The Blind Man’s Garden, the often gorgeous and sometimes frustrating fourth novel by Nadeem Aslam, opens just one month after the 9/11 attacks. The same act of terrorism that has convulsed the world sends two young Pakistani men on a journey that will alter their lives and shred the fabric of their extended family.
Jeo and Mikal, best friends and foster brothers, are headed to Afghanistan to join the war effort. Jeo, a third-year medical student, has told his new wife and family that he has agreed to work for a few weeks in a hospital in Peshawar. Only Mikal knows Jeo’s true intent — to sneak into Afghanistan to help care for the wounded as the U.S. carries out its promise to bomb that nation back into the Stone Age. Mikal tells Jeo he will join him, and even as the duo pack and plan, the seeds of their undoing are sown.
On the first night of their trip to the Afghan border, Jeo and Mikal are tricked by their driver and, thanks to a plot by an enemy back in their Pakistani hometown, the brothers are sold into the private army of a warlord. They try to escape, are promptly captured by a band of Taliban warriors, and soon find themselves in the middle of a chaotic firefight.
Back home in Heer (a fictional town that shares a name with a famous Punjabi romance) Jeo’s wife, Naheem, faces the consequences of her own dangerous secret. Though she married Jeo a little over a year ago, the week before the wedding she was ready to run away with Mikal, who has been her secret lover. It’s only because Mikal never showed up on the night they were to elope that she wound up married to Jeo. And now, with the brothers swept up by war, Naheem longs for one and suffers guilt over the other.
Mikal, meanwhile, has been captured by the Americans, who think he’s a high-level Al Qaeda commander. Despite prolonged and repeated harsh handling – Mikal would have no problem picking sides on the question of whether waterboarding is torture – he refuses to give the Americans so much as his name. Eventually freed, he promptly commits a crime that puts him back into the crosshairs. His flight across Afghanistan and back to Heer, to be reunited with Naheem and to learn Jeo’s fate, becomes ever more perilous.
Anchoring the sprawl and chaos of Aslam’s vast canvas is Jeo’s father, Rohan. He’s a devout Muslim, the founder of a school around whose buildings a fantastical garden grows. All manner of trees and flowers and birds fill the air with scent and song and, as the occasion requires, symbolism and allegory. And that’s the challenge for Aslam, whose gift for the lyrical smacks head-on into his relish for the spectacular.
At his best, Aslam lets tiny details tell bigger stories, like showing that on her arm, Naheem bears “a series of tiny scars where her glass bangles had broken accidentally against (Jeo’s) chest on the wedding night.” Rohan, his eyes bandaged and his sight failing, listens to streets sounds and ‘sees’ “…the arcades under which pieces of meat sizzle, cubbyhole shops selling Japanese sewing machines, English tweed and Chinese crockery, the fruit sellers behind the walls of stacked oranges and women’s clothes hanging in shop windows in sheaths of pure lines and colors, teaching one the meaning of grace in one’s life…”
All the more contrast, then, when participants in a melee are “as angry as a snake in an eagle’s claws”.
An opening tale about a peddler who ensnares wild birds, then sells their freedom to buyers hoping to wipe out sins, is vivid and original and heartbreaking. That same taste for the magical turns almost farcical, such as when Mikal, finally home with his beloved Naheem, suddenly goes back to Afghanistan on a quixotic errand for a man he barely knows. While on his perilous quest, he quite unconvincingly encounters the one man on earth who most wants him dead.
And yet The Blind Man’s Garden, as glorious as it is messy, is worth the effort. Aslam and his family fled Pakistan and settled in England when he was 14. When writing about his native land, Aslam’s words are haloed, imprinted with an expat’s exquisite longing.
The same unruliness that keeps the novel’s multiple stories from forming a single strand throws into high relief Aslam’s understanding of the building blocks of war. From the small-scale cruelty of fundamentalist Muslims attacking women mourners for trying to enter a graveyard, to the U.S. military seeing the enemy in non-American foreign face, a million tiny wars coalesce into The War, and woe to anyone on any side who gets in its way.