Title: The Golden Legend
Author: Nadeem Aslam
Publisher: Penguin Random House India
Pages: 361; Price: Rs 599
As I was reading The Golden Legend news of the terror attack in Manchester came out. The relevance of this book, which paints a picture about religious intolerance and the hate it propagates, suddenly felt even more important. For that instant, I felt very afraid – realising the fictionalised tale Nadeem Aslam tells is very much a reality for many people in different corners of the world. Though it is surely a timeless moving book, the timing made its impact much more hard-hitting.
Set in Pakistan, Nadeem describes how prejudice stews and sputters in hearts and minds before it explodes as hateful and horrifying atrocities people perpetuate against each other. As I read, I felt rather dismal, part of me realising it is unlikely for those who thrive on hate to allow light to fill them instead. I fought hard to hold on to the notion that with time, education and awareness we, as a race, can and will change just like the protagonists cling to that hope through all their anguish.
A loving and generous architect couple are torn apart when the husband, Massud, is killed by a stray bullet in the drive-by shootout. His devastated wife, Nargis, is left grieving in the aftermath and with burden of a lifelong secret to protect. Just as she tries to make sense and consolidate her life, a relationship between a Catholic man and a Muslim woman is discovered and labelled blasphemous by men hardened by fear and false notions of religious piety. This becomes the catalyst and aggravating (for the reader) validation for unleashing the hate seething within many, leading to relentless persecution and violence. The incidents that follow and their vivid descriptions deeply sadden you with the weight of truth they carry.
In the midst of the turbulence this novel tells of, a sweet and innocent romance blooms between Helen, a Christian girl who needs to stay in hiding for her own safety, and Imran, a Kashmiri Muslim fleeing his homeland and his past. They represent a resilient youth – desperate to hold on to love in a time of hate.
Nadeem’s portrayal is sophisticated and with powerful realness, the world that is truly too full of fear – fear of other, fear of another, fear of each other. It is melancholy, this story, and at times it almost seems impossible to believe that we will be able to rid ourselves of this fear and just get along. But, despite the overwhelming sadness, watching Imran and Helen’s love evolve helps you find some strength. The strength to believe in hope – that love will someday, somehow conquer hate, that trust will not allow fear to raise its ugly head and tear us apart as human beings.
Nadeem’s narrative is rather melancholy, but replete with marvellous lines that blow you away with the imagery he conjures. His prose paints eloquent portraits illustrates profound ideas and reflects hard-to-describe emotions with seeming ease – the mark of a true master. Lines that urge you to stop and reread them are rare, but this book has several that made me gasp with joy at the beauty and depth of the words and the perceptions portrayed. Awed by his command of the language and storytelling, I have stopped to read out lines to friends just so we can smile and admire the exquisite craft of this poetic writer.
The way we classify books into genres is fluid, but this beautiful and touching book for sure fits the bill of exceptional literary fiction. I leave you with my favourite line from the book: Massud went towards the study, passing under the rosewood trees that were being visited by many dozens of pale butterflies. It was a wonder to him that so much activity did not produce any noise.