By Imteyaz Alam

golden-legendTitle: The Golden Legend
Author: Nadeem Aslam
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Pages: 376
Price: Rs 599

Reading Nadeem Aslam is like living with the characters of his novel. The words keep echoing, the scenes keep flashing and the characters stay with the readers much after one finishes the book. The author has a penchant for detailing scenes, events, emotions and expressions in his writings. The reader experiences and visualizes colour, smell, sound, pain, fury, and cries, smiles, and laughs in the course of reading his stories. In fact, the portrayal is so vivid and engrossing that the reader is transported to the imaginary world created by the writer. Without rousing the sentiments, the author lets readers simmer with the empathy and sympathy for the characters.

“Many things in my books come from real life; but a novelist has to be careful in transporting a real event into the landscape of a novel. It is patient work, like moving a lake from one place to another with a teaspoon,” writes Nadeem Aslam about his own craftThe writer of five novels including Maps of Lost Lovers and The Blind Man’s Garden, and the winner of several coveted awards, has powerful context and content in his writings. His technique is that of meticulous weaver birds, of a master chef, of a music composer and of a brilliant painter. His sentences are lyrical, profound and precise. No word is out of place, no sentence is out of context. He involves the reader by the gripping content and by powerful imagery. Reading stirs the heart and mind. No wonder if he is associated with several literary movements; realism, postmodernism, imagism, and post colonialism.

Nadeem Aslam migrated to England from Pakistan at the age of 13 with his communist father who escaped persecution at the hands of General Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. He enrolled at college but dropped out, never to complete it. He lives in England but closely monitors the development in South Asia. The same is reflected in his writings too.

The Golden Legend is a timely, relevant and captivating novel. The story, set in the fictional city of Zamana in Pakistan, covers religious extremism, hatred and intolerance in society. There is a suffocating environment for religious minorities and also for liberals. The hatred in the society is so ingrained that even an eleven-year-old refuses to accept a drink from Helen, a Christian lady. Later on, the boy sneaks in, wielding a knife to attack and check whether Helen has a different colour of blood, as told to him by his mother.

Margaret adopts the Muslim name Nargis and wears a false identity all her life to avoid harassment, and remains in disguise. Massud, a fellow architect, falls in love with her in college and marries her. The architect couple later on employs Lilly and Grace for help in their work. Helen, daughter of Grace and Lilly receives the best possible education in Zamana with the help of the architect couple. Grace is killed by a person who is freed from jail when he memorizes the Quran in jail. Massud is killed in crossfire during an assassination attempt on an American citizen. The American retaliates by reckless firing that kills Massud and others. Later on, Nargis is tortured by a General from military intelligence to pardon the American and accept blood money invoking sharia law. A young Kashmiri terrorist, Imran flees from training camp in Zamana when he realizes that militants of training are up to brutal killings. He donates blood to Massud and later on comes closer to Nargis and Helen. Aysha, daughter of a cleric is widowed when her husband is killed in an American drone attack in Waziristan. Being a martyr’s wife she is prohibited to remarry. She falls in love with Lilly. The city Zamana is facing a dreadful new phenomenon that the secrets of people are revealed by a mysterious man from a mosque’s loudspeaker. One day, the loudspeaker announces the affair of Aysha and Lilly. Lilly escapes but the wrath of believers fall on his fellow Christians. Nargis, Helen and Imran escape when the frenzied crowd attacks Nargis’s house. They take refuge on an island designed and developed by Massud and Nargis.

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The doorbell rang at last. When she answered it she found a boy of about eleven or twelve standing in the lane, with several bags of food and a thick bushel of reeds.

‘You should be at school,’ she said when she brought him in- to the kitchen.

He did not respond. His face was beautiful and doll-like and he was looking towards the bird wings hanging on the pink wall. He had placed the bags on the dining table and was using his grimy sleeve to absorb the perspiration from his forehead and upper lip, holding his gaze on the wings. He went towards them and reached out with a finger and touched the lime green feather of an Alexandrine parakeet.

‘Does the man with the straw hat live here?’ he asked. ‘The one with the elastic going over his shoulders.’

‘They are called braces. Or galluses.’ ‘Gal…lu…ses.’

She held up the bottle of Rooh Afza he had brought, crack- ing open the seal on the cap. ‘Would you like a drink of this?’

He seemed uncertain. ‘I overheard the lady mention some- one named Helen,’ he said. ‘Is that you?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you an infidel?’

Helen had been looking into one of the bags. She raised her head but not her eyelids. At the beginning of high school, when she was fourteen years old, a teacher had asked her to stand up in class and ‘justify taking the place of a Muslim’.

‘Are you a servant here?’ the boy continued. ‘You don’t look like one.’

When she finally glanced at him he nodded towards the Rooh Afza bottle. ‘I am a Muslim, I can’t accept a drink from your hand.’ And he added, ‘You should know that. Shouldn’t you?’

At nineteen, Helen was old enough to remain unsurprised by occasions such as these. She had always known them and could not have separated them from the most basic facts of her existence. Still, sometimes she was caught off guard.

She watched him from the kitchen window as he crossed the garden at an unhurried pace and left the house, stopping twice on the semicircular path through the grass, to look up at the ripening fruit or some creature moving in the branches.

She put away the items of food, and divided and bound the river reeds into brooms. Afterwards she carried the alumini- um stepladder to the study and unfolded it below the model of the Hagia Sophia. She stood there for a few moments: even from the topmost step of the ladder, the book would be too high up. She needed something to nudge it with, and she went back to the kitchen and unhooked the giant wing of the trum- peter swan and returned with it, the feathers blindingly white when she walked through the rays of the sun on the veranda, almost a detonation.

As she climbed up with the four-foot wing she thought of her mother who would use this ladder to dust the upper reaches of walls and shelves in this house. She recalled the story of her parents’ first meeting. Grace had been fifteen years old at the time and was a servant in someone’s house, and she had approached a passing policeman one day in a distraught state and demanded that he arrest a certain seventeen-year-old gardener’s boy from a nearby house. ‘I cannot stop think- ing about him!’ she had declared. ‘Each night the thought of him keeps me awake, and all day I long for him. I demand justice!’ Looking for a few moments of amusement, the police- man had followed the spirited, indignant girl as she led him to her criminal. He was entirely unaware of her, of course, and was speechless now, to find himself accused of being her incre- mental killer.

Helen arrived at the top step of the ladder – ‘This is where the wolf lives,’ Grace would say – and she stretched the wing of the swan cautiously towards the book on the small windowsill. The tip of the last feather fell just short of making contact with the book’s spine, and she raised herself onto her toes to attain the extra inches. There was a dull, indistinct noise from some- where below her at that moment, and she glanced down to see that the boy from the shop had appeared at the door to the study.

Carefully she brought her heels back down to the metal sur- face of the step. She had neglected to lock the door after his departure.

‘Did you forget something?’

He was looking at her and the expression on his face was somewhere between a sneer and a swoon, his body partly con- cealed in the shadow being thrown by a shelf. As he advanced into the room Helen saw that he was in fact trembling, the sharp length of the knife in his right hand moving to and fro as he approached the ladder.