From the minarets, all their dark secrets revealed
Certain identities can strip people of their right to identify as humans. These people find their existence undesired, their rights, freedom, choices unguarded. Nadeem Aslam's The Golden Legend (Penguin Books India, 2017) can turn its readers into the guardian angels of these marginalised people to shield and sustain their stories long after one has put the book down.
The novel is set in Zamana, a fictional city in Pakistan, where someone has started broadcasting dark, secret sins of people from the minarets of the city's mosques. Lily, a Christian taxi driver, and his daughter, Helen, pay the price of being members of a religious minority under Pakistan's blasphemy law, which can inflict years of sentencing or even death for a sin as small as drinking from a Muslim's utensils. Lily's employer, Nargis, is an architect who is being threatened by a military intelligence officer to pardon the killer of her recently murdered husband. Through the lives of these characters, Nadeem Aslam makes vivid the utilitarian misuse of religion, legal endorsement of communalism, anti-patriotic greed of political forces, and what it means to live and love under these circumstances.
The story takes place in diversely picturesque backdrops: a dense neighbourhood named Badami Bagh, a spacious study with cabins modelled after the Hagia Sophia and the Great Mosque of Cordoba, a glass flower museum, a home in a mosque on a secluded island, and the heavily militarised valleys of Kashmir. Aslam knits the words in his books with a rare intricacy and perfection. Like all of his previous work, this fifth and latest novel embodies the craftsmanship that casts a spell on the reader from the very first page. His pacing is fast enough to retain our attention yet slow enough to inject the author's reflections on political impunity and religious fanaticism in contemporary Pakistan.
Aslam puts the marginalised Christian community at the heart of the story to reveal the religious discrimination that never makes it to newspapers. Readers meet a Kashmiri character, too, whose past reveals heart-wrenching accounts of how homes grew empty and mass graves started filling up in the world's most densely militarised zone. Shrieks from interrogation cells reverberate through the pages and martyrs of the Mutineer Movement of 1857 haunt them with the traumatic afflictions of history. Trigger warning for readers—the novel has its fair share of violence.
This is balanced beautifully as Aslam drops little nuggets of trivia throughout the book. Riddles from the Bible mirror the questions eating away at a character's heart; the long journey that poet Wamaq Saleem made to reach his beloved figuratively alludes to the journey of lovers in the book. Aslam uses such elements to foreshadow events to come and thus conjures his own, unique version of pathetic fallacy.
The Golden Legend contains within itself another book—That They Might Know Each Other—written by Nargis's father-in-law. While The Golden Legend is rife with religious divide, extracts from That They Might Know Each Other, placed in different parts of the book, contain wholesome stories of unity from across the globe. But every page of this book gets shredded. Though its tattered pieces eventually coalesce to symbolise hope, Aslam's book, The Golden Legend, remains far from it. It is not a story about hope. It is the chronogram of people left battered by the blows of an ultra-religious and politicised narrative.
Noushin Nuri is studying business in school and literature at home. She can be reached at [email protected]