After weeks of Penelope Fitzgerald’s brisk prose, starting Aslam’s novel, with its rich, luxuriant writing, felt like lowering myself into a hot perfumed bath after a long but rewarding day. Poetic doesn’t begin to describe the fragrant mass of images and sense-impressions that fill every sentence. His personification of the natural world adds to the atmosphere of mystery, of legends handed down through the generations.
Here is the first paragraph:
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. The snowstorm has rinsed the air of the incense that drifts into the houses from the nearby lake with the xylophone jetty, but it is there even when absent, drawing attention to its own disappearance.
The couple who have disappeared are Shamas’s brother Jugnu and Jugnu’s girlfriend Chanda, who have been living together in the face of the angry opposition of their families and community of Pakistani immigrants. The immigrants from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka who populate this English town have renamed the town and the streets in it with names more familiar to them.
It is this clash of the traditions the immigrants have brought with the Western culture of their new homes which powers the novel. Coexisting with lush descriptions of spices and silks and forests are brutal actions dictated by Islamic holy men and almost, but not quite, equally brutal attacks by furious xenophobic white people.
Shamas is our guide through these conflicting events. Educated and worldly, he is the Director of the Community Relations Council and the person everyone turns to when they need help navigating the world outside the community. With a foot in both worlds, Shamas tries to help his people while despairing at the cruel punishments they inflict on each other for some perceived sin, such as parents asking a holy man to exorcise their daughter—obviously possessed with djinns because she has fallen in love with a Hindu boy—listening as the man tortures and beats their daughter to death.
The clash of cultures afflicts Shamas’s own family, where his devout wife’s adherence to Muslim practices goes so far as to refuse to breastfeed a newborn during Ramadan’s daylight hours. She has driven away their three now-grown children, each choosing to integrate themselves into the wider world.
Yet Aslam presents these characters with compassion, gently asking the reader to recognise the reasons they act as they do. And he wraps the story, with its many pairs of lost lovers, in the beauty of the world in all its flavors and in the intoxication and deep comfort of love.
What novel have you read that opened your eyes to another culture?