Book Review

The Golden Legend: Love and Redemption in Times of Violence

The Golden Legend by Nadeem Aslam

--Devalina Kohli

Penguin Random House India 2017


361 pp

Rs 599

The Golden Legend by Pakistan born writer Nadeem Aslam is the second one of his novels to be located in Pakistan. The novel is simultaneously contemporary and nostalgic; realistic yet romantically magical. It talks about how human beings can be trapped within their socio-political circumstances and yet can access beauty – through possibilities, imagination, connections, books, art and culture. These juxtapositions, which tie you down in horror and yet let you hope that all is not lost, draw the reader into a finely tuned experience of a well written novel.

Nargis and Massud, a liberal progressive Muslim architect couple, lives in the town of Zamana in an almost reclusive enclave of Badami Bagh, the last green stand of a fast urbanising town. Their home is surrounded primarily by lower caste Christians whose main occupation is cleaning sewers. They have chosen to adopt a Christian family – educating Helen, the daughter, and providing Lily Masih, the father, with the means to drive an auto rickshaw. Near them there is a mosque where Aysha, the widowed daughter of the maulvi, resides with her crippled son. This small, circumscribed world explodes with the accidental death of Massud, and its reverberations expose the violence, hostility and cruelty of a currently fundamentalist atmosphere in Pakistan. The families fall apart even as they try to cope with this loss.

Nargis is visited by an intelligence officer who, for his own political exigencies, threatens her with exposing her ‘secret’ and browbeats her into publicly declaring that the person who killed her husband is forgiven. In an act of deliberate cruelty and vandalism he hits her and then proceeds to destroy her husband’s treasured book.

 Helen is threatened with jail, and more, for having written articles seen as critical of the state, marked out especially as she is Christian. Her father Lily dares to fall in love with Aysha, the maulvi’s daughter. He is discovered and an incensed mob starts burning the Christian houses in Badami Bagh. In the ensuing violence Lily disappears and Nargis and Helen flee – with the able assistance of Imran, a young Kashmiri terrorist-in-training who has strayed into their lives almost serendipitously.

 Imran, Nargis and Helen escape to a small island in the river nearby. This island has an abandoned mosque, designed and constructed by Massud and Nargis, meant to incorporate all the sects of Islam and Christianity and Hinduism as a symbol of a modern multicultural Pakistan.  It becomes a sort of hidden Eden for the three, where Helen and Imran discover love and passion and Nargis begins to connect with herself again.

It is the beauty of these relationships, their losses and recouping that informs the central optimism of an otherwise dark novel.

A series of motifs balance the sectarian violence running right through the book. The novel begins with a mention of two renowned buildings – the Sophia Hagia and the Cordoba Mosque – both of which have a history of amalgamating Christian-Islamic cultures and influences.

Another motif which runs like a thread is the book written by Massud’s father – That They Might Know Each Other.  Inspired by a verse in the Koran, it borrows from many literary sources around the world with the intention of showing the connectedness of humankind. This tome of twenty one sections encompasses music, art, philosophy, science, fairytales, astronomy/history/archaeology, and provides an alternative vision of the world.

For every cruel act that seeks to destroy their humanity, there is a section from the book which provides a healing balm. Every time there is danger of being consumed by darkness, the book presents a contrapuntal perspective of the humanitarian impulse. In this respect, the deliberate act of destroying the book becomes symbolic. It happens in one violent moment but it takes the rest of the novel to repair the book with a golden thread until completion. The sewing can be seen as a constant attempt at reconstruction of the torn and destroyed self, battered by the hostile world. The cracks are visible, just like the golden thread of the stitched book, but that awareness makes it that much more precious. In fact the novel is rife with references from all over the world – its cultures, beliefs and transformations – all building up a body of ideas to balance religious sectarianism.

Nature plays a big role in the novel. The characters live in Badami Bagh (the garden of almonds). There are flowers, birds, deer, butterflies, moths, mountains and orchards informing the sensibility of its main characters. And then there is the river – flowing near the town – on which the island of escape is situated. In fact the island has been compared to Prospero’s island from The Tempest. Water becomes the symbol of quiet endurance, change and connectedness absorbing all that comes into it.

The novel seems to hark back to the lost Garden of Eden as a recurring motif. Nargis and Massud, Helen and Imran, Lily and Ayesha – Christian or Muslim – live in these little gardenesque spaces, literal and metaphoric, which are shielded, however briefly, from the violence of the outside world: She and Massud had planted as many of these in the grounds...laying out an Islamic paradise garden on the island.

But The Fall is inevitable. This paradise cannot be sustained. The world will intrude with its violence, brutality and irrational cruelty. So also, the instruments of the state will inexorably and inevitably march in on them. Suffice to know and acknowledge that love exists and can exist in the darkest of times. The luminous prose, poetic imagery and visual beauty that inform the whole novel give us hope that there will be ‘singing in dark times’.

Though the author does not directly foreground this, what one can see, however tangentially, is that women bear the brunt of all the violence – in the name of religion or national interest.  Nargis, her sister Seraphina, Helen, Imran’s mother or Aysha – all become victims of the violence and cruelty perpetrated on them.

The novel also offers us another, different version of Islam with the celebrations at Charagar, a Sufi shrine where people from all cultures and groups come together in a common expression of love. Its destruction at the hands of suicide bombers is almost prescient, paralleling the recent explosions at the Qualandar shrine in Sehwan in Sind.  

The book is not all dark. There is redemption in the end – in the basic humanity and connectedness of its varied characters. People learn to survive to the best of their ability. The lost world is lost, but it has managed to leave behind an imprint of optimistic possibilities.