Name: The Golden Legend
Author: Nadeem aslam
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Price: Rs 599
In his fifth novel, The Golden Legend, noted Pakistani-British writer Nadeem Aslam takes us to Badami Bagh, a neighbourhood in the northern reaches of Zamana — Aslam’s fictionalized twin-city for Lahore — where Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws are to usher in a new age of persecution and bigotry, disturbing the little world of its chief protagonists, and offering a searing glimpse into the life and times of contemporary Pakistan.
Once upon a time, Badami Bagh was an orchard of almond trees, where, in 1857, revolutionaries carried out clandestine operations (later, the British hung them from the very branches they’d plotted under). After independence, it became home to a large-sized ghetto for working-class Christian families, who, in the face of persistent persecution in an increasingly Islamised society, are “docile and obedient”, employed mostly “as servants in the houses of Zamana’s Muslims” or to clean “the city’s roads and sewers”.
Lily and Grace Masih live in a tenement in Badami Bagh and work in the home of Nargis and Massud, an upper-class architect-couple, who have converted a former paper factory into a sublime home for themselves, an artistic haven as it were, studded with “objects from which they might draw inspiration”. Helen, their only daughter, is at home here; Nargis and Massud consider her a beloved niece, having lavished time and attention, in addition to money, on Helen’s education and upbringing.
When the novel opens, however, this little ecosystem has fallen apart — and the end of innocence is brutal. Grace was murdered three years ago by a young radical who barely served any time in prison (the crime of killing a Christian is offset by learning the Quran by heart in prison). The mosque across Nargis and Massud’s house has become a nest of jihadi extremists from Waziristan. And then, out of nowhere, as Massud and Nargis walk down the Grand Trunk Road with a mass of schoolchildren, shots ring out, and during a roadside shooting based on the infamous Raymond Davis episode (when a CIA contractor shot two men in broad daylight in Lahore), Massud dies.
Things come to a head when Nargis refuses to cooperate with the ISI in their attempt to negotiate a release for the American shooter — under Sharia law, a murderer can be forgiven by the relatives of the victims — and around the same time, both Helen and Lily are accused of blasphemy. Into this conundrum appears Imran, a young Kashmiri, a lapsed terrorist, one with stories of terrible torture and darkness of his own (it seems, his pregnant mother had been tortured by the Indian army so much that he was born with a broken arm). Against this backdrop of escalating violence, Imran and Helen must try to imagine a present, if not a future, for themselves, and explore all the tendernesses of first love.
While reading The Golden Legend, there are times I shut the book, and said aloud that the writer ought to have been a poet: for his strength is in capturing precisely those luminous moments that comment on tragedy with wounding obliqueness. At other times, though, I decided that it might have been better if Aslam were a painter, one of those who preferred canvases of staggering sizes that took years to complete — for there are pictorial compositions in its pages that are almost heart-stopping in their audacity.
But, ultimately, Aslam is a novelist. And for a novel of this sort to work, a certain primal connection must result between the readers and the characters, to evoke empathy, however unsophisticated. While deeply faithful to reportage, to the terrible crimes that keep happening to the characters and presumably to their real-life counterparts, in the past and present, in Kashmir, Lyallpur, and Zamana, in Badami Bagh and the Charagar mausoleum, all of which are drawn from life, The Golden Legend erects, as it were, a glass wall between the relentlessness of that world and the inner lives of the characters. Ironically, Aslam’s Pakistan is so bleak and his Kashmir so violent that the catalogue of injustices takes over the narrative and completely overshadows the stories of his protagonists. The storms become the story, and in that, fail to do justice to the lives in disarray; the novel, as a whole, stands remote and cold and distant, and, disappointingly, fails to move.