Two young men — foster brothers in love with the same woman — leave their small Pakistani town for Afghanistan in late 2001. Jeo, a medical student, wants to help wounded civilians and Mikal is there to look after Jeo, but their good intentions aren't enough to keep them safe in an increasingly dangerous war zone.
In The Blind Man's Garden, novelist Nadeem Aslam explores the consequences of Sept. 11 through the eyes of two young Pakistanis. Aslam was born in Pakistan, but grew up and currently lives in Britain. He joins NPR's Robert Siegel to discuss his protagonists' youth, the role Islam played in his life and his habit of writing in total isolation.
On the significance of Jeo and Mikal's youth
"One of the things I wanted to do was to write about the young because I think in this world we underestimate the grief and the confusion of the young; that here we have these new lives who are given the idea of love, the idea of compassion, if they're lucky the idea of responsibility. And then we enter the world and the world says to the young, 'Corruption is possible. Lies are possible. You can do the bad things.' So the confusion which then results within the young person, that was what I'm increasingly becoming interested in. So these two young men, who are very young, they're 20 and Pakistan's median age is 19, so they are almost children. And they don't understand the war that they go to not fight in, but participate in lets just say."
On the important role Islam played in his life, despite the fact that he isn't religious
"My mother is a believer. She prays five times a day; she fasts during the month of Ramadan and she believes in an afterlife, all those things that make the modern mind uncomfortable. And yet she is also the person who taught me everything that I know ... My daily conduct on a second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour basis was taught to me by that woman who actually believes in the things which — if I were to explain to some people that, they would think, Well, actually, this person can't be rational.
"... My father comes from quite a liberal bohemian family. But through my mother I acquired the idea of consequence; the idea that if you do something bad, don't expect to get away with it. That idea entered my life through religion. And of course that lesson can enter a child's life through a hundred different ways — it can come through myths, it can come through secularism. But with me, as I said, given my background, it came through religion."
On how he started writing
"I was born in Pakistan and I grew up there. I was 14 when I came to Britain. My father was a Communist and he got into trouble with the Pakistani regime back in the '80s. And at 14, when I came to Britain, I had no English because I don't come from an affluent background.
"...I was taught in Urdu and my level of English was quite basic. And the subjects I did well were sciences. But in my third year at university, by which time I'd been in Britain for seven years, I realized that my English was good enough to do what I really wanted to do, which was to write a novel. So I dropped out and began writing my novel, which took 11 months to write. Then I said to myself that because I couldn't do my high school years in the subjects I was interested in — history, literature, politics, languages — now over the next 10 years I'm going to sit down and do them, but I'm going to do them myself. And during this decade I was also working on my second novel, Maps for Lost Lovers."
On his habit of writing in total isolation
"Because I had no money, whenever I had money, I would save it and that meant that my social life began to disintegrate. So by the end of that 10 years, I was more or less without any friends. And during those 10 years — and they were formative years — I ended up living next to some very noisy people, and because I couldn't afford to move I used to sleep during the day and write at night when it was quiet. So as I said, they were formative years. So that still lingers.
" ... Months, sometimes a year can go by and I don't see anyone. But whatever an artist goes through to make his art is really irrelevant. The main thing is the art. This book took four and half years to write. ... No matter what I went through — that is not important — what is important is have I come out with a good enough work of art."
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