Ever since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has been struggling to forge an Islamic identity. But this struggle has taken a massive toll on the country’s religious minorities, which have declined from 23 percent of the population in 1947 to only 3 percent today. This systematic persecution is the subject of “The Golden Legend,” by Nadeem Aslam (Knopf. 336 pp. $27.95), who was born in Pakistan and moved to Britain as a teenager. He is the author of four previous novels, including “Maps for Lost Lovers.”
At the center of the story are Nargis and Massud, a happily married couple living in the fictional city of Zamana, modeled after Lahore. Both are accomplished architects. During the inauguration of a library they designed, Massud is struck by a stray bullet fired by an American spy who was escaping two muggers. After Massud’s death, a “soldier-spy” visits Nargis to persuade her to forgive the American, while the local cleric wants her not to let the American off the hook to “show the government [of Pakistan] that, unlike them, you face Mecca when you pray, not Washington.”
Aslam complicates this situation by revealing that Nargis was born Margaret – a Christian. She first pretended be a Muslim when she stood in place of a girl named Nargis in a school competition. This faux Muslim identity thrilled young Margaret because “she didn’t necessarily have to carry her own glass, cup and spoon with her. No one said she smelled faintly of sewage. No one asked her when she intended to convert to the Only True Religion.” Later, when Margaret came to Zamana to attend art school, she met and fell in love with Massud – and carried her deceit into their relationship.
But Margaret’s plight is overshadowed by a crisis involving the family of her housekeeper, whose daughter, Helen, gets caught in a deadly heresy controversy. Soon, Margaret and Helen find themselves fleeing their homes together.
Aslam is at his best when he writes about the hopes and fears, the dreams and desires of characters like Nargis. But at times, he seems overly keen to include as many topical snippets as possible, resulting in frequent narrative detours: Pakistani right-wingers slaughtering a cow on an Indian flag, extrajudicial killings by the police, a coffee-shop owner getting killed for celebrating Valentine’s Day. Also, Aslam’s melodramatic one-liners – beginning with the first sentence of the novel, “This world is the last thing God will ever tell us” – can sound like unnecessary pontifications.
That said, “The Golden Legend” is a powerful and timely comment on the precarious state of religious minorities in Pakistan, and is an honest mirror to the Pakistani state and society. If Pakistanis finds their reflection a bit too ugly, they should know whom to blame.
(Mushtaq Bilal’s book “Writing Pakistan: Conversations on Identity, Nationhood and Fiction” was published last year – The Washington Post)