July issue 2004

By | Arts & Culture | Books | People | Profile | Published 20 years ago

nadeem-aslam-july04Thirty-six year old Nadeem Aslam sits across from me on a green couch in his book-filled flat in North London, eating a mango.

“I know you’re going to write that,” he laughs when I intone some variation of the previous line to him. “I know how these interviews get written about. It’s in the book.”

‘The Book’ is Maps for Lost Lovers, Aslam’s second novel, written between 1992 and 2003, and, sure enough, it contains an article about a young artist, Charag, who is described by the interviewer as “sitting in his flat with a chocolate biscuit in one hand, amid paint-spattered monographs and volumes of critical theory.”

Charag is, like Nadeem Aslam, the child of Pakistani migrants to Britain — though Aslam’s young life varied significantly from that of his fictional creation in that he was born in Pakistan, “in Gujranwala, 20 minutes from the Grand Trunk road.” For the first 14 years of his life the family kept moving between Britain and Pakistan. “Immigrants never want to settle,” he says, explaining the back-and-forth of his family’s life. “They go home and remember why they left in the first place. Then they return (to Britain) and remember why they didn’t want to stay there.” But when Aslam was 14, his parents decided that, for the sake of their children’s education, it was important to stay in one place, so they finally settled in Britain. It was the first time Aslam became conscious of being “a Paki” rather than simply “a Pakistani” but, he says, all the time he’d spent in Pakistan helped limit the damage done by racism. “I knew Pakistanis weren’t inferior. I had knowledge of what was going on in Pakistan and I knew that some of the world’s greatest artists, poets, singers were Pakistani. So I didn’t internalise the racism.”

It’s clear that the world of art and poetry was given great importance in the Aslam household. “We weren’t well off, but there were books everywhere in the house, and paintings — not original prints, but pictures cut out of magazines. There was a reverence towards these things.” It’s no wonder such was the case, since Aslam’s father was himself a poet whose ghazals were published in Pakistan, in the magazine Lail-o-Nahar. The elder Aslam gave up writing when he married and had to bear the financial responsibility of heading a family. Nadeem Aslam’s response to his father’s aborted writing career manifests itself both as a homage to the man, and a determination not to repeat history from one generation to the next.

The homage comes through in the character of Wamaq Saleem who is referred to in both Maps for Lost Lovers and Aslam’s first novel, Season of the Rainbirds, as a great Urdu poet, a man of Faiz-like stature. Wamaq Saleem was the pen-name of Nadeem Aslam’s father. “He will appear in all my novels,” the son asserts. “In the Pakistan of my novels, my father is the poet he could never be in his life because of financial reasons.”

So the homage is an ongoing process. But the determination not to repeat the trajectory of his father’s life led to one significant decision early in Nadeem Aslam’s life — the decision to drop out of university, just months before graduation. “In my third year at university, when it was time to start interviewing for jobs, I panicked. I thought, if I walk into a job I’ll never be a writer. So I dropped out. My friends said, ‘At least graduate. It’ll give you a safety net.’ But a safety net is still a net — I don’t want that.” He thinks it’s very possible that, in the 11 years it took to write Maps for Lost Lovers, “if I’d had something to fall back on, I would have fallen back on it — and the book wouldn’t have got written.”

Instead, during those 11 years, he alternated between being a full-time writer and full-time earner. For two or three months of the year he’d work in factories or building sites, often holding down more than one job at a time, accumulating “chunks of money.” For the rest of the year, he’d write.

“I’d get up, usually at midnight, and write until about five in the morning. Then maybe I’d write letters to friends — I had no e-mail; letters were my way of communicating. Then, I might go for a walk for an hour or two, come back and read until 11 or 12 in the morning. Then write again for 4 or 5 hours, and go to sleep until midnight.”

Has his life changed much now that he’s got significant advances for Maps for Lost Lovers from publishers around the world (so far the book has been sold in 10 countries)? Well, he’s living in London rather than Yorkshire (at least for the moment) and doesn’t have to earn “chunks of money” any more, but he’s still up all night and asleep during the day, writing a new novel, The Wasted Vigil (the title comes form a Chughtai painting), which is about the CIA and set in the Soviet Union, America and Afghanistan. To give an example of how self-enclosed his life can be while he’s writing, he confesses he didn’t hear about September 11 until September 20.

All this may make Nadeem Aslam sound like the stereotype of the anti-social writer who is a lot better at engaging with fictional people and situations than with real ones. This is not the case at all. He’s lively, charming, warm and outgoing — and despite the rigours of his writing schedule he finds time to meet friends, keep up with the latest fashions, wander through exhibitions, and watch movies — whether the newest Almadovar offering or a summer Hollywood blockbuster.

There are, however, limits to his consumption of pop culture. “So what were you listening to in the ’80s,” he said to me at one point when I revealed that his favourites — Bjork, the Stone Roses, The Smiths — weren’t part of my music collection in my teenage years.

