The acclaimed author of The Wasted Vigil now gives us a searing, exquisitely written novel set in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the months following 9/11: a story of war, of one family’s losses, and of the simplest, most enduring human impulses.
Jeo and Mikal are foster brothers from a small town in Pakistan. Though they were inseparable as children, their adult lives have diverged: Jeo is a dedicated medical student, married a year; Mikal has been a vagabond since he was fifteen, in love with a woman he can’t have. But when Jeo decides to sneak across the border into Afghanistan—not to fight with the Taliban against the Americans, rather to help care for wounded civilians—Mikal determines to go with him, to protect him.
Yet Jeo’s and Mikal’s good intentions cannot keep them out of harm’s way. As the narrative takes us from the wilds of Afghanistan to the heart of the family left behind—their blind father, haunted by the death of his wife and by the mistakes he may have made in the name of Islam and nationhood; Mikal’s beloved brother and sister-in-law; Jeo’s wife, whose increasing resolve helps keep the household running, and her superstitious mother—we see all of these lives upended by the turmoil of war.
In language as lyrical as it is piercing, in scenes at once beautiful and harrowing, The Blind Man’s Garden unflinchingly describes a crucially contemporary yet timeless world in which the line between enemy and ally is indistinct, and where the desire to return home burns brightest of all.
History is the third parent.
As Rohan makes his way through the garden, not long after nightfall, a memory comes to him from his son Jeo’s childhood, a memory that slows him and eventually brings him to a standstill. Ahead of him candles are burning in various places at the house because there is no electricity. Wounds are said to emit light under certain conditions—touch them and the brightness will stay on the hands—and as the candles burn Rohan thinks of each flame as an injury somewhere in his house.
One evening as he was being told a story by Rohan, a troubled expression had appeared on Jeo’s face. Rohan had stopped speaking and gone up to him and lifted him into his arms, feeling the tremors in the small body. From dusk onwards, the boy tried to reassure himself that he would continue to exist after falling asleep, that he would emerge again into light on the other side. But that evening it was something else. After a few minutes, he revealed that his distress was caused by the appearance of the villain in the story he was being told. Rohan had given a small laugh to comfort him and asked,
“But have you ever heard a story in which the evil person triumphs at the end?”
The boy thought for a while before replying.
“No,” he said, “but before they lose, they harm the good people. That is what I am afraid of.”
Rohan looks out of the window, his glance resting on the tree that was planted by his wife. It is now twenty years since she died, four days after she gave birth to Jeo. The scent of the tree’s flowers can stop conversation. Rohan knows no purer source of melancholy. A small section of it moves in the cold wind—a handful of foliage on a small branch, something a soldier might snap off before battle and attach to his helmet as camouflage.
He looks towards the clock. In a few hours he and Jeo will depart on a long journey, taking the overnight train to the city of Peshawar. It’s October. 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. Father and son will be there early tomorrow morning, after a ten-hour journey through the night.
The glass pane in the window carries Rohan’s reflection—the deep brown iris in each eye, the colourless beard given a faint brilliance by the candle. The face that is a record of time’s weight on the soul.
He walks out into the garden where the first few lines of moonlight are picking out leaves and bowers. He takes a lantern from an alcove. Standing under the silk-cotton tree he raises the lantern into the air, looking up into the great crown. The tallest trees in the garden are ten times the height of a man and even with his arm at full stretch Rohan cannot extend the light beyond the nearest layer of foliage. He is unable to see any of the bird snares—the network of thin steel wires hidden deep inside the canopies, knots that will come alive and tighten just enough to hold a wing or neck in delicate, harmless captivity.
Or so the stranger had claimed. The man had appeared at the house late in the morning today and asked to put up the snares. A large rectangular cage was attached to the back of his rusting bicycle. He explained that he rode through town with the cage full of birds and people paid him to release one or more of them, the act of compassion gaining the customer forgiveness for some of his sins.
“I am known as ‘the bird pardoner,’ ” he said. “The freed bird says a prayer on behalf of the one who has bought its freedom. And God never ignores the prayers of the weak.”
Rohan had remarked to himself that the cage was large enough to contain a man.
To him the stranger’s idea had seemed anything but simple, its reasoning flawed. If a bird will say a prayer for the person who has bought its freedom, wouldn’t it call down retribution on the one who trapped and imprisoned it? And on the one who facilitated the entrapment? He had wished to reflect on the subject and had asked the man to return at a later time. But when he woke from his afternoon nap he discovered that the bird pardoner had taken their perfunctory exchange to be an agreement. While Rohan slept, he visited the house again and set up countless snares, claiming to Jeo that he had Rohan’s consent.
