August 23, 2015

Of Baby Girls and Heartbreak: Nadeem Aslam’s Leila in the Wilderness is both disturbing and brilliant

Source: Google
One night under the vast silence of a perfect half-moon and six stars, a mosque appeared on a wooded island in the river, and Leila was woken by the call to prayer issuing from its minaret just before sunrise. It was the day she was to be blessed with a son.

Nadeem Aslam’s Leila in the Wilderness is the first entry in the 2010 Granta issue (Granta 112: Pakistan), and it raises expectations up to astronomical levels. More poems and short stories and non-fiction pieces are going to follow in this issue, but I fear they won’t be able to rise to the level of brilliance delivered in Leila.

As most short stories go, I’ve never been a fan: I don’t connect, I find it hard to care about the characters, and I find that I forget them pretty much as quickly as I read about them. Leila in the Wilderness might well prove to be the exception. Sharp and vivid in its telling, it takes on a number of heavy topics without ever getting lost in the maze of the controversy that each of these topics could very well bring to a story with such a limited word length.


“Never ever has a girl been born in this family.”

Leila is a beautiful fourteen-year old caught in a loveless marriage with a husband whole sole purpose in his marriage to Leila is the birth of a male child to carry on his legacy. Timur, a violent and abusive husband, is a rich landlord fighting over an island with his neighbour Nadir Shah. Timur’s plan of secretly building a mosque on the island and claiming it to be Allah’s miracle works well in his favour, bringing worshipers from far and wide to pray at the place where ‘angels constructed the holy place’. As the number of pilgrims escalate, turning Timur’s side of the bank into a circus-

The brothers were taken aback by the transformation the mosque has brought to the river bank. It was a combination of a small bazaar and a circus of holy attractions. 

-things at his home become steadily worse for him as his wife continues to have baby girl after baby girl: a dilemma a man of his patriarchal/misogynistic tendencies position cannot seem to bear.

Timur went into the room where he saw Leila dead on the bed sheets, the crying newborn by her side. He knew she was dead, but then she made a movement and raised her eyelids to look at him. He approached and grabbed her by the hair and, lifting his free hand as high as he could, he struck her face.
 The minutes-old baby on the bed was a girl.

The stories spill out from one another, connecting as they go. We meet Razia, Timur’s mother, a religious woman with sexist notions and a firm belief in the birth of a girl child being the mother’s fault. We also meet Wamaq and Qes, two boys travelling through the country together looking for jobs, who show up near Timur’s mansion and start working among the various businesses that have sprung up on the bank across the island. These characters and their lives intersect as Aslam reveals facets of their past, making them all walk close to each other, side by side in their narratives, even as they sometimes never actually meet.

The strength here lies in the number of themes that lie side by side, just like the stories. Nadeem Aslam takes his unnamed setting – a vaguely drawn rural countryside in Pakistan – and draws in ideas and characters from all over, stacking issues of childbirth right next to musings about wings erupting from shoulders and star-crossed lovers wandering over the land. In within 53 pages we get the threads of...

...Gender Politics

If she failed to have a male child, she would return to beg forgiveness from the saint and the nine men, for not having cleansed her mind and soul of impurities thoroughly enough, for having trespassed on and squandered their valuable time.

The sexism runs deep in this one. The major narrative arc, that of Leila and her multiple female babies, shows the ugly underbelly of a system which blames the mother for the humiliation of having borne a baby girl into families where the only child of worth is one with a penis.

A few hours later a group of children running after dragonflies on the edge of a pond discovered the body of a new born girl floating in red dark water.

These gender politics extend not only over husband-wife relations, but also in the way Razia treats Leila, or the way Timur treats Razia. These mother-in-law and daughter-in-law complexities or the way sons learn to treat their mothers in patriarchal societies also deserve discussion, and are a representative of a larger, more dangerous mindset. This story doesn’t worry about shocking the reader: what is truth is truth, and what is worse, this practise still exists in multiple places in Pakistan. That is what makes it so truly despicable, the fact that a woman can be treated this way, that other women can be so cruel to her and think they’re right, that a system encourages these thoughts. It was maddening, and I wanted, multiple times, to stab a knife deep into the belly of multiple characters.

Its resting place was to be the patch of adjacent ground reserved for those wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who had disgraced their families by running away from home.

...Magic realism

Let me just get this out in the open: I hated Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude. Yes, I know it’s a classic. Yes, I know people everywhere seem to love it with excessive amounts of passion. Nonetheless, I hated it. And a large portion of my hate had to do with the magical realism portion of it.

The genre doesn’t appeal to me. I can do fantasy just fine; give me Lord of the Rings or Narnia any day. But this was my first foray into Pakistani fiction of this genre, and at first I didn’t even know I was reading it.

Leila was fourteen years old, thin-framed with grey, glass-like eyes and a nervous flame always burning just beneath her pale skin.

To be fair, Leila’s description on the very first page should have been a dead give away, but I thought Nadeem Aslam was using his creative license to describe his heroine, much in the same way as people will describe females with eyes that sparkle like stars or lips that are ruby red.

At dawn the men took their boats and went on to the lake where Leila’s mother was collecting lotus leaves somewhere in the rising sunlit mist. They returned an hour later with words nobody could accept as true – words about wings that suddenly appeared, about flight.

