Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden is a dark story of a devout Muslim, proud and penitent of the lost glory of Islam, set against the turbulent aftermath of 9/11 massacre. Afghanistan is smoldering in the grisly conflict between Al Qaeda and American forces. Wolfish local warlords are adding fuel to the hellfire by their cavernous greed and brinkmanship. Pakistan is not far behind where the religious bigots are inciting the unsuspecting locals to join the jihad against infidels. Worse, the self-styled defenders of Islam are ruthlessly ripping apart the social fabric already in tatters.
Together with his liberal wife Sofia, Rohan had founded ‘Ardent Spirit’, a school to enrich the upcoming generations with the brilliance of Islamic intelligence. Unfortunately, Sofia, gradually turns into a disbeliever. In order to redeem her soul, Rohan withholds crucial drugs from her during her second pregnancy leading to fatal complications. He rounds up and destroys her elaborate paintings recreating nature to save her from eternal perdition. He passes on his unwavering devotion to his son, flooding him with stories of martyrs who spilled their blood to the glory of their creed.
After Sofia’s death, he relinquishes the wealth received from ancestors and consequently, his rights to the school property, honouring tenets of Islam. In the process he cedes control to Ahmed, a fanatic who is a puppet in the hands of the ISI. Ahmed alters the motto of the school, step by step, to “Islam is the purpose of life and death”. The school transmogrifies into an incubator of zealots who plan and execute subversive acts in Kashmir and elsewhere. When Ahmed is reportedly killed in Afghanistan by ‘infidels’, the command slips into the hands of Major Kyra, a rabid, ruthless extremist who plans systematic destruction of Rohan. Meanwhile, Rohan’s son Jeo who is training as a doctor secretly enrolls with an agency that is sending youths to help the brethren suffering in Afghanistan. Jeo is accompanied by Mikal, also a foster son of Rohan, to the battlefronts. Both are eventually betrayed and sold to warlords who hurl them into the vortex of war between the Americans and Al Quaida. Jeo leaves behind his wife Naheeda who was in love with Mikal but was hurriedly married to him. While Jeo is not so fortunate, Mikal is captured and brutally interrogated by the US forces in a camp before he is eventually released with disastrous consequences. Beyond that, it is a story of many turns and twists where the fortunes of the main characters take wild, gratuitous and sometimes absurd swings.
The Blind Man’s Garden is a frequently graphic account of gory excesses, grisly violence, stark treacheries and abysmal conditions prevailing in the two countries where life and honour seem cheaper than filth in the gutters. However, reading Nadeem Aslam is like entering a rippling river of metaphors and imageries that liquefy the acridness of pages laden with accounts of religious bigotry and reigning decay. These images are hypnotic and hard-hitting, symbolizing much more than what seems to be at stake at the moment: the yearning of the human spirit to retain the beauty and purity of life, its dreams and emotions in an asphyxiating, decadent social order.
Aslam opens the book with a touching imagery of candles scattered across a house like injuries: “wounds are said to emit light under certain conditions –touch them and the brightness will stay on hands– and as the candles burn Rohan thinks of each flame as an injury somewhere in the house.” Soon after that we come upon the chilling symbolism of the bird snares set in the trees of Rohan’s garden without his permission. It not only foretells the fates of many of characters but is a lasting allegory of humans caught in the perilous state of affairs. Indeed, reader’s path will be littered with radiant images at every turn and he risks missing them in the blink of an eye. It is amazing how his diction moulds itself to reflect the moment’s mood, its speed, the radiance, the fragrance or sordidness. A romantic rendezvous under the night sky is captured swiftly and summarily, “She is with him at the top of his night wall, the snow leopard in her arms and the stars falling above the three of them in a tremendous living flood that reaches down to brush against them in slow currents of soft glass grit.” Somewhere in the book, there is a compelling symbolism of religion incarcerating life, when Mikal is lying outside the mosque by the lake, “Beside him on the facade, an ant is wandering in the shallow trough that forms the word ‘Allah’, carrying a grain of wheat in its mouth, trying to climb out of the word but falling back into it again and again.”
The author can choose to be very direct and brusque, as he is in the scathing outburst against what has become of “his nation where the taps don’t have water… where the butcher sells rotten meat to the milkman and is in turn sold milk whose volume has been increased by lethal white chemicals, and they both sell their milk and meat to the doctor who prescribes unnecessary medicines in order to win bonuses from drug companies… a shameless beggar country full of liars, hypocrites, beaters of women and children and animals and the weak, brazen rapists and unpunished murderers… delusional morons and fools who wanted independence from the British and a country of their own, but who can’t wait to leave it, emigrate, emigrate, emigrate to Britain, USA, Canada, Australia, Dubai, Kuwait, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Japan…, anywhere, anywhere, anywhere, anywhere, but Pakistan, they can’t wait to get out of there, having reduced the country to a wasteland, their very own caliphate of rubble.”
The book has a rather tenuous plotline, more so towards the end, but fortunately, that is not what Aslam has set out to achieve. He has vividly captured a society which is more an outcome of religious dogmatism rather than vice versa, that goes to any extremes to reinforce its fences that were invented once to sustain humans but are shortchanging humanity to sustain the moribund ecosystem now.
The Blind Man’s Garden
Author: Nadeem Aslam