Nadeem Aslam comes in as a quiet wisp of breeze and takes his seat on the stage. The audience cheers him as is customary of fans. He is at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) to speak about his latest novel ‘The Blind Man’s Garden’, among other things.
He hails from Pakistan but made his mark as a revered master of the art of writing, in UK.
Speaking of the book he begins by saying ‘The story is set in a fictional town by the name ‘Heer’, it’s the same name as of the character in Waris Shah’s Heer-Ranjha. I based the name as such because I wanted to connect myself to my land through its folklore.’
He looks around while speaking, rarely making eye contact with any in the audience. You can’t help but notice how he seems to look, at the ground or skyward, most of the time while speaking. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he seems spiritually elevated, even.
‘The landscapes I paint in my stories are distinct. I put a lot of effort into that’, he reveals. ‘While researching for the book, about blindness and other ailments, I visited places but couldn’t bring myself to ask these people what I wanted to. I couldn’t while researching, ask them, questions, he exclaims almost seeming to have caught himself with surprise. He continues ‘I was afraid of stirring up trauma.’
He is warming up to the speaker and audience you would think, but he seems to reveal himself to his audience, now shifting his eyes from the ground to their faces.
As he sees them listening intently, holding on to his each word, he carries on further ‘I blind-folded myself for a week to experience how it felt. I repeated it for a week the next year and again the year after that. I hammered a nail into the ground in the kitchen, to be sure of footing and not burn myself while cooking.’
The audience is let in, on his reclusive and introvert nature, as they are told how he would spend weeks, months even, locked up in his room while writing, with no contact with the outside world. They are told that he even used dark curtains to cover the windows.
Of his life and the difficulties he had to overcome in his early days he reveals ‘I’m not from an affluent family and my English was basic at its best. I went to the University for the Sciences, but as times willed on and my English got better I dropped science.’
‘An artist is never poor’, he says almost reassuring the audience. ‘He says an artist should never lose heart.’
He extends his hands towards his audience as they watch in rapt attention and his gaze is piercing enough for each in the audience to actually begin to believe that he is speaking to them individually, holding their hands even, and reassuring them.
He almost seems apologetic even at having revealed his hardships. He talks as if that pain and endurance sit hand in hand by his side and that he has nurtured and fallen in love with them. It appears he loves his sorrow as he does his joy. And he tells the audience that the period of hardship is essential and necessary for an artist and that the period is one of serenity and tenderness and should be treated as such. Writers or an artist should never lose heart for as he said earlier that an artist is never poor.
The audience is then told of how his love for writing and play with words drove him work as a labourer and in bars among other places. He used to work for two to three months, saving up as much as he could to then retire to his room to write for weeks.
‘It took me 11 months to write my first novel’, he says. ‘When I sent the novel to a publisher, they called me after 10 days and asked me if I could come for lunch. I said no. They asked why. I replied that I had no money. They said not to worry about it, they would give me money’, he smiles.
‘A writer doesn’t have the need for publication,’ he goes on after saying that his love was rooted in writing and it didn’t matter much if the book was published or not. ‘What you are doing in your study is what matters’, he adds.
‘My writing is my exploration of my own life; of my place in the world’ he says.
Not that he came of otherwise from his appearance but his humility is revealed as he further goes on to add ‘Modern thinking puts an individual as the center of all things. I am ordinary and I believe everybody to be equal which gives me a source to connect to people. I’m as same as you’, he looks at his partner on stage and the audience. ‘If I presume an elevated position, the things I’ll write would be unique and not common to the world.’
‘When I begin myself, I begin as someone’s son, someone’s brother, and someone’s daughter.’ he goes on.
When asked of his country of origin, he says what makes him happy about Pakistan is the fact that ‘God is not dead in Pakistan. He has a say in everyday, in everything.’
‘Allah’s words can sometimes lead to a plethora of actions, some are good some bad’, he adds.
‘We can’t save ourselves, but only each other. I’ll save you, you save me or someone else will have to do that’, he says to resounding applause and cheer from the audience. He shifts in his chair and smiles looking at the audience then skyward.
‘Country doesn’t mean anything to me. I can live anywhere for love’, he adds further to another round of applause and cheer from his audience.
He seems a little agitated while talking of the brutality going on in his country, as if the anger simmered within him. ‘There are 49 innocent people who die to kill 1 militant. That is 98% innocent people die to kill 2 militants’, he reveals. He goes on to further enquire if that was justified or rather if any kind of killing was justified.
‘I’m not on anyone’s side’, he clarifies ‘I’m on the side of humans.’
‘Despair has to be earned’, he concludes to a standing ovation as he leaves the stage.