Archive for September, 2009

If you’ve read any books that take place in England in the last 20 years, you have a pretty good idea of how dramatically the influx of immigrants from India and Pakistan have changed the cultural landscape there.  However, it is rare to find – or at least I have seldom come across – novels that present things from the Pakistani or Indian point of view.  Until recently; there seems to have been an explosion of new writers, or the publishing industry finally realized there was a market. 

Anyway, Maps for Lost Lovers, by Nadeem Aslam, is one of them.  First, just listen to this voice:  “ . . . or the genius of Count Basie so unmistakeable that the stylus would seem to be travelling around the very whorls of his fingerprint” p.13.  That metaphor really caught me. 

 His description of jazz:

” . . . engrossed by those musicians who seemed to know how to blend together all that life contains, the real truth, the undeniable last word, the innermost core of all that is unbearably painful within a heart and all that is joyful, all that is loved and all that is worthy of love but remains unloved, lied to and lied about, the unimaginable depths of soul where no other can withstand the longing and which few have the conviction to plumb, the sorrows and the indisputable rage – so engrossed would the listerners become that, by the end of the piece, the space between them would have contracted” p.13-14. 

Man alive.  What a description!

The story is about Pakistani exiles in Britain.  A family torn apart by the mother who is trying so desparately to hold them together.  I keep feeling and thinking about the characters.  The book taught me so much about a world I thought I had a fairly decent understanding of.  When I closed the book I thought, “I sure wouldn’t want to be Allah, having to judge these souls on Judgement Day.”  Because according to their own interpretation of Islam, the characters are all guilty.  They have each done such terrible things, all in the name of faith, or love, or patriotism, or hope or belief.

Who is really to blame in a total system that brutalizes everyone?  That hurts and twists and deforms individuals so much that their every action is a result of the system, or a response to the system that created them?  The makers of the system are to blame, one is tempted to say.  But the reality is – each person becomes a perpetrator of the system.  Each person who acts to defend and perserve it, rather than walk away, is to blame for it.  So we are at a structure vs. agency kind of dilemma.

Let me be more specific.  Aslam has built his story around the dysfunction of individuals, families, societies and nations that comes from the perverse focus on women’s chastity.  Not just virginity before marriage, but an enormous preoccupation with a woman’s state of social and sexual and moral purity at all times in her life.  The state of every woman’s purity is the measure of her family’s worth.  Period.  It doesn’t matter what their wealth, their history, their responsibility, their actions in the community; all of that can be undone not just by a sister’s bad marriage, rape or fornication.  Oh no, a family’s reputation could be lost because a girl was seen answering a stranger’s request for directions, handing a man change, opening the door to a male delivery person when she was expecting her mother.  Accidents!

And so, if a female chooses to behave immorally, the men in her family feel they have not only the right but the duy before God to set her straight.  That also alerts the community that they do not condone her behavior, are separate from her.  Killing her is often the only way to make that perfectly clear.

The men seem utterly evil – how could they be so cruel?  They are selfish, putting their own well-being above that of the female in question.  But haven’t they been utterly deformed by this system too?  Taught from infancy that their only worth can be measured by their sisters and mothers and wives’ behavior?  Their masculinity is not under their own control, their value, their worthiness – even whether they will go to heaven.  All of that depends on women.  And at the same time, the women have no intrinsinc worth.  No value in themselves.  Since the society is segregated, boys can never come to know their sisters as people.  Same with their mothers.  Mothers are so busy trying to teach their daughters to be proper, prove to their sons that they are deserving of their loe and devotion in their old age – it never occurs – there is little opportunity for it to occur to a man or boy that his mother or sister might have dreams, feelings, hopes, desires and fears of her own.  Women are just a great canvas upon which men can project whatever they need.  So where would any man get the idea that his wife is a human being?  Especially when even his mother has prepared him to believe a woman is just there to wait on you.

