Nadeem Aslam: A question of honour

Nadeem Aslam's new novel is a dramatic and moving portrayal of Muslim life in a Northern town. He tells Marianne Brace why it took him 10 years to write it
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A few minutes into our conversation, Nadeem Aslam looks startled and asks, "Is it OK if I switch my mobile off?" He stares at it as if he's never seen one before. For the last 11 years, Aslam has lived untroubled by must-have gadgetry. "I basically removed myself from the world," he explains quietly. "My life has been so reduced. I didn't have a mobile phone until I'd finished my book and could afford one, and until there was any need. Now I am trying to engage with the world - things like e-mail and the internet. I feel like Rip Van Winkle."

A few minutes into our conversation, Nadeem Aslam looks startled and asks, "Is it OK if I switch my mobile off?" He stares at it as if he's never seen one before. For the last 11 years, Aslam has lived untroubled by must-have gadgetry. "I basically removed myself from the world," he explains quietly. "My life has been so reduced. I didn't have a mobile phone until I'd finished my book and could afford one, and until there was any need. Now I am trying to engage with the world - things like e-mail and the internet. I feel like Rip Van Winkle."

For a while, he was also feeling bereft. Aslam was 26 when he embarked on his second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers (Faber & Faber, £16.99), thinking it might take two years to complete. "The only time I'm ever fully alive is when I'm writing. When I'd finished this book, I felt like a cage from which the songbird is being removed. For a month I just didn't know what to do."

Although culturally a Muslim, Aslam describes himself as a "non-believer". His Communist father - a poet and film producer in Pakistan - worked as a bin-man and in factories in Huddersfield. There was no money, so Aslam has never been back to Pakistan since his family arrived when he was 14. But he was raised with "a feeling for the life of the mind". Home was full of books, with pictures cut from magazines framed on the walls. His father always told his son to "live a passionate life" and not to worry about money. When Aslam received a Royal Literary Fund grant, he turned part of it down. "I said, 'I don't need that much'."

Aslam began writing his debut novel, Season of the Rainbirds, knowing little about agents or publishers. He sent his manuscript, unsolicited, to Andre Deutsch and within 10 days it was accepted. The book won two awards and Aslam lived on prize-money and various grants, writing Maps for Lost Lovers between Huddersfield, Edinburgh, Leicester and Reading - wherever friends could lend him a flat.

Draping the windows with black cloth, he wouldn't go out for six weeks at a time. Sometimes he would fall asleep on the floor rather than go to the bed. If he did go out he would feel disoriented. "I'd wonder, 'Why is it snowing?' because it would be summer in the town I was writing about." But seclusion was essential. "I always think of the silence and the darkness of a root that enables the flower to grow."

The fruit of this silence and darkness is a richly poetic and poignant novel. Maps for Lost Lovers spans a year in a Muslim community in a nameless English town. The 65-year-old Shamas, director of the Community Relations Council, and his devout wife Kaukab, are waiting to learn what has happened to Shamas's brother Jugnu and his young lover Chanda, who has vanished five months before. Although their bodies have never turned up, several pages into the narrative Chanda's brothers are arrested.

This is a working-class community suffocating in its intimacy and secrets. "I'm from a working-class family and I've always lived in these places," says Aslam. Shoppers gossip at Chanda's parents' grocery store over the loquats and hibiscus-flower hair oil. Here it's a neighbourhood curse to say "May your son marry a white woman", and Pakistanis with halting Eng- lish might only talk to three white people in a year - and that's three too many.

Although set in a town, Maps for Lost Lovers - unlike Monica Ali's Brick Lane - is pastoral. It follows the seasons, reflecting the emotional weather of the characters. Nature offers a vivid framework for tragic events. When Chanda first enters Jugnu's garden, the apple trees have not yet blossomed. The reference seems bridal. "That's what I wanted it to be," says Aslam. "Chanda will never see those blossoms turn into fruit because by that time she'll be dead. The trees seems to know it because they actually get hold of her veil at one point and try to hold her back."

Aslam notices everything in microscopic detail: "glint-slippered" frosts, blown rose heads lying in clumps like "bright droppings of fantastic creatures", the white fur necktie of a moth. The missing Jugnu worked as a lepidopterist and so Cinnabar, Great Peacock and Large Emerald moths flitter through the prose.

The moths are also a link to Islamic literature, one of whose central themes is the quest for the beloved. Man's search for his lover is his soul seeking God. "There are various images within the Indian subcontinental literary tradition," explains Aslam. "The moth and the flame is one." There are other Islamic literary references, too, from the Thousand and One Nights to Wamaq Saleem's poetry.