“He told me he’ll be back early tomorrow morning to collect the birds,” Jeo said.
Rohan looks up into the wide-armed trees as he moves from place to place within the garden, the thousands of sleeping leaves that surround his house. The wind lifts now and then but otherwise there is silence and stillness, a perfect hush in the night air. He is certain that many of the snares have already been activated and he cannot help but imagine the fright and suffering of the captured birds, who swerve and whistle delicately in the branches throughout the day, looking as though their outlines and markings are drawn with a finer nib than their surroundings, more sharply focused. Now he almost senses the eyes extinguishing two by two.
The bigger the sin, the rarer and more expensive the bird that is needed to erase it. Is that how the bird pardoner conducts his business? A sparrow for a small deception, but a paradise flycatcher and a monal pheasant for allowing a doubt about His existence to enter the mind.
He places his hand on a tree’s bark, as if transmitting forbearance and spirit up into the creatures. He was the founder and headmaster of a school, and his affection for this tree lies in its links with scholarship. Writing tablets have been made from its wood since antiquity, a use reflected in its Latin name. Alstonia scholaris.
Carrying his lantern he begins to walk back to the house that stands at the very centre of the garden. Before building it he had visited the cities of Mecca, Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo, Delhi and Istanbul, the six locations of Islam’s earlier magnificence and possibility. From each he brought back a handful of dust and he scattered it in an arc in the air, watching as belief, virtue, truth and judgement slipped from his hand and settled softly on the ground. That purifying line, in the shape of a crescent or a scythe, was where he had dug the foundations.
In the nineteenth century, Rohan’s great-grandfather had bred horses on this stretch of land, his animals known for their wiriness and nimble strength, the ability to go over the stoniest ground without shoes. During the Mutiny against the British in July 1857 a band of men had visited the horse breeder, the day of the eclipse, and in the seventeen minutes of half-darkness the Mutineers spoke about cause and nation, aiming these words like arrows against the Empire’s armoured might. Britain was the planet’s supreme power at the time and nothing less than the fate of the world hung in the balance. They needed his help but he told them there were no horses for him to give. The Norfolk Trotter and the Arab stallions, the Dhanni, Tallagang and Kathiawar mares—they had been sent to a remote location to escape the Ludhiana Fever sweeping the district.
As the rebels turned to leave, the ground splintered slowly before them and a crack grew and became a star-shaped fracture. A small sphere of blackest glass materialised at the centre of the star. Then they realised that it was in fact an eye, an ancient glare directed up at them through the grains of earth. A phantom. A chimera. One more instant and the entire head of the horse had emerged from the ground, the large-muscled neck giving a thrust and spraying soil into the eclipse-darkened air. The hooves found whatever purchase they needed and the rest of the grunting animal unearthed itself, the mighty rib cage and the great, potent haunches. Flesh tearing itself away from the living planet.
The ground exploded. A dozen horses, then almost two dozen, their diverse screams filling the air after the hours spent in the dark. An eruption of furious souls from below. The thrown earth and the shrieking of freed jaws and the terror of men during the daylight darkness.
Rohan’s great-grandfather had been informed the day before that Mutineers being hunted by the British would attempt to appropriate his animals. Over several hours he and his nine sons had prepared a trough deeper than their tallest stallion and had then led all twenty-five of their horses to it, their black, white, tobiano and roan colours shining in the oblique rays of the setting sun.
The horses were loved and they trusted the masters when they were blindfolded and led into the pit, but they reacted when the men began to pour earth onto them, beating their hooves against the ground as the level of soil rose higher along the legs. Stripes of white salt-froth slid down each body and in low voices the men spoke the phrases or words each animal was known to like. To comfort them if possible. But they continued with the work steadily and with determination all night as the stars appeared and hung above them like a glass forest, and later when a storm approached and the night became wild with electricity, the sky looking as though there was war and rebellion in heaven too, because not a single one of the horses would be allowed to fall into the hands of the Mutineers, who Rohan’s great-grandfather was convinced were misguided, his loyalty aligned with the British.
With only the horses’ necks remaining visible, the men leapt down into the trench and packed the earth with their feet, running among the twenty-five heads growing out of the earth as specks of soft blue fire came down from the lightning-filled sky to rest in the manes and in the men’s own beards and hair.
Allah had said to the South Wind, “Become!” and the Arabian horse was created.
