Nadeem Aslam: An interview

For Nadeem Aslam, the London-based Pakistani author who has come out with his third novel,The Wasted Vigil, writing emanates from a deep well of being: “If you don’t like my books, you are not going to like me”. The Wasted Vigil, which derives its title from Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chugtai’s painting by the same name, is set in the ruins of Afghanistan and tells a compelling story of people devastated by the sweeping “sadness of geography”.
Though Aslam, 42, was born in Pakistan and shifted to the UK at the age of 14 when his family moved to Huddersfield, Afghanistan has been “deeply linked” with his life. “In 1979, the Russians invaded Afghanistan.And since Pakistan is Afghanistan’s neighbour, we felt the repercussions immediately. Hundreds and thousands of refugees arrived in Pakistan. You couldn’t be not aware of what was happening in Afghanistan if you kept an eye on it for there was something horrible happening there.”
In The Wasted Vigil, Aslam wanted to pose a question: “Is it possible for a superpower to invade a Third World country, play geopolitical games, withdraw and then expect that there would be no consequences?” The answer is no. And the world seemed oblivious to it till 9/11 happened. “After 9/11, the consequences became apparent for everyone. And then suddenly the world woke up to it: ‘How did this happen?’ While the spectacle of 9/11 was shocking, the fact that someone out there wanted to do this to the Americans was not shocking at all. It was a historical moment. And the West was a part of this history though they thought they weren’t,” says Aslam.
The novel traverses 30 years back to portray the ravages of history in the region. Says Aslam: “While Russians left Afghanistan, the weapons America sent to ‘defeat’ the Soviet regime were still there. So was the fundamentalism. The fallout had terrible consequences for the Afghans. And then Talibanisation made things worse. During the Soviet regime, Afghanistan didn’t look like this. It all happened in the 1990s. After pouring billions of dollars and weapons into Afghanistan, the US ‘defeated’ the Soviet regime and then turned its game elsewhere.”
Besides being “brutal” in its depiction of torture and gore (“I wanted to present to the world the cruelty of what’s been happening in Afghanistan”), the novel reverberates with lyricism and evocative images: “I paint and I draw. David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas), a friend, says that every writer is a ‘failed something else’. May be I am a failed painter.”
Also striking about the novel is the vibrancy of intricately woven characters who come from different cultures: Lara, who comes to Afghanistan in search of her long-lost brother – a soldier and a rapist – is a Russian; Marcus, who lost his Afghan wife to the Taliban and their daughter to the Soviet invasion, is a Briton and David is a former US spy. Aslam, who studied Biochemistry at the University of Manchester but abandoned science to “explore” his consciousness as a writer, says the idea behind the geographically diverse character was that he wanted the story to have an “outsider’s perspective.”
Aslam, who worked for a good 11 years on his last novel Maps For Lost Lovers, says he always wanted to be a writer. Having studied in an Urdu-medium school, he wrote stories in Urdu as a child in Pakistan. And when he left for England, he had to “learn English” to write in the language. “My writing is my way of exploring many lives. And consciousness. I begin with the conviction that I am an ordinary man and what is true of me is true of everyone. I am not greater than anyone and don’t have any special pleasure or pain. If I begin from that position and then look at my own consciousness, in all likelihood, I would end up speaking for everyone else,” says Aslam. The author says he doesn’t “understand” what is happening in the world. But the fact that he tries to understand this through his books is an “honourable feeling”. Says Aslam: “I am relatively young when it comes to the rigours of writing. I can only try to comprehend it all a step at a time, a book at a time. May be in my subsequent novels I would reach some conclusions about humanity and understand what life is all about better.” When Aslam left for England he was 14. When he visited his country again years later he noticed how some of the rooms where his grandmother and uncles lived had shrunk: “I thought t they were huge. They seemed to have become small. It’s amazing how mind/memory works.” Aslam points out that all his books are “autobiographical” in that they have “my emotions, my idea of friends, human beings and good and bad behaviours”. The author,who has been “influenced” by James Joyce and Salman Rushdie, says there is so much that disturbs him: “One is disturbed by newspapers everyday. I call news to be the most emotional item on TV. The world can be a horrible place, but we must not lose ties with humanity. And I, to the last fibre of my being, am an optimistic person. If they want to take the world in the direction of hell, I would take it towards heaven. May be I fail, but at least I will try.”
In The Wasted Vigil, Aslam wanted to explore “my own life,” but it has ended up “speaking for a lot of people”. The message, loud and clear, is directed at the Osama Bin Ladens of the world: “I refuse to let you be the only one who decides what a Muslim should do and look like. You are not the only ones to decide who is a Muslim.”

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