Author Interviews
4:38 pm
Tue May 28, 2013

Novel Examines Afghanistan War From A Pakistani Perspective

Originally published on Wed May 29, 2013 6:43 am

Two young men — foster brothers in love with the same woman — leave their small Pakistani town for Afghanistan in late 2001. Jeo, a medical student, wants to help wounded civilians and Mikal is there to look after Jeo, but their good intentions aren't enough to keep them safe in an increasingly dangerous war zone.

In The Blind Man's Garden, novelist Nadeem Aslam explores the consequences of Sept. 11 through the eyes of two young Pakistanis. Aslam was born in Pakistan, but grew up and currently lives in Britain. He joins NPR's Robert Siegel to discuss his protagonists' youth, the role Islam played in his life and his habit of writing in total isolation.


Interview Highlights

On the significance of Jeo and Mikal's youth

"One of the things I wanted to do was to write about the young because I think in this world we underestimate the grief and the confusion of the young; that here we have these new lives who are given the idea of love, the idea of compassion, if they're lucky the idea of responsibility. And then we enter the world and the world says to the young, 'Corruption is possible. Lies are possible. You can do the bad things.' So the confusion which then results within the young person, that was what I'm increasingly becoming interested in. So these two young men, who are very young, they're 20 and Pakistan's median age is 19, so they are almost children. And they don't understand the war that they go to not fight in, but participate in lets just say."

On the important role Islam played in his life, despite the fact that he isn't religious

"My mother is a believer. She prays five times a day; she fasts during the month of Ramadan and she believes in an afterlife, all those things that make the modern mind uncomfortable. And yet she is also the person who taught me everything that I know ... My daily conduct on a second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour basis was taught to me by that woman who actually believes in the things which — if I were to explain to some people that, they would think, Well, actually, this person can't be rational.

"... My father comes from quite a liberal bohemian family. But through my mother I acquired the idea of consequence; the idea that if you do something bad, don't expect to get away with it. That idea entered my life through religion. And of course that lesson can enter a child's life through a hundred different ways — it can come through myths, it can come through secularism. But with me, as I said, given my background, it came through religion."

On how he started writing

"I was born in Pakistan and I grew up there. I was 14 when I came to Britain. My father was a Communist and he got into trouble with the Pakistani regime back in the '80s. And at 14, when I came to Britain, I had no English because I don't come from an affluent background.

"...I was taught in Urdu and my level of English was quite basic. And the subjects I did well were sciences. But in my third year at university, by which time I'd been in Britain for seven years, I realized that my English was good enough to do what I really wanted to do, which was to write a novel. So I dropped out and began writing my novel, which took 11 months to write. Then I said to myself that because I couldn't do my high school years in the subjects I was interested in — history, literature, politics, languages — now over the next 10 years I'm going to sit down and do them, but I'm going to do them myself. And during this decade I was also working on my second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers."

On his habit of writing in total isolation

"Because I had no money, whenever I had money, I would save it and that meant that my social life began to disintegrate. So by the end of that 10 years, I was more or less without any friends. And during those 10 years — and they were formative years — I ended up living next to some very noisy people, and because I couldn't afford to move I used to sleep during the day and write at night when it was quiet. So as I said, they were formative years. So that still lingers.

" ... Months, sometimes a year can go by and I don't see anyone. But whatever an artist goes through to make his art is really irrelevant. The main thing is the art. This book took four and half years to write. ... No matter what I went through — that is not important — what is important is have I come out with a good enough work of art."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Nadeem Aslam has written about worlds that overlap awkwardly - Pakistan, the country where he was born, and Britain, the country where he grew up and lives. His latest novel, "The Blind Man's Garden," is set in Pakistan, in a town in the Punjab. Two young men, Mikal and Jeo, foster brothers in love with the same woman, set out for Afghanistan in late 2001. Through their eyes, we see the consequences of 9/11 very differently than we're accustomed to.

NADEEM ASLAM: (Reading) The United States was attacked last month, a day of fire visited on its cities. And as a consequence, Western armies have invaded Afghanistan. The battle of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is what some people here in Pakistan have named September's terrorist attacks. The logic is that there are no innocent people in a guilty nation. And similarly, these weeks later, it is the buildings, orchards and hills of Afghanistan that are being torn apart by bombs and fire-shells. The wounded and injured are being brought out to Peshawar, and Jeo wishes to go to the border city and help tend to them.

SIEGEL: "The Blind Man's Garden" is a powerful, vividly written novel, and Nadeem Aslam joined us from London to talk about writing and about the young people he's written about.