The thought of clemency entering their hearts at last, the ten men went down the rows and placed a large basket upside-down over each head, a hood of woven grass fibres and reeds and palm fronds, a pocket of air for the animal to continue breathing. Then they climbed out and began the final throwing on of the soil, making sure not to cover the baskets entirely, leaving a thumbprint-sized entrance in each for air to slide in. There was nothing but a faint ground-shudder of hooves from within the earth as the horizon became marked with a brilliant red line behind the men and the sun rose and they began to wait for the arrival of the Mutineers, conscious suddenly of their weight on the ground.
Insects are being attracted by the lantern in Rohan’s hand as he walks back to the house, moths that look like shavings from a pencil sharpener, and moths that are so outsized and intensely pigmented they can be mistaken for butterflies.
There is a black feather on the path ahead of him, dropped by a struggling bird overhead.
The Mutiny was eventually put down across the land and one thousand years of Islamic rule came to an end in India, Britain assuming complete possession. A Muslim land was lost to nonbelievers and Rohan’s ancestors played a part in it.
This was the century-old taint that Rohan had tried to remove by spreading the soils of Allah’s six beloved cities here. Mecca. Baghdad. Cordoba. Cairo. Delhi. Istanbul. Scattering them broadly in the shape of the trench in which the horses were interred, the cleft out of which they had resurrected themselves.
Excerpted from The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam. Copyright © 2013 by Nadeem Aslam. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Nadeem Aslam is the author of three highly acclaimed novels: Season of the Rainbirds, which won a Betty Trask Award; Maps for Lost Lovers, which was a New York Times Notable Book, winner of the Kiriyama Prize, shortlisted for the IMPAC prize, and longlisted for the Booker Prize; and, most recently, The Wasted Vigil. He is also the recipient of a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Born in Pakistan, he lives in England.
A conversation with
THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN
Q: What inspired you to write The Blind Man’s Garden?
A: We have lived through an extraordinary decade, beginning with 9/11 and ending with the Arab Spring—and between that we have the war on terror, the call to jihad, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, the murder of Benazir Bhutto, the killing of Osama bin Laden. A clash seems to have occurred between an incomplete understanding of the East and an incomplete understanding of the West. Not long ago on Google I typed in the words ‘Pakistan is’ and the four autofill choices I was given were: Evil, Stupid, Dangerous, A terrorist country. I typed in ‘America is’ and the choices given were: Not the World, Evil, Not a country but a business. So when I began writing The Blind Man’s Garden I wanted to find a story that could hold as many of these elements as possible, without losing shape as fiction. A novelist doesn’t tell you what to think, he tells you what to think about.
Q: In the novel foster-brothers Jeo and Mikal go to Afghanistan to offer medical skills, not joining the Taliban in combat. Could you explain their motivations?
A: They are decent human beings. Jeo’s values are derived from Islam—the gentler side of his parents’ religion—and Mikal’s from his parents’ political engagement.
The motivations of both Jeo and Mikal’s have roots in my own background. The idea of consequence entered my own life through Islam—as a child I was told that if you do a bad thing the consequences would be bad. If you do good, the consequences would be good. I am referring of course to Heaven and Hell, Sin and Virtue. There are any number of ways through which these ideas can enter a child’s life, secular as well as religious. I am just explaining how these lessons came to me—given my social background and the household I was born into—and it was through Islam. (I am perfectly aware of how religion can be corrupted, what psychological damage the idea of Divine punishment and Divine reward might cause—but that is a different conversation.)
As for Mikal and politics, several of my uncles and my father were people of the left in Pakistan. I am deeply grateful to my father for having instilled in me a contempt for money, for profit. So it was through my father’s family that I acquired the idea of engaging collectively with the problems of the world, as opposed to doing it alone, which is a non-political stance. I always say that I vote every time I write a sentence.
Q: Tell us about your writing process.
A: I often write in isolation, avoiding all contact for weeks and months, and even blacking out my windows. It is a habit I developed when I was younger and had no money. In order to make the best use of the time I had, I wished to eradicate distractions as much as possible. I was quite a dreamy adolescent and I think part of it still survives—I can get lost in the movements of an insect or watch the falling rain. So I would black out the windows and stay in and write. Once I was writing an episode set in summer in Maps for Lost Lovers—I went out into the garden for the first time in about a week and couldn’t understand why it was snowing, how it could be cold.
Q: Mikal and Jeo’s adoptive father, Rohan, is slowly losing his vision throughout the novel. How did you prepare yourself to write about his experience?
