Dhaka. Traffic jams and hartals and psychedelic cycle rickshaws. Elegant men in lungis and long-sleeved shirts sell balloons on the streets, and women push through crowds fearlessly in the dark. I’m here for the Hay Festival. On stage, in the grounds of the historic Bangla Academy, is a writer whom I have quietly admired for years: Nadeem Aslam. He is talking about loss—how it is impossible to measure; how everyone says that the world is a robust place, things happen, life will adjust itself. “But what if while this war is going on the Taliban kills my brother? How do I deal with this howling absence?” Nadeem asks, hands gesticulating wildly. “Sometimes it feels that I have not got over a single thing in my life. Time heals nothing.”
Those familiar with Nadeem’s work will not be surprised to find him as eloquent in person as he is in his books. Just a litany of his titles will reveal an enchantment with language: Season of the Rainbirds, Maps for Lost Lovers, The Wasted Vigil, and his most recent book, The Blind Man’s Garden. All novels are about loss, he says. “When I’m writing, and sometimes, when I’m reading, an absence is stronger than a presence.” In his own work he starts with the wide canvas of politics and history, moving inwards to the philosophical, and finally, to the minutiae of the human. Love is an elemental force. Characters are frequently coming together and moving apart. “Fiction is an amplifying device,” he says, “It’s my way of saying to the world that when two tall buildings in America fall, everyone sees the dust and hears the noise. But when two insignificant lives fall apart there is also the sound of explosions.”
Nadeem says that there has been a failure of imagination in the West in response to the aftermath of 9/11. In the West, he says, the strongest form of literature is now non-fiction, because the fiction writers have taken politics and ideas out of the novel. Fiction has become an “anaemic thing”. As a Pakistani writer, he says, he is seized by urgency. “I feel like I’m writing with a quill whose end is on fire. I have to write quickly, otherwise it will disappear.”
His advice to aspiring writers is to read the biographies of the great writers to understand how hard it was and what they had to sacrifice. He paraphrases Thomas Mann: “Do you think you can pick a leaf from the laurel tree of art without paying for it with your life?” Later, as we walk back to the hotel, I observe how he delights in the world. He stops to look at posters of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen on the roadside, takes photographs of neon pink balloons and candyfloss. He calls the Dhaka buses with their scratched and faded sides, “moving Gerhard Richter paintings”. He is clearly a lover of poetry, moving between English and Urdu, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Alice Oswald. Connections are everywhere. It makes me think about loss and beauty and brutality, about what he said just moments ago on stage. “The point is we will save each other. You will save him. He will save her. And someone out there will save me.”
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.