Book Reviews

Maps for Lost Lovers by
Nadeem Aslam

Faber & Faber, London; Alfred A. Knopf, New York

Illicit love is not sanctioned and honor killings are ever-present threats in this powerful fictional expose of expatriate Pakistani society.

Embedded in the story is the impossibility that an immigrant community’s Pakistani values can be entirely maintained in Britain. Jugnu and Chanda have been murdered for living together openly. Jugnu is a lepidopterist who has traveled the world collecting moths and butterflies. He once worked in a clock factory painting radium dials on clocks, which gave his hands a luminous quality very attractive to moths. We learn that Chanda has been pressured to marry her cousins and is twice-divorced by the time she is 18. Her third husband has not divorced her yet, and so to love Jugnu is a sin. The narration weaves in and out of the lives of Jugnu’s brother and sister-in-law, Shamas and Kaukab.

Kaukab is tightly drawn as a devout Muslim who fulfils her roles of cleric’s daughter, Shamas’s pious wife, and orthodox mother whose principal goal is to secure respectable Muslim marriages for her children. Shamas is her binary opposite. A thwarted poet, social activist and communist—there are elements of the poets Faiz and Saleem’s lives here—he cannot bear the hypocrisy of an Islam that makes hypocrites of men and that enslaves women. The narrative hovers close to Shamas’s world view, even when we are privy to Kaukab’s thoughts. Various honor killings are highlighted like news reports, while within the turbulent action of community life Shamas dares to expose a cleric at the local mosque for his paedophilia. We come to know about the lives of Jugnu and Chanda’s killers, and learn about their own infidelities, and thus we can gauge the enormity of the religious trap this community lives in.

In the subcontinent there are five seasons counting the Monsoon. The tremendous structural irony of the novel is that it is constructed around four British seasons (or perhaps the fifth is Aslam’s first novel Season of the Rainbirds).

Nadeem Aslam has a poet’s sensibility. References abound to Urdu poets: Ghalib, Wamaq Saleem (pen-name of the author’s father), Kalidasa, Hasan Abdi. A rich symbolism is at play: the many appearances of moths who represent angels; the Garden of Edenlike park where lovers meet; Dasht-e-Tanhaii, the name of the Pakistani community where the novel is set and which literally means “Desert of Loneliness” or “The Wilderness of Solitude.” The reported theft of iridescent freeway lane markers is like a cloud of stars out of a Faiz poem (who Aslam dedicates this novel to), while Sufi poets are regarded, the narrator tells us, as the Muslim Opposition ready to speak out about social injustices. This novel is also a revelatory introduction to Pakistani poetry.

This is a simple tragedy of lovers, concerned for butterflies and moths, who are murdered for being in love. The novel returns to their lives through the memories and confessions of their families. The many instances of misogyny contribute to the novel’s sense of immense social pressure.

Maps for Lost Lovers is reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s novels Shame and The Satanic Verses. This painful story is drawn out on an illuminated manuscript with filigrees of flowers, peacocks, parakeets, angel-moths, studded with Urdu verses, so that through its intimacy with such cultural beauty and the pain of religious repression it sings of liberation. This is an important work for our time.

Reviewed by Robert Sullivan