Title: Maps for Lost lovers
Author: Nadeem Aslam
AN INCURABLE ROMANTIC FULL OF WRITERLY TICS, NADEEM ASLAM TOOL ELEVEN-AND-A-HALF YEARS TO WRITE HIS BOOK. PRIYANKA GILL PROFILES THE WRITER EVERYONE'S TALKING ABOUT
Nadeem Aslam’s second book Maps for Lost Lovers took eleven-and-a -half years to write. A year-and-a-half into the book, Aslam decided that the scope of his novel was much bigger so he spent the next four-and-a-half years writing 100-page back stories of his characters, the town and the seasons — that is 900 pages — in long-hand. “I was too poor to afford a computer,” he tells me. Once that was done, he got down to finishing the actual novel. Most authors would then call up their editor with the good news, but not Aslam. For a further year-and-a-half, he read the entire novel paragraph by painstaking paragraph into a tape recorder; just to make sure “it sounded right”. Only then did the final version get typed into his computer. By this time, he had received a financial grant from the Royal Literary Fund so he could afford one.
Big advances are now an endemic part of the game, but money is not something that Aslam considers important. “I was taught early by my father to loathe money. It doesn’t drive me. If I had the money when I was writing Maps, I would have finished the novel in nine years perhaps. I would not have wasted time working as a construction worker, a bin man and an usher at a cinema.” He returned a third of the grant as he didn’t need it, thinking that it might help some other author. This unworldly attitude is what Aslam considers normal and what the press thinks is fascinating. Draping his windows with black cloth, secluding himself for months at a time, sleeping on the floor because he was too tired to make it to bed are all part of the legend that surrounds the man. For Aslam, it was simply something that was “completely practical and had to be done”. But he does wish that he had never disclosed this to journalists. “I didn’t know it would become such a big issue. For me it was simply a matter of not wasting time.”
Aslam is a fascinating man, soft spoken, and full of nervous energy. His hands gesticulate wildly as he speaks, sometimes pausing to almost caress the copy of the novel that lies before him. Ever so often he reverently runs his hands along its spine. Born in Pakistan, he was 15 when his family moved to the uk. This was when he first realised that his race was an important part of his identity. “In Pakistan I was never conscious of being a Muslim. Everyone around me was Muslim as well.
But in England I realised that I was different and, even worse, I was a ‘Paki’.” But the insult did not bother him too much and it went on to become the crux of his novels. Both Seasons of the Rainbirds and Maps for Lost Lovers deal with the issues of being a Pakistani in Britain, the struggle between Islam and modernity, the place of women in Islamic society.
Although the books have a strong Muslim component, Aslam calls himself a non-believer. “I am a cultural Muslim. Persian paintings, Urdu ghazals are all a part of my upbringing, they are something I turn to for inspiration. But religion is not something I have faith in. I don’t believe that there is a god, or a Christian heaven or a Muslim heaven. We are born, we live – hopefully happily — and we die and our bodies become part of the earth to give nutrients to beautiful flowers.” So are you a Muslim? I ask. “Before 9/11 I would have said no, but now I insist I am. It is time that moderate Muslims like myself stand up and say we are all not fundamentalists or Islamists and we don’t approve of people who fly planes into office buildings.” But why do you wear beads on your left wrist? I persist. “That’s just a fashion statement,” he replies with an impish shrug.
Taboo subjects are not something that Aslam shies away from. Honour killings, beatings of Muslim women, questionable sexual practices of clerics, forced marriages and the hypocrisy of Muslim men are explored in the book with great candour and fearlessness. He claims that he did not realise how controversial the subjects were. “I read the Urdu newspapers every day and these things are being talked about all the time in them. I wanted to add my voice to those people.” And what a voice it is. The book is replete with metaphors, vivid imagery. But there is also a kind of desperation to make every single word count. Critical acclaim, however, is not something he courts. “Writing is something I do for myself. Through it I understand my place in the world and the workings of my consciousness. If others find it relevant it is because my experience is the same as that of billions of other people.”
Aslam’s first foray into writing was as a child, a short story written in Urdu about a boy who could not do his maths homework. Admittedly autobiographical, writing in English is something he later taught himself to do. “The first page of my earlier novel was my first page of creative writing in English,” and Salman Rushdie called this attempt one of the most impressive first novels in recent years. But as a child he wanted to be a painter. It is a dream he still holds on to. “I do paint, and really if I could paint as good as I think I can write, I wouldn’t write.” Till then, he works on his third novel — 125 pages are done. But we won’t have to wait for eleven years to read them as he hopes to finish the novel sooner. “It’s a different book, slightly faster paced.” He still writes bits in longhand. As he shows me a few pages, I have to strain my eyes to read the minute, meticulous handwriting.
An incurable romantic, the thing he most cherishes is delight in the world. “Things like spider webs, bird feathers, the quality of light, and how snow changes colour at different times during the day, you know, at dawn it can be blue, a particular shade of blue, at mid-day it can be a particular shade of gold, at sunset it can be a particular shade of apricot, peachy red. If I lost that I can’t imagine what I would do.” He is also a nocturnal person. “I sleep during the day. I get up around midnight and write till five in the morning. Then I write letters to friends, now I have e-mail so that’s easy. I go for a walk for a couple of hours, then I come back and read until mid-day, then I write for another three or four hours and then I go to sleep until midnight and the whole cycle begins. Unless of course, I’m being interviewed, in which case I haven’t slept – I’ve been up all night.”
For Aslam, an age seems to have passed him by as he was writing Maps for Lost Lovers. “I feel like Rip Van Winkle. When I removed myself from the world to write, e-mails and mobile phones were a rarity, now they are everywhere. It is rather disorientating.” A year or so ago he saw people with mobile phones, frantically tapping out numbers and thought, well, they must have a lot of numbers to call. Only later he realised that they were texting. With a boyish smile, he shows me his new Panasonic mobile and yes, he too texts his friends.
August 07, 2004