Maps for Lost Lovers (2004) is Nadeem Aslam’s semi-autobiographical second novel. Placed within the scope of Aslam’s oeuvre, Maps continues his focus on the internal dynamics of a Pakistani Muslim community, as explored in Season of the Rainbirds (1993). Aslam confidently asserts a lyrical aesthetic style, which recurs and is further developed in his later novels The Wasted Vigil (2008) and The Blind Man’s Garden (2013). The novel has won a number of prizes, including the Kiriyama Prize in 2005—awarded to books that foster “greater understanding” of the Pacific Rim and South Asia.
Maps is Aslam’s only novel set primarily in Britain. It concerns a working class and predominantly Muslim Pakistani immigrant community in a mill town in Northern England. Aslam’s narrative differs in both subject and style from other prominent South Asian diasporic novels set in England. Maps does not engage the complex interactions between migrants and white England in great detail, as Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) do. Additionally, it diverges from the wryly comic and self-consciously bombastic registers characteristic of those novels. Instead, Aslam’s text is a delicately crafted portrait of the quietly simmering tensions of a community in isolation, disconnected from the native English people and from other migrant groups. Accordingly, the migrant community calls the town Dasht-e-Tanhaii, “the Wilderness of Solitude” or “The Desert of Loneliness”, a renaming that paradoxically lays claim to their alienation, but leaves it unchanged (29).
In Aslam’s rendering, the community’s isolation is produced by decades of British racism and an internal turn towards religious and cultural purity. Maps chronicles a single year in the town (1997-1998) and is structurally divided into five seasons, beginning and ending with Winter. The novel’s five season structure emphasizes an early comment in the novel that England’s lack of a Monsoon season counts among “the innumerable other losses” felt by the migrant population (5). By offering this fifth season (the repeated Winter), the novel affirms that loss and perhaps goes some way towards ameliorating it.
The novel’s principal event is the murder of Jugnu and Chanda, an unmarried, cohabitating couple, killed for their adulterous love by religious hardliners. While the murder occurs before the novel begins, it acts as “a bloody Rorschach blot” that reveals the sympathies and ideologies of those who mention it (140). The novel engages aspects of the murder mystery genre—slowly revealing the details and circumstances of the violence over the course of its narration— but is primarily a study in the memories, practices, and tensions of community and family.
At the heart of the text are Shamas and Kaukab, whose declining marriage and fraught relationship with their children occupies much of the narrative content. Shamas, on the one hand, has a full life with numerous connections to Dasht-e-Tanhaii, via his past as a factory worker and member of the Communist Party, as well as his current role as the Director of the Community Relations Council. Kaukab, on the other hand, lacks a proper command of English, which only intensifies her isolation; this also leads to her increasingly conservative interpretation of Islam. Despite these differences, the narrative charts the ways the couple is worn down by the town’s cultural claustrophobia. Despite several attempts at reconciliation, Kaukab remains sequestered from her children by her rigid religious views; Shamas, disaffected with his wife, engages in a secret affair with a desperate woman, and later endures a severe beating by religious hardliners. In the novel’s penultimate chapter, Shamas gives up on his attempts to heal the wounds of the community and freezes to death after a hallucinatory wandering in the winter night. The bleak endings of both character arcs convey a strong critique of the quarantining qualities of religious fundamentalism.
Amit Chaudhuri’s suggestion that “the miniaturist’s impulse […] determines the texture” of many 21st century Pakistani Anglophone novels certainly applies to Maps for Lost Lovers (3). The exacting precision of miniaturist painting is reflected in Aslam’s detailed rendering of minute images: the distinctive outlines of leaves, patterns on moth wings, or the transformation of a sugar crystal’s transparency as it is crushed. Aslam regularly establishes analogies between delicate natural minutiae and comparatively stable human structures or relationships—the town balancing “at the base of a valley like a few spoonfuls of sugar in a bowl” (10), or the spider silk “sagging between tall reeds like lovers holding hands” (137). In this magnification of the miniature, there emerges a poetics of frailty, or a kind of brittle lyricism, in which Aslam identifies a resolute beauty and a suggestion of the gentle care required to sustain life. For instance, in one resonant passage Kaukab agonizes over the correct word order in English, “the sooner, the better” or vice versa, prompting a reflection from the narrator that “with such tiny things is a semblance of dignity maintained, is a liveable life assembled” (301). These “tiny things” provide a measure of solace against the environment of desolation Aslam portrays.
Journalistic reviews have generally praised the novel, admiring the text’s use of language—an “idiom perfumed with the beauty of Urdu poetry” (Kumar)—and its distinctive representation of English flora and fauna, as well as the psychological depth of its characters. However, reviews have been divided on the novel’s depiction of violence, particularly in the context of the global War on Terror. For one reviewer, “the litany of cruelties imposed in the name of Islam can strain credibility” (Kapur), while another claims that these instances demonstrate that “Aslam has the courage to write against the shortcomings of his own religion” (Kumar). Academic criticism has thus far favored analysis of themes related to cultural politics. Critics have examined Maps’ depiction of Islam and global modernity (Butt), the text’s treatment of racist discourse (Lemke), and its engagement with the “cultural trauma” of migration (Waterman). Clare Chambers, in a brief discussion of the novel, offers a materialist and intertextual focus, in which she unpacks Aslam’s references to a photo studio in Bradford, the tropes of the ghazal poetic form, and allusions to the work of Faiz Ahmed Faiz (130-131). Among the corpus of postcolonial texts on South Asian migration, this novel offers a bleak and distinctive account of life away from the urban metropolis of London, and a memorable portrayal of clashing forms of loneliness.
Aslam, Nadeem. Maps for Lost Lovers. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.
Butt, Nadia. “Between Orthodoxy and Modernity: Mapping the Transcultural Predicaments of Pakistani Immigrants in Multi-Ethnic Brtain in Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (2004).” Multi-Ethnic Britain 2000+: New Perspectives in Literature, Film and the Arts. Eds. Lars Eckstein, Barbara Korte, Eva Ulrike Pirker and Christoph Reinfandt. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. 153-169.
Chambers, Claire. “A Comparative Approach to Pakistani Fiction in English.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 47.2(2011): 122-134.
Chaudhuri, Amit. “Qatrina and the Books: What is Pakistani Writing?” London Review of Books 27 Aug. 2009: 3–6.
Kapur, Akash. “’Maps for Lost Lovers’: Little Murders.” Rev. of Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Aslam. The New York Times. 22 May 2005.
Kumar, Amitava. “Eye Turned Inward.” Rev. of Maps for Lost Lovers, Nadeem Aslam. Outlook India. 20 Sep. 2004.
Lemke, Cordula. “Racism in the Diaspora: Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (2004).” Multi-Ethnic Britain 2000+: New Perspectives in Literature, Film and the Arts. Eds. Lars Eckstein, Barbara Korte, Eva Ulrike Pirker and Christoph Reinfandt. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008. 153-169.
Waterman, David. “Memory and Cultural Identity: Negotiating Modernity in Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers.” Pakistaniaat: A Journal of Pakistan Studies 2.2 (2010): 18-35.
Citation: O'Loughlin, Liam. "Maps for Lost Lovers". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 May 2013 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=24354, accessed 16 August 2022.]