The word for brother-in-law in Urdu is sura (I think) and is also a great insult.  Insult because it means – implies – “I have sex with your women.”  A man-in-law has to grate on the nerves of the righteous.  But they are a necessary evil, and the insult is compounded because women are so lowly valued that you have to beg men to take women off your hands.  You never know if you’ll be able to marry your daughers off, and marry them well, so you better be nice to this sister/daughter-sleeping guy even if he beats or abuses the girl.  Or he might divorce her.  All he has to do is say one word three times and by Islamic law, the marriage is over.  Sure, if you are in England or the United States, there are other legalities, but those are meaningless, just as are the bigamy laws.  Men take 2nd, 3rd, 4th wives at the mosque as they wish and are able.

The men are driven, then, by their need to have and maintain masculine and honorable identities in the community.  Not just their psyche’s need but economic need, and the ability to find marriages for their children, etc.

What strikes one reading the novel, as Aslam intended, is the culpability of the women.  The mothers.  After all, it is the mothers who taught the sons to feel and think this way about women.  They modeled passivity, passive aggression, insecurity, piety, etc., for their sons, and they taught their daughters to think of themselves as chattel.  “I must do this to please my parents.  I must not wear that or it would shame my father.  I must not be seen on the street, going into this store, opening the door to the mailman, speaking to a classmate, etc., because it will bring shame on the family, ruin my chances of a happy (or any) marriage, cause Allah to frown on me at Judgement Day.

The amount of energy these women  put in to arranging their lives so as to never run counter to anything in the Quran or what the clerics say the Prophet said about women’s behavior; to ensure they never encounter non-familial men and that men of the family only see them in certain circumstances.  I mean, its a full-time job!

In the story, the mother has pretty much lost all of her children, she thinks, because of England and its secular temptations, as well as her husband’s laxness.  He is Muslim, but not really a believer.  He has been a tireless servant of the community – the immigrant community, and is frankly fed up with the backwards and superstitious practices of his wife.  But he loves her and takes steps to protect her from the harshness of English society and even from her children and eventually from herself.

She, being pious and self-righteous and faithful to her beliefs and traditions, she doesn’t protect anyone.  No.  She blames him for their children leaving when it was her they couldn’t stand.  She drove them all out with her insistence on the things I’ve been spelling out, but her kids had refused.  They had seen the craziness of the system, maybe because of their father, and rejected it. 

It’s hard to summarize quickly what she did, what her great sin was, which makes Aslam’s achievement all the greater.  We see it unfold, her betrayal of them each, over and over, when she thinks, she believes, that shes saving their souls and their earthly lives by bringing them back into the fold of the Paki Muslim community.  For example, she encourages her teenage daughter to marry a cousin in Pakistan as a cure for a teen heartache.  A cousin she’s never met in a village she’s never visited.  This after she’s told her daughter that the first two decades belong to the husband, but the rest of life belongs to the wife, as whe will have bent the children to her and can use them against their father.  She has modeled for her daughter a need to be always concerned with what the neighbors think, as well.

When her daughter’s husband becomes horribly abusive, burning her with cigarettes, putting sewing needles in her thighs and half strangling her, along with calling her an English whore because she once made a motion of pleasure during sexual intercourse, the daughter leaves him.  She doesn’t want to hurt her mom, so she lets her believe she is the faithless, bad child who walked away from a deserving husband, and has to listen to her mother berate her, beg her to go back to him, and brag about him to others – for years.  The daughter could have told her mother the truth, but 1) the mother had created an atmosphere in which her children felt they needed to protect her, and 2) the mother just assumed the fault was with her child.  She never asked any questions, never tried to find out what life was really like.

The sons had to be on good behavior so their sister could make a good match.  Their dreams of art and science were pooh-poohed as not serious, not real.  When the younger grew rebellious, she consulted a cleric and was given blessed salt to sprinkle on his food.  He had it analyzed; it was salt-peter, to chemically castrate him and make him docile.  When they had both left her she consulted a kind of Muslim mafia that specializes in finding strayed children and bringing them back with whichever level of violence you ask for.  A couple of broken arms?  Beatings with belts everywhere but the face?  Whatever you pay for.  She didn’t hire them, but the fact that she consulted them makes it so that when her husband finds out about their existence and opens and investigation, they beat him within an inch of his life and he cannot go to the police because of her.  He can’t even tell her – protecting her from her behavior, again.