“Wham! Madonna. Bryan Adams,” I said.

“You’re joking. You have to be joking. Bryan Adams?”

A few days later I sent him a text message to say I was listening to a Bryan Adams song on the radio. He wrote back: I knew it. I could feel a disturbance in the fabric of the universe as though thousands of souls were crying out in pain.

(Oh yes — in addition to everything else, he’s also very funny.)

So, clearly, ’80s pop singers were not a significant influence on his artistic development. To find out who were the influences, though, you need look no further than the dedication page of Maps for Lost Lovers — the book is for Nadeem Aslam’s father, and for Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Abdur Rahman Chughtai. He talks passionately about the sense of “revelation” he felt as a young man who wanted to be a writer when he came upon a Chughtai painting of two women on a rooftop looking at the Eid moon and saying a dua. “When you read novels set in other societies, the texture of daily life is present through certain images” — in Chughtai he found those images for life in Pakistan. “As a human being you are so used to seeing certain scenes that you almost don’t notice them — but artists show them to you in a way that makes you pay attention.”

What about the influence of other writers? He reels off a list of names: Faiz. Nayyar Masud. Habib Jalib. Parveen Shakir. Intizar Hussain (“as great as Calvino”). Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi (“Pakistan’s Nabakov”). All this, of course, leads to the Language Question. Why does he write exclusively in English when he is clearly so in love with, and at ease in, Urdu? In fact, his first published work was an Urdu story, printed in Imroze (“It was about a boy who couldn’t do his maths homework, so it was clearly autobiographical”).

But, he explains, when his family settled in the UK, he lost touch with Urdu until after his university years. “And I’m obsessive. If I’m going to write in a language I want to know it so well that I’m aware of all its possibilities. I don’t have that with Urdu, though I speak it and read it and sometimes think in it. But, of course, having Urdu is a freedom.” He shrugs. “Anyway, things get translated these days so hopefully my writing will be available in Urdu.”

This brings us round to the matter of his book’s possible reception in Pakistan. Maps for Lost Lovers is a book of great humanity and compassion, but it is also unflinching in its portrayal of some of the worst aspects of life in Pakistani communities — honour killings, religious obscurantism, gender inequities to name only a few. What does he say to people who take the view that the west doesn’t need any more negative images of Pakistan to add to the ones they’ve already got?

He answers carefully, thoughtfully, reminding me of a story he’d told me earlier of a town in England where a maulvi was discovered to be a paedophile. When the abused child’s parents wanted to go to the police they were threatened at gunpoint by members of the Muslim community. “The attitude was, we’ll take care of this problem ourselves. But don’t let the white people know that this sort of thing goes on in our community. Well, that attitude is just the attitude you’re talking about, taken to an extreme.” He starts to speak faster. “I live in the west. I have a knowledge of how it works, its injustices and subtle repressions, but I also know this other world, and I have to bring news of that, too.”

The town in which the paedophile mauvli lived was Tipton — “mention that name to most English people and they’ll think of the British Muslims from Tipton who were locked up in Guantanamo Bay. But that’s only looking from one angle. You have to also look at the world they grew up in, the attitudes there, in order to understand how they got to Guantanamo Bay. You need to know the stories of the abused boy whose parents were held at gunpoint. You need to know all the stories.”

He goes on to talk of reading Urdu newspapers, and finding letters and articles and columns discussing the rough treatment Pakistanis are facing at the hands of immigration officials in New York — “and of course you do have to be outraged about that. America is a superpower; we must keep an eye on it. But surely a few particles of outrage should be attached to Osama Bin Laden? When you say that to people they say, oh, but that’s implicit. Why isn’t it explicit? We have to say these things out loud now.”

We end things by talking about his relationship with Pakistan, a country he hasn’t been back to since the age of 14 — “though only for financial reasons. Now that I can afford to go, I will.” The long absence was particularly trying when he was writing his first novel, set in a Pakistani town. “One of my frustrations with it was I couldn’t go back and see the landscape, the birds, the peepal trees and parakeet feathers. I would have to ask my mother questions like, can you have cauliflower cooked the week after the monsoons? And she’d say, no, cauliflowers are in the winter.”

I ask him, with all the time he’s spent away, does he consider himself a Pakistani writer? Through the interview this is the only time he doesn’t quite seem to have the words in which to frame the answer. “I think that’s for people in Pakistan to decide,” he says, a little hesitantly. “I mean, writers tend to be a little isolated, so you don’t fully engage with any society…” He trails off, and shakes his head.

“Well, put it this way,” I say. “If someone in Pakistan called you a Pakistani writer would you have a problem with that?” His face breaks into a huge smile. “Wait, is that what you’re asking? That’s what the question means?” The smile grows impossibly broader. “Are you kidding? I’d be thrilled if someone in Pakistan claimed me. It would be an honour. Write that in the article — if anyone sees me walking along the Grand Trunk Road and feels like saying ‘You are one of us,’ tell them to please, please do it.”

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