The Blind Man’s Garden, the fourth novel by British author Nadeem Aslam, is set in Aslam's native Pakistan and in neighboring Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A riveting if uneven tale, "The Blind Man’s Garden" complements Aslam’s "The Wasted Vigil," which depicts the interlocking and unenviable fates of several people during the same period in Afghanistan, with flashbacks to the Afghan-Soviet war.
It is also similar to the earlier novel in terms of style, contrasting enlightened visions of Islam with extremism, setting life-affirming explosions of color in nature and art against the morbidity of much of Pakistani society, and relying too heavily on coincidence to weave together disparate plot elements.
The story, related by an omniscient narrator who inhabits the minds of several characters, begins in Pakistan’s Punjab region, in the fictional town of Heer (a name Aslam pointedly borrows from an epic romantic poem in the Punjabi language). Jeo, a young and newly married doctor so naive he is scarcely believable, gives himself a mission. “Wishing to be where he is most needed – to be as close as possible to the carnage of this war – he has arranged in secret to cross over into Afghanistan from Peshawar.”
Only Mikal, his older and protective foster brother, knows of his plan and accompanies him despite the fact that he and Jeo’s wife, Naheed, are in love. Through a series of sometimes jarring jump-cut sequences, we see Mikal and Jeo’s expedition quickly go awry; the Taliban force the two into their ranks, then Mikal is captured by the Northern Alliance and handed over to the Americans.
The blind man of the book’s title is Rohan, Jeo’s father. Aslam lyrically combines Rohan’s degenerating eyesight with his continuing grief over his late wife, who used to sketch drawings of their beloved garden. “Preparing himself for blindness he commits everything to memory as she committed everything to paper, painting the garden’s flowers and birds onto his mind … The limes and the acacia trees seemed to mourn her, the rosewood and the Persian lilacs, the peepal and the corals, and all their different fruits, berries and spores, the seeds tough as cricket balls, or light enough to remain afloat for half an hour.”
Later, his daughter-in-law Naheed applies paint to the garden’s flowers, the newfound vividness increasing their visibility for a now nearly blind Rohan.
However, Rohan and Naheed face a more pressing problem: the fate of Mikal. When Mikal returns from Afghanistan – where Jeo has died in circumstances Aslam deliberately leaves unclear – he is a fugitive from the US army, two of whose members he killed when he thought they were about to execute instead of release him.
Mikal wants to stay in Heer and marry Naheed, but improbably decides to return to Peshawar, where he sought refuge after escaping Afghanistan. A member of the family that sheltered him there shows up in Heer being pursued by the law and asks him to deliver money to his sister. Once Mikal sets off, Aslam snips the last thread tying his story to reality by having him come into contact with the vengeful brother of one of the two US soldiers he killed.
Setting aside the implausible storytelling devices Aslam uses to advance the plot, his evocation of war’s insidious social effects is chilling and profound. War is the great objectifier of people, herding them into cast-iron roles from which egress is rarely possible. To be sure, surviving victims of war may struggle to transcend the roles they have been forced into. With the death of Jeo, Naheed is made a widow. She cannot change this fact, but she might prevent it from monopolizing her identity. She wants to study and become a teacher. And she wants to marry Mikal.
Yet she had better steel herself for probable disappointment. In a sense, "The Blind Man’s Garden" is about the terrible irrelevance of decent people in times of war. That Naheed, one such decent person, is also a woman, compounds her disadvantage. After Mikal returns to Heer and before he leaves for Peshawar, an emotionally ravaged but fuming Naheed tells him how she feels about the expedition that proved fatal to Jeo. “I am angry at him for going, and going without telling us. I am angry at you for not telling us about his intentions. I am angry at myself for not having detected it myself.”
She then sets her sights on the region’s political players and their actions. “I am angry at the Americans for invading Afghanistan. I am angry at al-Qaeda and the Taliban for doing what they did.”
Finally, having directed her ire at all those who have upended her life, Naheed’s energy seems spent. Aslam does not have to describe her voice or manner for us to know that they signify defeat, and that she has reconciled herself to insignificance and helplessness. She concludes her fiery outburst with the resigned question: “What does it matter?”