Despite being set in Zamana, a fictional city in contemporary Pakistan, this novel is no fantasy. Its depiction of religious intolerance is quite the opposite—all too depressingly real. Yet author Nadeem Aslam shines hope into nightmare with the notion that love (and books) could, one day, conquer all.
The story begins in the home of married Muslim couple Nargis and Massud, two architects. They have informally adopted the daughter of their Christian servants, Helen, whose mother, Grace, has been murdered. The male perpetrator serves less than a year in prison (let off because he has memorized the whole of the Koran) and is now free. Helen’s father, Lily, bears this injustice and continues his job as a rickshaw driver.
One day, Massud is caught in the crossfire of an assassination attempt. The target, a white American, returns fire, killing Massud in the process. Because the American has diplomatic immunity. Nargis is told by Major Burhan, the military intelligence chief in charge of the case, that she must pardon him and accept blood money instead of seeking justice. She has no intention of doing so, even if it means revealing her long-kept secret: that she was actually born a Christian called Margaret. In the Orwellian world of Zamana, impersonating a Muslim could constitute blasphemy and incur a possibly fatal penalty.
Meanwhile, Helen’s father Lily is covertly carrying on an affair with a Muslim widow. The relationship is subsequently exposed and generates a terrifying backlash. Lily is made a pariah, as is Helen when her questioning journalism riles the authorities. Both father and daughter are deemed to have committed crimes against Islam and “wanted” posters of them adorn the city.
Nargis and Helen hide on an island in the river where, years before, Nargis and Massud started but never completed a building project. In its center is a mosque with four doors, through which, they imagined, the different sects of Islam could enter before joining together in prayer. This earthly paradise is completed by the ex-jihadi Imran, on the run from a training camp. He soon wins Helen’s heart, thus showing, metaphorically at least, that reconciliation between Islam and Christianity is possible.
Such a resolution is achievable, Aslam posits, because the warring religions are actually two sides of the same coin. Aslam frequently highlights the similarities between each faith’s “golden legends”, mainly through including sections of a book written by Massud’s father entitled That They Might Know Each Other. This impressive tome, which is referenced so often as to seem lecturing, is in fact ripped up at the start of the novel by Major Burhan. By the finishing chapter, however, the fugitives have sown the book back together with gold thread, signalling that history can be repaired.
Such a tiny glimmer of hope needs a dark background to be noticed and Aslam paints his very black indeed. He heaps abuse after abuse on to his characters: bigotry and bullying, followed by torture and imprisonment, all combined with an omnipresent government surveillance looking for thoughtcrime to punish. Just as the boundaries of credibility are reached, Aslam lobs in a matter-of-fact statement which gives the fiction a horrible ring of authenticity. For example:
… he waited there on the footpath, beside a man selling second-hand clothes from Western countries. They were donated by charities and were meant to be free, but in Pakistan due to corruption they had to be bought.
Whether the writing is fact, fiction or somewhere in between is not so relevant. Alsam conveys to the reader that he has an intimate knowledge of his material. And it is more than reportage—Aslam also has a solution.
It is voiced by Nargis’ uncle Solomon, a Christian bishop. He equates evil with stupidity rather than believing it to be an innate and supernatural force. Brought down to this level, evil and its permutations (bigotry and so on) could be solved through a simple process of education. All it requires—much like we see in this novel—is just a few people to do the right thing.