Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Book Review: Nadeem Aslam – A Map for Lovers

A Map for Lovers is the story of the aftermath of a love affair between Jugnu and Chanda and how their families and community react when they go missing. The book is set in a small unnamed English town (which rather reminded me of Burnley) with a mixed population of white and South Asian residents.

Shamas is Jugnu’s well-respected, atheist, older brother and works for a local voluntary service where he assists people with the problems they find themselves facing due to their race or lack of English. His wife Kaukab is a religious Muslim whose children have all flown the nest and who seeks refuge from her misery in her faith, most often failing to do so. Around them Aslam weaves in the stories of other characters: Suraya whose husband has divorced her in anger, leaving her to find another man to marry temporarily in order to be allowed to marry her husband again and see her son, Chanda’s parents who face the whole community’s suspicion regarding her disappearance even as they mourn, Shamas’ son Chirag who has rejected his mothers faith and culture and his daughter Mahjabin who is hiding the truth about why she has left her husband as she tries to keep her parents happy.

The stories of these characters and many more are interspersed with each other to show how our every act affects the destiny of another. This is a beautifully written and absorbing book, at times harrowing to read. The author gives his novel a dreamy quality, something which usually drives me up the wall. I often think that this is a lazy technique when it comes to controlling the mood and pace of a book and takes away from the power that clear, direct prose can have. In this book, it was slightly off-putting and especially in the beginning made the writing feel arduous enough to make me out the book down a few times before I managed to really get into it.

Aside from this the stories told are real and painful. I liked that the writer raises the plight of illegal immigrants and what they have to go through as well as the big problem the community has with sending their children “back home” to marry.

Perhaps there is a slight feeling of overdose where not one issue, but every issue the South Asian community has, is thrown in and explored (if you have seen Gurinder Chadha’s rather good film “Bhaji on the Beach”, she does the same thing, where she takes a dozen issues: racism, teen pregnancy, the roles of women, domestic violence, isolation, and throws them into one film when even one explored well would have been plenty).

Another criticism I had was that I didn’t feel that the book narrated both sides to the story. The community is mostly Pakistani and Muslim and both factors seem to bring nothing but misery:

‘Dignity? Mother, are you aware that Muslim women cannot marry a non-Muslim? Their testimony in a court of law is worth half that of a man. Non-Muslims living in Muslim countries have inferior status under Islamic law: they may not testify against a Muslim. Non-believers are to be killed: of the seventeen great sins in Islam, unbelief is the greatest, worst than murder, theft, adultery’

‘A religion that has given dignity to millions around the world? Amputations, stoning to death, flogging – not barbaric?’
p. 321

At every turn faith brings pain and suffering to the characters, the best, most humane and the most enlightened characters are those who are atheist (Shamas and possibly, Jugnu). Islam seems to lead to nothing but self-delusion. Many practices are highlighted that make people suffer, especially in terms of how women are treated. Nowhere though is it made clear that these customs have nothing to do with Islam but with culture. A lot of what is described I have seen in the Pakistani community, but would not be recognisable to an Arab Muslim or an African Muslim. This is not an easy criticism to make because it leaves you open to accusations of being in denial or victim-mentality – i.e. “everyone is picking on us”. However at times it really does feel that Aslam is going full guns trying to convince the reader that Pakistani’s, and especially Muslims are barbaric, delusional, cruel and stupid.

This is a beautifully written book, at times painful to read and engrossing after about the half-way mark, but I finished it feeling depressed and wondering what a non-Muslim or non-Pakistani will take away from it.


  1. Asalaamu Alaikum

    Makes you wonder if the author is an atheist himself.

  2. Walaikam-assalam Sister,
    I wondered the same when reading this book, not sure, but suspect if he was Muslim he might have given at least a hint of the other point of view perhaps.