A: There was no conventional method of research available to me. I arranged meetings with visually impaired people, but I don’t have the temperament that could enable me to ask a blind person really intimate questions. I wanted to know whether blindness is white, whether it is black, or silver, or golden. I couldn’t find many good books about blindness that described the day to day experiences. A year went by and I had no information. So I decided to tape shut my eyes for a week and live like that 24/7. I did it again the following year, and then again the year after that. The book took four and a half years to write so in total I was without my eyes for three weeks.
At the end of the first week when I took off the tape I was shocked to find myself covered in bruises: they were everywhere—my face, my neck, my chest, arms, belly, shins. It was as though I had been assaulted without my knowing it. I had been bumping into things over the previous week and had forgotten that each blow was leaving a record on my body.
And the experience of taping shut my eyes seeped into the entire book. For example, when Mikal is being held in the black-walled room in the CIA’s prison, he experiences intense hallucinations, surrounded by all that blackness with no light—I experienced that when my eyes were taped shut. People (even those who can see) are always reaching out in The Blind Man’s Garden—extending their hands, touching other human beings. I believe that wouldn’t be there if I hadn’t taped shut my eyes. At one point Rohan, the blind man of the title, says, “When I want to remember the colour red I will touch something warm.” That happened to me—my hand accidentally touched a warm surface and my head flooded with red. One day I heard rain and I made my way slowly to the window and put out my hand—the drops falling on my palm caused an image of twinkling stars to appear in my mind. And now Rohan says, “And when I want to remember the twinkling of stars I will put my hand out into the falling rain.”
Q: You were born in Pakistan and moved to England at the age of 14. How did your experience inform your writing?
A: I am grateful for my knowledge of Urdu, Pakistan’s national language. I don’t just have the 26 letters of English—I have the 38 letters of Urdu too. My alphabet is bigger. Readers often speak of the melancholy lyricism of my books and wonder about the influence of Urdu poetry. But I don’t sit down to write in any particular way. It’s not as though one writes a non-lyrical page and then decides to add 20 grams of lyricism to it, or 30 ounces of political thought and 5 drops of emotional intensity. Language is a deeply private thing—it comes as it comes. I get as much pleasure from looking at an apple as from eating it, so my books are visual. One of the things I remember about The Divine Comedy is that Beatrice has emerald eyes. This is my sensibility. One must not examine these things too much. John Banville said about Nabokov that he did not write in English: “he wrote in a private secret language that was mysteriously comprehensible to English-speaking readers.” That I think is true to all writers to an extent.
Q: When Jeo hears tank shells and gunfire for the first time, another man says to him, “The world sounds like this all the time, we just don’t hear it. Then sometimes in some places we do.” What do you mean by this?
A: I think we—the ordinary citizens—are lied to and lied about by those in power. George Orwell wrote in 1946 that political language “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” And now we are living in an era where terms like “extraordinary rendition” are used to refer to what is in fact “kidnapping”; and “enhanced interrogation” is used for “torture.” I was also thinking of terms like “Cold War”. The Cold War was cold only for the privileged places of the planet—in other words, the West. It got pretty hot over there in the Third World, where all the blood was spilled.
Q: What can Americans who lived through 9/11 learn from this book?
A: When my previous novel, The Wasted Vigil, was published, I read the same passage to American and Pakistani audiences, and was accused of being anti-American by the former and a CIA agent by the latter. These are polar reactions, but there is an entire range of opinion in between. I also get letters and emails from Pakistanis saying they don’t agree with the fundamentalists in my novel; and from Americans who say that they know their governments’ policies are wrong.
But I never lose hope. I am not a believer in any faith, but I do remember that in Islam it is a sin to lose hope. You are not allowed to despair. This is why suicide bombings were such a problematic issue for the fundamentalists: suicide is a sin. So they have circumvented it by saying they are not “suicide bombings”, they are “martyrdom bombings.”
So I can’t lose hope about anything: East-West, Islam etc. I think despair has to be earned. If you were to say to me the world is damaged beyond repair, suitable only for the rubbish heap, I would want to see a record of what you did to change things, to repair it. You are not allowed to make that statement unless you have tried a hundred times to make things better—if you have failed again and again and again I might be willing to respect your opinion. I can’t take empty complaints seriously. The fact of the matter is that if you are the kind of person who has tried to alter things a hundred times, you would still say, “Let me try one more time.” You would never give up. Only the complacent ones, the bourgeoisie, the privileged ones, would say, “Throw this thing called life onto the rubbish heap.”
I do hope that readers take away the message of hope about the current difficulties in the Muslim world.
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