But mostly it is the constant, daily tenor of her life and speech.  She refuses to hear a negative word about Pakistan, Muslims, or Islam.  She flat out refuses to believe it, kind of like some of the Americans I can think of who refuse to hear any negative truth about America.  If someone persists in telling her some news, she’ll say either, “That is British propaganda to make us look bad,” or “Why are you trampling on the love of the one who loves you most in the world?  Who gave you life?  Why must you ridicule me and my traditions?”  Any hint of contradictions in the teachings of the clerics, their interpretation of the Quran, or any other bordering on heresy sends her into threats of hell and Judgement Day, genuine fear for their souls and bouts of praying and fasting.  She is rigid and immovable.

She is always watching others in the community the way she expects to be watched, and is quick and harsh in her judgments.  While she is kind to the women and children and clerics in her community, and she does attempt to be charitable and compassionate in her own head, while she is sorting through what her response to something should be, her instinct may be to be compassionate, but she’ll start doubting herself, wondering if she isn’t or wouldn’t be breaking some rule.  So out of fear, she ends up erring on the side of harshness, over and over again.  When she wants to reach out to a pair of lovers (who get murdered) because she recalls with empathy and compassion that everyone falls in love before they marry – she really wants to.  But then she remembers that to condone a sin is the same as committing the sin oneself.  If she is compassionate to the lovers, the sin of adultery will be added to her list on Judgement Day.  So she condemns them with all the rest.  Refuses to speak to them.

In her favor, she does try to get the woman’s husband to divorce her so she can marry her lover, if only in the Muslim way.  Three simple words.  The man is resistant though, and won’t do it.

Even at the very end, when she has been confronted with her role in much of the tragedy, and the cause of her children’s fligh, and her own loneliness and bitterness, and she’s been shown the mosque she had trusted over her family has been shielding a child molester and a swindler, not to mention the murderers of her son, so as “not to make Islam look bad.”  Even after all of that, she refuses to admit any part.  She remains in total denial.  She says she’s going to kill herself but then she launches into a tirade in which she blames absolutely everything on her husband.  Who takes the means of death out of the house to keep her safe and accidentally freezes to death.

The woman is a monster.  A monster of need and faith – no, ignorance and belief and denial and small-mindedness and refusal to change and fear and insecurity . . . But how did she get that way?  Didn’t her mother model much of that for her?  And didn’t England brutalize her country and then her person, her family and her faith?

It gets to be too hard to apportion blame.  What about responsibility?  Does that make it easier?  Because I do believe we are responsible for our lives.  If not what we are dealt, certainly how we play.

The husband/father was a product of the same system in Pakistan, but he began, even in Pakistan to throw off the chains.  Of course, he had a father who discovered he’d been born a Hindu, but he didn’t know that until much later.  He saw in England an opportunity to make a new, better society and he dedicated his life to achieving it.  Maybe he didn’t do enough.  Maybe he should have interfered more with what his wife was teaching their children.  But maybe not; all of his children eventually chose their own lives.

And so did (and do) others, both in England and the U.S. and in Pakistan and all over the world.  What about Benizeer Bhuto?  All the other Pakistani women and men working tirelessly to improve women’s lives?  All of those who left Islam, and all of those Muslims working to reclaim an Islam that comes down on the side of compassion and mercy, not vengeance and justice.  That takes individuals who were created by and are fully part of a system – but who are saying “NO! I think this system is wrong.” Or this part of the system is wrong.  So everyone that doesn’t say that, who sees the wrong but keeps perpetuating it out of fear and weakness and brokeness?  What is their – my? - our? – status?  Responsible.  Maybe not “to blame” or “at fault,” but certainly they must carry the weight of that responsibility.

Aslam has written a powerful piece of work; while it takes us deeply into the world of Pakistani immigrants in England, it helps illumine issues in our own country and our own lives, as all great literature should.

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