The story, however, is contemporary, brimming with cultural issues concerning Asian Muslims in Britain: racism, arranged marriages and Muslim divorce - "Talaaq. Talaaq. Talaaq" - which can deprive a woman of her security in a moment of marital rage. Aslam is sensitive to the plight of women. Indeed, he references every headline-grabber: from an exorcism that leaves a rebellious girl battered to death to the aborting of female children. "A woman in one Pakistani prov- ince is killed every 38 hours," he says, and points out that each shocking incident in the book is based on a true case. There's even abuse by a paedophile cleric, which happened, he says, in a Midlands town. "The guys from the mosque pulled a gun on the family that was going to the police."

While Aslam is critical, he also shows great compassion. The locals nickname the town Dasht-e-Tanhaii, or The Desert of Loneliness. Displaced but unwilling to assimilate, its people suffer a terrible emptiness. Shamas, a non-believer, cannot communicate with his religious wife; Kaukab, meanwhile, feels despairing because her children reject her values. Her oldest son already has a failed marriage to a white woman. Her youngest has not been home for eight years.

Is Aslam apprehensive about how the Muslim community will receive his novel? He shakes his head. "Writers have always got into trouble with people who think they know the answer." He adds that "there's no message in my books. My writing is my way of exploring my own life and the workings of my own consciousness."

Maps for Lost Lovers takes place in 1997. How different would it have been set four years later? "In a way, the book is about September 11," says Aslam. On visit- ing Ground Zero, he felt disappointed and angry. "I asked myself whether in my personal life and as a writer I had been rigorous enough to condemn the small scale September 11s that go on every day." He adds that "Jugnu and Chanda are the September 11 of this book".

Aslam explains further: "Most ordinary Muslims say, 'We just want to get on with our lives. Don't identify us with the fundamentalists.' But it's a luxury. We moderate Muslims have to stand up. As a child I was really frightened of the game Hangman. I was terrified that my not knowing the answer was going to get somebody killed. As a grown-up, I feel that a game of Hangman is being played on an enormous scale in the world, and that sooner or later I'm going to be asked certain questions, and if I don't give the right answer somebody is going to get hurt.

"America is the sole superpower and as such it must be kept an eye on. But Islam is a great religion which means it, too, is open to abuse." He adds: "Osama bin Laden and his ilk say they are distressed by the sad situation of Muslims everywhere in the world. Well, Bin Laden lived in Afghanistan, one of the poorest Muslim countries. How many hospitals did he build? How many schools and colleges, roads and networks of railways? He is a billionaire and could have done that easily. Instead he built terrorist camps."

Over the 11 years of writing, the emotional content of the novel did not alter, although Aslam says his technical skills improved. He writes longhand, which may explain why Maps for Lost Lovers has a meditative feel. "Sometimes a sentence would take a whole page of crossing out." He stringently revised, taking five years or so to get the opening chapter right and following a story about Kaukab for seven months, which he then rejected. Out of those 70 pages, he kept one sentence.

After the first two years, Aslam stopped working on the forward momentum of the novel altogether and spent four years producing 100-page biographies of the main characters. After that, "I fully understood what this family was. Then I was six years into the writing and in deep financial trouble." He laughs: "But it had to be done."

Aslam decided to use as many similes and metaphors as possible. "The characters are constantly comparing England with Pakistan, and I wanted the text to have that kind of fidelity with the characters. They do it so much that they don't see their life in England. I wanted the read- er to feel that frustration. I wanted England to shout, as it were, 'Look at me!'"

Having emerged from his solitude, Aslam is now getting used to the Chinese whispers of fame. While lunching with his American publisher, a moth appeared and circled around them, which he took to be a good sign. "A few weeks ago someone came up to me at a party and said, 'Is it true that when you went to New York to have lunch with Sonny Mehta you took your pet moth?'" And with that, Aslam bursts out laughing.

Biography: Nadeem Aslam

Nadeem Aslam was born in 1966 in Gujranwala in Pakistan. He came to Britain at the age of 14 when his father, a Communist, fled President Zia's regime and settled the family in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. He went to Manchester University to read biochemistry but left in his third year to become a writer. At 13, he had published his first short story in Urdu in a Pakistani newspaper. His debut novel, Season of the Rainbirds (1993), set in rural Pakistan, won the Betty Trask and the Author's Club Best First Novel awards, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel award. His second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers, is published this month by Faber & Faber. He currently lives in north London.

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