that leads to the whole story.
We learn about Jugnu and Chanda through the other characters... they never appear directly, since they are dead before the story begins. Chanda’s brothers are arrested for killing their sister and Jugnu, but no bodies are found. The story starts on the day the brothers are arrested, and ends on the day of their sentencing. But this is not a detective story, or a murder mystery. It is not even a quest for the truth. Every character is curious about what has really happened. Each of them have their own theories... each of them has a justification for the honour killing. But the story is not just about the killing. The book takes us through the lives of those living in Dasht-e-Tanhai, giving us a glimpse of the life they lead, the issues they face, and of course, how they deal with their issues.
As I mentioned earlier, none of these stories are new. The Sikh girl prohibited from meeting her lover, because he is a Muslim...... the mistakenly divorced girl desperate to find a man ready to marry and divorce her, so that she can go back to her husband and child in Pakistan..... the son who tries his best to study medicine, or at least something close to it, but fails and fails again till his white girlfriend convinces him to do what he wants to – study art..... the daughter who leaves her husband, but hides the fact that he has beaten her... the stories are familiar, as are the characters, but the beautiful prose brings them to life.
The charm of the book, for me at least, lies in its prose. Whether he is describing the lake –
“..............the stones are covered in wet moss, bringing to mind the broken pulp of a squeezed lemon, and to stand up to the waist in the calm summer water is to become two-headed like the jacks and queens on playing cards, right side up either way. On the shore the winds rush from every direction during the winter months to twist themselves around the body like a sari......”
Or simply describing the fruits available in the market –
“Mangoes the colour of copper pots................... guavas whose flashing pink insides are like a burst of poetry and the red pears which everyone is always reluctant to peel because you want to eat the colour, wishing eyes had tastebuds.”
The words simply weave a magic, which takes the story to a completely different level.
I am usually a quick reader, but it took me more than a week to read this book. I found myself slipping into thoughts that had found their way into my head, unbidden, and they stayed there long after I finished the book. I have two new books on my table, but I have yet to open them, because I can’t see myself taking in anything else till I am done with this one. Hopefully, writing this review will do that!
P.S. This book was sent to me for review by Random House India.