Family values

Submitted by AWL on 15 August, 2004 - 10:18

Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers is a skilful evocation of the lives of a Pakistani immigrant community in a northern English town at the end of the 1990s.
This is the kind of "deprived community" Robin Cook has recently been touring in an effort to convince Muslims that New Labour really has done something for the poor. That claim is not convincing.

Certainly this town - which the original migrant community renamed Dasht-e-Tanhaii, to mean "The Wilderness of Loneliness" or "The Desert of Solitude" - is a very desolate place.

It offers a miserable, lonely life for many of these working class people, particularly the older women, who are cut off from wider society by barriers of language and fear of violence and intimidation by some white people. Aslam's Pakistani community is not so much an "enclave", as the liberal establishment like to say, but a ghetto.

And in the ghetto there are strict codes of conduct, a kind of negative solidarity: we must all abide by the rules if we are to survive in this hostile terrain, even if those rules are a recipe for unhappiness.

Aslam has created a devastating portrait of the effect of traditional tribal values on the lives and emotional life of a group of people. Extra-marital and pre-marital sex may happen, but it must never be talked about. Arranged marriages more often than not break down in acrimony, violence even. Then we must make sure the "girl" is remarried off again quickly to preserve her reputation.

Aslam's story begins as two brothers are arrested for the murder of their sister Chanda and her lover Jugnu. The lovers were "living in sin". Their killing, in the eyes of much of the community, has redeemed the "honour" of their families.

The story follows a year in the lives of their family and community as they struggle to come to terms with the killing.

Nadeem Aslam presents - without any textual polemic at all - many important political issues. He does this subtly, by creating complicated characters. There is Jugnu's brother Shamas, a (lapsed) Communist and social worker. And Shamas's wife Kaukub, a woman of devout Muslim beliefs who has driven her sons and daughters away with her protective "love" and strictness. A woman whose "fundamentalism" could have been used to portray her as a monster. But her naivety and pathetic loneliness just about redeems her.

Aslam's underlying theme seems to me to be a concept of "natural love".

A love that is not the love-duty a child feels for her parent or which the parent demands - as Kaukub does of her children.

Nor is it the adherence to a rigid family code, propounded by the mosque, backed up by the gossipers and curtain twitchers of the neighbourhood.

Nor the "love" husband and wife must pretend to feel as they come together by the arrangements of their family.

And never the "love" the ultra-religious have for their god which squashes all individual choice and freedom.

The structures of "unnatural love" - duty to family and the religious/cultural code - cause unlimited pain.

Shamas's daughter Mah-Jabin is raped and beaten by her husband. But she cannot tell her mother or father because she feels she will cause them pain… and not a little shame.

This is a totalitarian system, the totalitarianism of a tribal system and the village-ghetto way of life.

There are many other stories that could be told about Britain's Pakistani community. These may be stories of the mainly young people, and possibly richer people, who are happy to be integrated into UK society. But this story by Nadeem Aslam is much more urgent and important.

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