Publisher: Random House India
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Few people coming together under a shed and then stories spilling out, endlessly. That is The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam. An incomplete description, anyway. So don't runaway.
At the end of the story, there is written June 2003-August 2007– more than four years of writing, that is. You flip the pages again and the rays of the pencil-marks rise from the pages, beaming. Each fleck of black demands the curves to sit straight and listen. These must have been four very, very beautiful years for Aslam. And then you later get to know that it took him about ten years to write Maps for Lost Lovers. He is an intense writer.
Marcus, an Englishman, has happily tied himself to Afghanistan ever since he married, Qatrina, an Afghani. He lost his wife to the beliefs of the fundamentalists because their marriage, on the behest of Qatrina herself, was conducted by a woman. She was a doctor and so was Marcus. He lives now alone in his house of many rooms. Many stories.
One day, a Russian woman, Lara, arrives at his place in search of her army brother who was sent to Afghanistan for the war. She has heard that his daughter, Zameen, was one of the last few who knew where Benedikt, her brother, could be. Zameen was lost to the Soviet soldiers as she was sympathetic to the insurgents. David, still alive, is Zameen’s husband and a CIA agent and frequents Marcus’s.
Casa, a young mujahideen boy, has arrived in Marcus’s town for a task of his but managed to get into his house just, in order to save his life from the opponent faction. For most part of the story, these characters are at Marcus’s place and their related, unrelated stories are then told, revealing the overall content. As if zooming out gradually to reveal the pieces that the threads have held on to for years, mindlessly.
Nadeem created all these characters, with such various and significant backgrounds so that everybody’s side could be told. Lending mouth to each.
Aslam writes richly. ‘It would be no surprise if the trees and vines of Afghanistan suspended their growth one day, fearful that if their roots were to lengthen they might come into contact with a landmine buried near by’ or ‘The soles of his shoes are worn the way edges of the erasers become rounded with use. As though he walks around correcting his mistakes’ or ‘a bone forest’-that for a graveyard. Delight leaks through his writing.
He writes as if he has been making notes for years and serves little pieces of information oft and quite appropriately. He lends enough material for the reader to create the picture. The five rooms for five senses in Marcus’s house, the Gandhara Buddha’s face on its side in his perfume factory shall be stamped in some part of your memory, forever. Then there are atrocious images of Benedikt’s death or of Qatrina’s cutting Marcus’s hand for Taliban asked for it and then he goes one step and writes for it, ‘When the blade came towards him he stretched his fingers to touch her palm. The last act his hand performed for him.’ But what shall stay for life is the image of the books nailed to the roof by Qatrina to prevent them from the Taliban. His words lift the readers, one day, and crush miles beneath the earth, the other. And universes, hence, you travel.
The Wasted Vigil isn’t a Santa Claus’s goodie bag of all gifts. The narrative is not a smooth sail. It involves telling some part and then the details later and then some more details much later. Characters keep pulling out stories, interminably. Then the reader also has to be aware of the situation in Afghanistan and the countries involved for the years that the story passes through. It could be discouraging at times. Nadeem writes for months, living behind dark curtains, and alone, cut from the world and focuses on his piece. That intensity is invariably reflected in his writing. To understand the same, and more importantly, relish, one has to dedicate the self to the story and be patient to get to a level closer to his. Nadeem is not an avoidable writer, if nothing more.