Nadeem Aslam is the master of the words and images that bring memory together
Nadeem Aslam reads a passage from his latest book The Wasted Vigil softly,and deliberately,almost as if any change in tempo or pitch would rudely shock the words. At the Jaipur Literature Festival,Aslam is modest about the full-houses for his sessions and speaks in long,poetic sentences about Urdu literature,life in Pakistan,the possibility of a war with India,in between a conversation that is essentially about his books.
The Wasted Vigil (Penguin,Rs 599) is the Afghanistan book Aslam has wanted to write from the beginning of his career. I always wanted to write two books. The first would be the Immigrant Book and then the book about Afghanistan. I kept a notebook for over 20 years that traced the history of the land from the time of the Russian occupation, says Aslam,who also interviewed nearly 200 Afghani exiles living in England,helping him to create what he calls a texture of memory.
Memory is an essential element in his writing: it forms the fabric on which Aslam stitches elaborate biographies for each of his characters,creating a historical sequence that leads them into the present. It is also the memory of a life lived in Pakistan that Aslam hangs on to,before his family had to leave for England during General Zia-ul-Haqs regime in the 1970s.
As a teenager in Huddersfield,West Yorkshire,Aslam barely spoke any English and excelled only in the science subjects. But as a student of biochemistry at Manchester University,he decided to drop out and become a novelist. I was aware that I didnt know English well enough to write a novel. So I bought books and read them. I would choose an author and read all of his works to familiarise myself with not only the language but also the style, says Aslam who went on to devour works by Dickens,Tolstoy,Chekhov,just to name a few. Once he was satisfied with the amount of homework done,he wrote his first book,Season of the Rainbirds and sent an unsolicited manuscript to Andre Deutsch,who called Aslam within 10 days. The book went on to win a few awards and set the stage for his next book,Maps for Lost Lovers,which took more than 11 years to write. In comparison,The Wasted Vigil took Aslam just seven months. But the novel began much earlier,says Aslam. Today,everybody is looking at Afghanistan because what happens there impacts the rest of the world. But this situation has been developing over decades now, says Aslam who also showcased a series of photographs of the beautiful,but ravaged country.
For a novelist whose works are steeped in Islamic traditions,Aslam says he didnt consciously think of himself as a Muslim till 9/11. After 9/11,I am a Muslim. I drink,I dont pray five times a day but I am not going to let Osama bin Laden define who is a Muslim for me, says Aslam who believes that he does have the best of both the Western as well as the Koranic literary traditions. In fact,he reads out his book passage by passage into a dictaphone,just to check if he has got the cadence of the words right.
His works have not been read by the class of people he writes about,his novels have not been translated into Urdu but Aslam says his retired father has translated a page or two and it reads wonderfully. The middle-class people in Pakistan have read my books and theyre blasé about it,the way most middle-class people across the world are, says Aslam who is currently writing a novel set in contemporary Pakistan but cannot say how soon it will be done. I write in longhand and every time I write a sentence I feel that I am voting,my politics keeps me writing. If you dont like my books,you probably wont like me, says Aslam.