ASLAM: One of the things I wanted to do was to write about the young because I think in this world, we underestimate the grief and the confusion of the young; that here, we have these new lives who are given the idea of love, the idea of compassion, if they're lucky the idea of responsibility. And then we enter the world, and the world says to the young: Corruption is possible. Lies are possible. You can do the bad things. So the confusion which then results within the young person, that was what I'm increasingly becoming interested in. So these two young men, who are very young, they're 20 and Pakistan's median age is 19, so they are almost children. And they don't understand the war that they go to not fight in, but participate in, let's just say.

SIEGEL: Because one of them is a medical student or a doctor. He's going - he thinks he'll be a medic there.

ASLAM: Exactly, the idea of compassion. And people always say where is the hope in your novels because the books can appear to be very bleak. But I always say that the hope is that under any given circumstances, how the characters behave that you will be destroyed, but you will be destroyed in the path doing the right thing.

SIEGEL: We should just note that you're writing about young people now from the age of - is it 47 that...

ASLAM: Indeed.

SIEGEL: (Unintelligible) so that's your perspective. You're also writing across another gulf, apart from the generational one, which is you are writing about people most of whom are guided by a faith, a religious faith that is absolutely, perfectly literal. There are people who believe literally in consequences, in the afterlife, literally in the commands of God. And it is sometimes startling and difficult, but we manage to - those of us who do not possess this literal faith, I think, still come to empathize with them.

ASLAM: I don't either.

SIEGEL: You don't either, no.

ASLAM: I don't either. That's the thing. But there are people in my life who do. I mean, my mother is a believer. She prays five times a day. She fasts during the month of Ramadan, and she believes in an afterlife, all those things that make the modern mind uncomfortable. And yet, she is also the person who taught me everything that I know. In that in order for me to come to the studio to record this interview, I've had to make a journey. I have met strangers. I have greeted people, et cetera.

So my daily conduct on a second-to-second, minute-to-minute, hour-to-hour basis was taught to me by that woman who actually believes in the things which if I were to explain to some people that they would think, well, actually, this person can't be rational. So that is, I think, the interesting thing of having someone like that in your background.

SIEGEL: Your father, I gather, is - did not share her faith at all.

ASLAM: Indeed, indeed. My father comes from quite a liberal bohemian family. But through my mother, I acquired the idea of consequence; the idea that if you do something bad, don't expect to get away with it. That idea entered my life through religion. And, of course, that lesson can enter a child's life through 100 different ways. It can come through myths. It can come through secularism. But with me, as I said, given my background, it came through religion.

SIEGEL: So a sense of purpose, ethics, idealism, all can be the residue of a religious upbringing without the devout belief.

ASLAM: Absolutely.

SIEGEL: I gather in the writing of your latest novel you spent several months in which you say you had no contact with any other human being. And in the past when you've written novels, you had no time for any friendships. How isolating is the process of writing a novel? How long did you actually go without dealing with anyone in writing "The Blind Man's Garden"?

ASLAM: Well, I have to go quite a few years back. I was born in Pakistan, and I grew up there. I was 14 when I came to Britain. My father was a Communist, and he got into trouble with the Pakistani regime back in the early '80s. And at 14, when I came to Britain, I had no English because I don't come from an affluent background. I had gone to a non-fee paying government school.

SIEGEL: You were taught in Urdu until that point?

ASLAM: I was taught in Urdu, and my level of English was quite basic. And the subjects I did well were sciences. But in my third year at university, by which time I'd been in Britain for seven years, I realized that my English was good enough to do what I really wanted to do, which was to write a novel. So I dropped out and began writing my novel, which took 11 months to write. Then I said to myself that because I couldn't do my high school years in the subjects I was interested in - history, literature, politics, languages - now over the next 10 years, I'm going to sit down and do them, but I'm going to do them myself. And during this decade, I was also working on my second novel, "Maps for Lost Lovers."

And to answer your question, the earlier question, during that time, because I had no money, whenever I had money, I would save it, and that meant that my social life began to disintegrate. So by the end of that 10 years, I was more or less without any friends. And during those 10 years - and they were formative years - I ended up living next to some very noisy people. And because I couldn't afford to move, I used to sleep during the day and write at night when it was quiet. So - and as I said, they were formative years. So that still lingers.

SIEGEL: For writing this novel, you took how many months without contact with other folks?

ASLAM: Months, sometimes a year can go by and I don't see anyone. But whatever an artist goes through to make his art is really irrelevant. This book took four and half years to write. So at the end of those four and a half years, no matter what I went through, that is not important. What is important is have I come out with a good enough work of art.

SIEGEL: Well, Nadeem Aslam, thank you for the novel "The Blind Man's Garden," and thank you for talking with us about it.

ASLAM: Thank you very much for inviting me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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