For the cause of Afghanistan

Humra Quraishi on what makes Nadeem Aslam an intense and sensitive writer

Intensity is the very first thing that strikes one about Nadeem Aslam — from the way he looks and more so from the way he talks about himself and other issues. He moves the listeners with his intense and emotional outpourings and one is just left wondering about the effect of his written word. And to make the combination even deadlier he says that he’s carried forth an intense desire to become an artist. As of now he paints images with words and drips them with emotions. He was in New Delhi, on January 29, and that’s when one heard his views on writers and writing and on the world situation. Rather forthcoming about his own background, he minced no words in telling that he was not very proficient in English, the language in which he has written three novels, till he was 14 years old. His first novel — Season of Rainbirds — was published in 1993. The second — Maps for Lost Lovers — was published after almost a decade in 2004 and The Wasted Vigil last year.

Nadeem Aslam talks about writers, writings and the world situation in New Delhi
Nadeem Aslam talks about writers, writings and the world situation in New Delhi

Nadeem migrated to the UK from Pakistan along with his family when he was in his early teens and it was a turning point in his life. This shift not only made him more comfortable with the English language, but also opened his eyes to a new culture making him sensitive and perceptive about the changing world order.

This fact is amply reflected in his latest novel The Wasted Vigil (Faber & Faber and Penguin Books, India) where he concentrates on the modern-day Afghanistan, on what war, intrusion by the so-called super powers of the world, strife and turmoil do to a country and the to the people caught in the midst of all this. When asked why he has focused on the grim realities prevailing in Afghanistan, Aslam was rather loud and clear — "It’s time the world knows what’s been happening in Afghanistan for the last three decades or so `85terrible, horrifying tragedies `85" He projects this in a rather offbeat way — through the inhabitants and guests at the house of Marcus Caldwell, an Englishman and widower living in an old perfume factory in the shadow of the Tora Bora mountains. It is here that several stories and realities unfold. And as more characters from diverse nationalities join in, stories intensify.

Excerpts of an email interview:

Q The sub continent is going through turmoil and violence. How do you view this strain?

A I am an optimist — these are troubled times, indeed, but we must remain calm and we must not be afraid. There is a good deal of talk about the need for greater cultural exchange between the two countries. But in my view cultural exchange on its own is not going to solve anything. I understand perfectly that cultural exchange helps foster a friendly environment, but — first and foremost — we need to make sure our rulers, our political leaders, our religious figures, our generals and our spies are accountable to us, the people. The way things are at the moment, no amount of cultural exchange between the people of the two countries is going to matter if our rulers want overt or covert warfare.

Q Though you are living in England, how connected do you feel to the sub continent?

A I see myself as a British Pakistani or a Brit who belongs to the subcontinent. I am deeply connected to the place where I come from. Every time I come to India I cannot help but experience a small fear: I tell myself this could be the last time I am granted a visa as tension is always there between India and Pakistan. So I look at everything closely and carefully. And every time I go to Pakistan I fear that this could be the last time I am allowed in. I am a writer, and who knows how I may offend the Pakistan government who might punish me by refusing to grant me entry.

Q With the US troops getting concentrated in Afghanistan, what further destruction can be apprehended, together with the obvious fall-out? Comment on the changing world order and how it is affecting the average people.

A We watch carefully to see what US, Al Qaeda, and Pakistan have in mind. There has always been the idea that Afghanistan is far too important to be left to the Afghans. Generations of people in that country have known nothing but warfare. We must look at the facts squarely and must not lie to ourselves. We must identify who is behind the troubles. For example there is this myth of how the Taliban were formed: Mullah Omar put together a ragtag army when he heard that a boy had been raped by a warlord, and with the help of Allah he cleaned up Afghanistan. This is pure fiction: the Taliban were a military organization created and supported by Pakistan. No one in Afghanistan or Pakistan, or India for that matter, ever created an army because someone helpless was being victimised. The helpless are being abused every single day in all three countries.

Q There seems to be a lot of sadness running through your novel? Comment

A I wish to examine the world as it is. I do have a utopian side to my nature, I do believe that artist must try to pose a solution to some of the problems he or she sees around him, must offer solace. But that does not mean he must pretend the world isncapable of being cruel. If there is sadness in the novel its because there is sadness in the world. But my book is also full of joy.

Q Do you think that the written word makes any difference today, especially in the current political scenario? Can writers play a role in bridging divides and lessening war cries?

A I firmly believe that art is important, that books are important. My relationship with Latin America began with The 100 years of Solitude. That one book made me interested in the fate of millions of people on the other side of the planet. But it is not going to matter how I feel about Latin America (or India or Finland) if my two countries (Pakistan and Britain) decide to go to war with a Latin American country. We need to make sure our rulers are answerable to us — that they daren’t do anything without consulting us.

Q Why have you based The Wasted Vigil in modern day Afghanistan? There seem to be little apparent ties with Afghanistan — after all, you were born in Pakistan and now live in England.

A I wanted to tell Afghanistan’s story with The Wasted Vigil. I thought Afghanistan had been forgotten. This will sound like a strange statement — because Afghanistan is in the news every single day — how can it have been forgotten? But, you see, it is in the news every day because of what it is doing to the rest of the world: so many US soldiers have died, so many Pakistanis have died because of Afghanistan etc. But what the world did to Afghanistan over the past 30 or so years has been forgotten. All I wanted was to portray the reality that is there in Afghanistan. I wanted to show what destruction we humans are capable of, I wanted to portray the horrifying reality, what the Afghans are going through.