While Nadeem Aslam’s latest book The Golden Legend contains many elements of his earlier novels — the lonely struggle of individuals against the forces of bigotry and hatred, the attempt to find beauty and love in an increasingly violent and militant society, the artist’s (doomed) resolve to break free of stifling social conventions and speak the truth — this new work perhaps surpasses others in terms of lyrical beauty and narrative rhythm.
The story unfolds in Lahore-like city called Zamana, and the tragic events of the novel are triggered by an incident on the Grand Trunk Road. The husband and wife architect duo, Massud and Nargis, have designed a new library, and for the process of transferring the books from one of Zamana’s oldest libraries they decide to use a human chain — a line of volunteers who will pass each book along the line so the books ‘travel a mile-long succession of hands.’ But then shots are fired when an incident occurs which is near identical to the Raymond Davis incident of January 2011 when a CIA contractor fired at two men on a motorcycle who he suspected of following his car in Lahore, and in which a total of three people were killed, and a bullet hits Massud.
The tragedy of Massud’s death triggers a series of events that will destroy many lives, and turn Nargis into a fugitive. A Major from the military intelligence agency turns up at their house, and informs Nargis that she must co-operate with him for national security reasons and ‘pardon’ the American shooter. He becomes violent and threatening when she resists this demand, and later she is sent a message by the militants occupying the local mosque that she must absolutely not pardon the American. Nargis is numbed by her grief but now she also lives in terror that a secret concerning her true identity may be exposed.
She and Massud have no children but they have brought up Helen, the daughter of their Christian employees as their own and when Helen is accused of blasphemous writing, and posters with her photograph are plastered all over the city, the two women are forced to leave their homes and go on the run.
Along the way they encounter another fugitive, Imran aka Moscow, who is from the Indian administered part of Kashmir, and has run away from his militant training camp after his handlers assign him various terror-related assassinations in the city. He is an enigmatic character whose sorrowful past unfolds slowly as he gets to know them after throwing in his lot with theirs, and taking on the role of protector and friend.
The story conveys vividly what it is like to live always close to the possibility of extreme violence. The incident in which Massud is shot is followed by an attack on a magazine office, where armed gunmen storm the office, lecture the editor on how his publication has offended Islamic sentiment, and kill as many people as they can, even beheading some victims.
Then there is the incident where an armed mob burns down the houses of the Christian families in the neighbourhood, and kills a few people, and then there is the ongoing threat of violence from the militants occupying the neighbourhood mosque.
Violence and brutality has touched the lives of everyone in the story, and the main characters strive to hold on to their belief in the human spirit, in truth, in beauty, in love. A tome on links and possible connections between historical figures in Occident and Orient, becomes an important motif in the story.
Written by Massud’s father, this book outlives Massud, and gives a focus to Nargis’s life after it is vandalised and its pages ripped as part of the Major’s coercion of her. Nargis carries the book with her while she is on the run, and painstakingly mends the pages with golden thread. Helen and Imran join in the project and despite the attack on it, the book with its message of cultural and religious co-operation and tolerance survives the violence, thanks to the restoration efforts of these people who believe in its message.
The Golden Legend is a remarkable achievement. It is very much rooted in time and place, and yet it is timeless and universal. Aslam’s prose is heart-rendingly beautiful, and his descriptions with all their detail and simplicity are poetic. His description of even such a mundane thing as the preparation of kulcha (bread) is memorable.
The book is full of a sense of melancholy yet ultimately it conveys a sort of optimism in the essential humanity of our species, and reminds one that you should still dare to dream, still dare to be compassionate, still dare to speak the truth and fight injustice.