(Published in Tehelka on 28 May, 2011, retrieved from http://www.tehelka.com/story_main49.asp?filename=Fw260511Book_TheWastedVigil.asp)
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 nearby.
The book had me at the embossed cover showing the Buddha’s face over the name Nadeem Aslam, the thick pages, and most of all, at the seventy-five-percent discount; but Aslam had me with the imagery of those lines. I knew I would have bought the book at full price.
The Wasted Vigil begins with a woman moving through the rooms of a house – the murals in each room representing one of the senses – with a mirror, so that she can read the titles of the books nailed to the ceiling for fear of confiscation by the Taliban.
This story brings together six people – a Jihadi who compares suicide bombing to the sacrifice of the passengers of flight United 93 and says Jews bombed the Twin Towers; a British doctor married to an Afghani feminist; an American spy who realises the danger of his convictions only when his steeliness is reflected in his friend’s son, a generation later, when the Soviet enemy has been replaced by the Taliban and al-Qaeda; a beautiful, young schoolteacher in whom piety and rationality coexist; a Russian woman on a quest to discover the fate of her brother, who defected from the Army in 1980; a Soviet soldier who rapes an imprisoned girl after his battalion mocks him for refusing to brutalise a child.
Despite the intensely personal nature of the narratives, the fate of the nation is less of a backdrop than the foreground. The story of pawns in the games superpowers play is delicately tinted with the landscape of Afghanistan; their exploration of love, ideology, sanity, and empathy blends seamlessly into the socio-political milieu.
The book is not for the weak-hearted, with its meticulous descriptions of cruelty and barbarism. But the prose is so mesmerising that one reads on, absorbing the details.
One searches for understanding of the transition of Afghanistan from a country that produced master craftsmen such as Kamal ud-Din Bihzad, who would painstakingly labour over a single eyelash in a miniature painting, to a land where turbaned men would burn those masterpieces, whitewash murals, and rejoice over their deliberate destruction of the ancient Buddhas lovingly sculpted from steep rock faces. How did courts, whose poetry had the timbre of music, give way to marketplaces, where amputated limbs and cassettes containing the sounds of victims screaming in pain after suicide bombings are sold? Did a king once challenge clerics to find the verse in the Quran that ordered women to wear a veil, in the same nation where the only indications of the presence of women are sky-blue burkhas?
The novel spans a few weeks, with flashbacks and an epilogue. And yet, the reader is left thinking about the history of the world, wondering about the drivers of human impulse.
The author observes that the first two words of the Muslim prayer also serve as a battle cry. Speaking of the indoctrination of youngsters, who can recite their rights in English without knowing what they mean, Aslam says “replace just one carbon atom with one silicon atom in the 1,1 – dimethylcyclohexame molecule and the smell goes from eucalyptus to unpleasant”.The scrawls of a woman driven to insanity, juxtaposed over each other, are compared to a book of glass, where one must look layer by layer for sense.
The note of hope the novel ends on is poignant, without being maudlin. This is a book where each word, each punctuation mark, should be savoured.