"Shamas stands in the open door and watches the earth, the magnet that it is, pulling snowflakes out of the sky towards itself. With their deliberate, almost-impaired pace, they fall like feathers sinking in water." (Aslam 1)
Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers opens with a poetic explanation of one of the main characters, Shamas, watching the snow. The experience of watching, waiting, and meditating in a cold, desolate place adequately opens this novel that contemplates pain, isolation, disappointment, and faith. Shamas soon realizes that his brother Jugnu and Jugnu’s girlfriend, Chanda, have disappeared. Later, it is discovered that Chanda’s brothers murdered the two lovers. Chanda and Jugnu die because they sinned in their faith and acted dishonorably by living together before marriage, the brothers tell their friends. The real tragedy, however, is that Chanda and Jugnu are unable to marry because, though her husband abandoned her a few years ago, she is not allowed to remarry after abandonment in Islam for seven years. Chanda and Jugnu live together as man and wife and wait for the seven years to end, but they are brutally murdered. Pain, guilt and loneliness radiate out of this event like giant rippling waves, and Chanda and Jugnu’s death becomes a symbol for everything beautiful and ugly in the characters lives. In fact, the Pakistani immigrants are so desolate that they have named their homeland, Dast-e-Tanhaii, the Wilderness of Solitude, the Desert of Lonliness. It is a pity that this desert is not only England but their own souls.
As Shamas and his wife Kaukab absorb the hurt of this traumatizing event, they are forced to look at their own relationship. Kaukab is a devout Muslim, “raised under a minaret’ by a Muslim cleric, while Shamas is a communist and a non-believer. The struggle of the West versus East, or Muslims versus non-Muslims takes places in their living room. They both come to England for a better life, but instead they find themselves in a half-world; they are not English, but neither are they fully Pakistani. They have forsaken their homeland for a new country that will not allow them to assimilate. Shamas understands this and makes the most of it. Kaukab pines for Pakistan and condemns the West for ‘stealing her children’ and making her miserable. She is a good woman, but she is stuck in a context where she is no longer understood by or relevant to her children and husband. One of her sons has married a white woman; the other son blames her for Jugnu’s death; her daughter left her husband in Pakistan, wears Western clothing, and cut her long hair. She does not know her children, and her tradition, plus her seemingly unwavering faith in Allah, hinders her from crossing the divide. After Kaukab fights with her daughter, slapping her across the face for a perceived slight, she desires desperately to connect with her daughter, to throw off the shackles of restraint ingrained in her mind by her mother and love her family, but she cannot. She is afraid of gossip and losing face with her neighbors; she worries that others will condemn her for accepting her children’s deviation from the true faith, so she keeps her distance. Kaukab is lonely and in pain, but, according to Aslam, this is not uncommon in Islam. Aslam makes clear that Islam is the hardest on its women.
Aslam’s true brilliance in this novel is surprisingly not the characterization, which is incredibly subtle, nuanced and real, but his language. Maps for Lost Lovers is a prose poem. He imbues his story with perfect-pitched metaphor, sensuous allusions to Muslim fable and Eastern myth, and beautiful imagery from nature. Aslam tells his tale in first person with the result that the language lilts and moves like the prose from a fairy tale. Moths and butterflies fill the pages and chart the course for lovers. Jugnu’s hands glow in the dark, and as moths are attracted to light, so they are attracted to Jugnu. Jugnu glows with life and with love, but in a society where emotion and feeling are sacrificed to duty and covered up with fabric, he is sacrificed, too. Many of these characters are moths, with dull brown colors, unable to become vibrant butterflies, bright with color and life.
The pursuit of life, love, and light is the real purpose for many of these characters, and Aslam seems to blame Islam for their inability to achieve it. There is very little in this novel that praises Islam, and much that argues for change. However, this is not a political novel, and it does not argue for a revolution inside the faith. It does, though, illustrate the isolation and despair that Islam brings about within its own flock. It is a mind-opening experience for the Western reader, and I believe it is a must read.