Set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Nadeem Aslam fourth novel begins with two young Pakistani men slipping over the border into Afghanistan. Jeo is a third-year medical student who has secretly volunteered to treat those wounded in the ‘war against terror’, and he is accompanied by his adopted brother Mikal, who works at a gun shop. The action moves back and forth between the bloody chaos of Afghanistan and the small Pakistani town of Heer, where Naheed, who is married to Jeo but in love with Mikal, awaits their return. Trying to do the right thing in impossible circumstances, whether in love or in war, is central to the novel.
All wars are savage, but the one depicted in The Blind Man’s Garden is particularly brutal, not only because of the many competing factions in Afghanistan, but also because of the United States policy of paying large bounties for ‘terrorist suspects’ in a desperately poor country. The result is that almost anyone can be captured or kidnapped and sold on to warlords who are guaranteed $5,000 a head for handing them over to American troops. In this way, alongside dangerous jihadists, wholly innocent young men end up in ‘interrogation facilities’, where they are subjected to various forms of torture in an attempt to elicit information they do not possess.
Things are scarcely better back in Pakistan, where the law is administered by police who refuse to investigate the disappearance of a family member, only to insist when she turns up again that any woman who has left her home voluntarily ‘must explain to us, as agents of decent society, where she has been’. A school set up with high ideals by Jeo’s father, the blind man of the novel’s title, has been taken over by fundamentalists and now trains young men for jihad; a female vigilante group decides that only men should be allowed to visit cemeteries and attacks bereaved women with metal-tipped canes; mere teenagers plot a horrifying Beslan-like siege of a Christian-run school. At one point, a captured ‘terrorist suspect’ itemises the failings of Pakistan that may explain why his white captor treats him with such derision and contempt.
In the early pages of the book, a man asks whether he can set snares for birds in the trees of the blind man’s garden, ‘just enough to hold a wing or neck in delicate, harmless captivity’. He will then take the captured birds round in a cage and find people who will pay him to release them. ‘I am known as “the bird pardoner”,’ he explains. ‘The freed bird says a prayer on behalf of the one who has bought its freedom.’
The buying and selling of freedom is one of the principle threads in the book: people are released from the crude shackles of warlords, only to find themselves zip-locked, hooded and quite literally caged in American detention centres, and the heavy chains a wandering fakir wraps around his body as ‘penitence for a grave transgression in the past’ are later used to restrain a wounded American serviceman. In contrast to all those who are shackled or imprisoned, a snow-leopard cub given to Mikal as a pet wanders around at will, while in a characteristically startling image, horses hidden underground suddenly burst through the earth.
Aslam’s narrative exerts a firm grip, but would be almost unendurable were it not for the sense he gives of a counterbalancing beauty in the world. This is not the indifferent nature of Hardy or Housman, but something that simply coexists with horror: birds in trees ‘looking as though their outlines and markings are drawn with a finer nib than their surroundings’ or ‘moths that look like shavings from a pencil sharpener’. Visiting a town, one character notes
shop signs painted with heartbreaking precision and beauty by barely literate men … and women’s clothes hanging in shop windows in sheaths of pure lines and colours, teaching one the meaning of grace in one’s life.
Finding grace is what keeps people human, even in extreme circumstances, and Aslam’s characters — whatever their background or motives, and even as they advance ‘into the crosshairs of history’ — are never emblematic of anything but themselves. This makes his story desolating, but the extraordinary beauty of the writing makes the experience of reading it wholly exhilarating.