Adding his voice is important to Aslam. Indeed, while a non-believer, he is quick to point out: “I grew up looking at Persian paintings, read Urdu ghazals, listened to stories about Muhammad from my mother while falling asleep as a child. The book in many ways is about the classic theme of Islamic literature: the quest for the beloved. The book wouldn’t be what it is without 1001 Nights, the Koran, Bihzad.” That Islamic terrorism needs to be confronted by Islamic communities, first and foremost, seems to be an idea he concurs with wholeheartedly: “I always feel I should be doing more somehow. It has been interesting to see Muslim community leaders on TV saying they had no idea there was extremism in mosques and universities. Everyone knows.”
Aslam is a novelist though, rather than a polemicist. One of the triumphs of Maps for Lost Lovers is that it paints portraits of characters with depth. At the heart of the novel is a mother, Kaukab, who alone in her family has stuck steadfastly to her faith. She, along with the other members of her family, is attempting to come to terms with the disappearance of her brother-in-law Jugnu and his lover Chanda. In reality, as everyone, including Kaukab, knows, but refuse to admit to themselves, the young couple have been murdered by the girl’s brothers in order to maintain honour. Kaukab refuses to acknowledge this violence, and its connection with her faith. She is at once the victimiser and the victimised in the novel, equally deserving of scorn and sympathy. “A system conditions its victims into being their own oppressors,” agrees Aslam. “Throughout the novel I show women trying to correct their young sons when they are not behaving in a ‘manly’ manner”.
The treatment of women is central in this novel. Though the label may be somewhat devalued, unfairly, one of the best ways to describe Aslam, it seems to me, politically, is a feminist. “How could anyone discriminate against 3 billion human beings simply because of their gender! If that makes me a feminist then I am. The Sufi poets of Islam have always used women as the rebels within their poetry – women strive and rebel and try to face opposition. Always, always it was the vulnerability of women that was used to portray the intolerance and oppression of the times. The women – more than the men – attempted to remake the world, and failed. But in their attempt they became part of the universal story of hope.”
Alsam, as a child, wanted to be a painter, and visual art remains a strong and discernible influence in his work. “Colouring pencils were the first thing I fell in love with as a child, ” he admits. “Every painter – every painting tradition – is different, of course. I wanted every chapter of Maps for Lost Lovers to be like a Persian miniature. In these miniatures, a small piece of paper – no bigger than a sheet of A4 – holds an immense wealth of beauty, colour and detail. Trees have leaves each perfectly rendered. Flowers are moments old and the tilework of the palaces and mosques is lovingly detailed. That was the aim in Maps…“.
While Aslam has written, to date, primarily about immigration and integration, or the struggle between Islam and modernity, his taste in fiction is broad, citi
ng writers like Cormac MacCarthy, Orhan Pamuk, Nayyer Masud, and John Berger as some of the writers whom he likes to read. There is one writer in particular that has influenced him, as he explains: “There is no contemporary writer I love more than Michael Ondaatje. The critic Geoff Dyer, referring to Ondaatje’s technique and writing style, once said that Ondaatje was one of the most liberating writers of our time. I agree about Ondaatje’s technique but really Ondaatje liberated me in another way: I was electrified when I came across his books during my student years: here was a man from the Subcontinent, like me, but who was writing about Jazz in New Orleans, about Billy the Kid, about Macedonians, about Italians! I had read great novels written by men and women from the Indian Subcontinent but the subject matter was either the history of the Subcontinent or the alienation of immigrants from the places the writer him- or herself was from. Ondaatje liberated me in that he gave me the entire world. Interested in Jazz? – write about it if you want, that too is allowed. Alienation of Immigrants: don’t just look at your own group, try to see what others faced.”
In a sense, it’s too reductive to suggest Aslam writes about immigration and integration, Islam and modernity etc. These form the backbone to Maps for Lost Lovers, but a glance at the dedication at the start reveals a more universal theme. The book is dedicated to Aslam’s father, “who advised me at the outset, all those years ago, to always write about love”. It is, in the broadest sense, a book about love, and the violence that goes with love’s failures, betrayals and disappointments. And it’s with this theme in mind that Aslam looks at the context where young British/Asian men go out to kill themselves and others, as happened tragically in London: “People ask me why are the younger generation of Muslims becoming radicalised? Why are they more strictly attached to religion than their parents were? It’s simple: we all know that to be an adult, to exist within the world of grown-ups, is to encounter pain and disappointment as well as joy and fulfilment. Every day friends fail us, lovers abandon us, we don’t get the rewards we deserve, we make decisions that are wrong and then we have to live with the consequences of those mistakes. But turning to religion means we don’t have to think anymore, we don’t have to make decisions anymore – we are told what to think, what to eat, what to wear, who to meet, who to talk to. Some people might say it’s serenity, but to me it’s an escape! Yes the world is unjust, but we shouldn’t want to escape from it or try to find solace only on a personal level – we should try change the world for everyone. So don’t run away – get involved.
This is what is happening with the younger generation of Muslims: they are leaving home and entering the wider world are encountering pain and disappointment – the way we all do – and quickly renouncing the world because it has hurt them. We must keep an eye on the mosques – if a youngster is disillusioned he should not have the opportunity to fall into the hands of the extremist mullah – let him channel his disappointment and make great works of art. More libraries and art schools and film institutes – less mosques.”
For a book filled with detail, poetry, and affection, there’s also a righteous anger in Maps for Lost Lovers directed against the ‘teachers’ encountered, the ‘holy men’. Incorporating documented cases from both Pakistan and England, Aslam illustrates the violence promoted institutionally, all in the name of protecting the community and faith. “If a person isn’t allowed to teach children in schools without a diploma, without a degree, without training, why on earth should we let people loose on impressionable minds in religious schools without screening them first?” he questions. “It’s absurd. If the school syllabus has to be government approved, why is the syllabus in the mosque not looked at by independent authorities? But attempts at integration will go only so far. For example, no amount of government legislation is going to prevent people from marrying their sons and daughters to first cousins. In Yorkshire, Muslims are 10% of the population but within the next decade more than 80% of children born with birth defects will be to parents who are Muslims from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. It’s a distressing figure but they keep marrying their children off to cousins. So do we have a law that says you cannot marry first cousins? In my novel a child learns about the ‘facts’ of existence from the mosque and proceeds to tell his white classmates that their mummies and daddies are all going to hell for eating pork and drinking alcohol. Can we legislate against that being taught in the mosques when that actually is one of the fundamental tenets of Islam?”
Aslam’s next book, which hopefully will take less than 10 years to complete, is provisionally entitled The Wasted Vigil, and “deals with CIA’s involvement in third world affairs, and it would be my only novel that will not have Pakistani characters in it.” It’s an intriguing prospect from an important writer, who despite the political currency of his work remains very much an artist. Describing his aim with the next book he responds: “I am stripping down the details and am concentrating on the human figures. Something like a Caravaggio, like Goya”.