Or maybe it was the mother who was giving me fair warning. After Leila’s father’s death, the area’s council decides that to repay his debt, the moneylender family’s men could rape ‘possess’ his widow one hundred times. Once again, I mistook the appearance of wings for a euphemism, a metaphor I wasn’t quite getting, an allegory I missed the meaning of. I felt the first stirrings of unease, but I read on.

And then wings erupted from Leila’s back.

“I suspected right from the beginning that this girl was not real...So much beauty cannot be human.”

The magic is both in your face and subtle, a contradiction I myself find it hard to describe. It exists on the edge of the story, lurking until suddenly the only valid response to the situation seems to be the emergence of wings from Leila’s back, if only to get her away from where she is at that moment.

She felt terror and then a rage and grief the size of the sky, the rage of the damned and the abandoned, and she imagined once again her mother on the dawn lake, struggling powerlessly in the mist her assailants. She clearly saw the wings emerge from her body, their movement leaving a scribble of clarity in the gold and silver vapour of the lake.

It is magic realism at its finest. A desperate, frantic response to a despicable situation. And then, wings.


It takes one hundred drops of milk to make one drop of blood,” she told Leila. “And it takes one hundred drops of blood to make one drop of semen. So you must not waste or misuse again something that takes so much out of my son.”

Nadeem Aslam does relationships well, even with the distance from which he writes about them. Razia’s almost fawning affection for her son battles constantly with her hatred for her daughter-in-law, a practise that finds parallels all over the world with mothers giving their sons preferential treatment over their daughters.

Even though the set-up could be accused of being stereotypical, with the evil mother-in-law and the poor pure daughter-in-law, it doesn’t come across as formulaic or banal. Razia isn’t evil for the sake of hating Leila: her evilness extends from her notions of birth and pregnancy. Leila is hurt and confused because she is still too young to accept the system and all its failings. Timur is a misogynistic asshole because he’s been taught into that role so well. 

“It’s your fault that I am alone against him and his sons – why didn’t you perform your duty as a woman and give me brothers?”

It takes no time at all for the ideas that Razia has implanted in Timur’s head, that of the women being responsible for all ill-failings, to take shape in Timur’s head. He turns his anger from Leila to Razia to the midwife to the servant girls with impunity, hitting and hurting and killing where he deems it his right. It is fascinating to watch him destroying others even as he himself walks towards his own destruction.

“If only you knew about the behaviour of my own mother-in-law and husband towards me. When I failed to conceive within the first few months of marriage, I was marked for days from the beating I received.”

The worst thing about Razia’s ill-treatment of Leila rests on the fact that it has been a vicious cycle. Razia, instead of remembering the hurt and misery that must have accompanied her own post-marriage foray into the world of getting pregnant, instead berates, condemns and criticizes Leila constantly for her inability to have male children.

The umbilical cord still hadn’t been cut when Razia locked her bony fingers around Leila’s throat. “You little witch! Why must you ridicule and torment my son like this?”

I feel like I’m ignoring a big part of the story by concentrating solely on Leila, when two more major characters, Qes and Wamaq, also feature in the story in such huge ways. But giving away their storyline what be tantamount to revealing exactly what happens in the end.

He felt a sudden, quickly subsiding wave of terror and in its wake he was filled with an immense love, for his brother and their life together, and for the world in which they had had that life.

Suffice is to say that these brothers are together, alone in the world except for each other as company, and willing to die for each other. They travel together and sleep together and in between the stories of dead baby girls and misogynistic husbands, Nadeem Aslam weaves in conversations of comfort between two characters who know each other well, and love each other even more.


 “Where is your Allah and how many cannons does he have?”

A major portion of the story is about the miracle mosque on the island and the subsequent eruption of religious fervour all over the countryside. Once Timur spreads the word about the mosque ‘created by angels’, worshippers from all over spill onto the bank by Timur’s side, leading to a huge increase in his wealth and popularity.

Almost all of the donations to the mosque found their way to Timur, and they were no longer just a few rupees offered by everyday people – word had been spreading and thousands upon thousands were being sent by rich industrialists, businessmen, local and national politicians.

This story plays into all the aspects of religion, piling layers of violent reality on top of the surreal, magical feel of the story. Nadeem Aslam depicts how a religion can be so manipulated so as to become embedded deep into a community’s culture, so that its practices can become twisted to accommodate tradition. The clash of ideas between Islam’s abhorrence of death with the murder of every female child that Leila bears seems to worry her religious mother-in-law not at all. Neither does it bother Timur, who uses the fawning of the worshippers to his advantage.

The ascetic as well as the ambitious; men of genuine piety as well as those who just hoped to rub up against women and good-looking boys; gentle mendicants as well as jihadis who fantasized about nothing but what they’d do to the American president if ever they got hold of him.

Probably the most jarring scene is the one where the midwife, coming to help Leila, gets accosted by Timur, who accuses her of being a Christian who has been murdering his boy children (the dead baby girls are famously paraded as dead boys to fulfil the ridiculously misogynistic community requirements save Timur the embarrassment). The scene escalates into violence quickly, almost alarming, as Timur whips open the woman’s bag to show a falsely planted Quran which has been tampered with. In within almost no time, a riot occurs, and the woman and her friends are engulfed in an enraged, hostile mob.

It’s harsh and sadistic and elicits a horrified response, and Nadeem Aslam writes it well, telling it in an emotionless manner that produces a more appalled reaction. The only worry that I had while I was reading it was that someone might think the religion is ACTUALLY like this. At first I rejected this worry out right: no one could be silly enough to think that Islam actually condones killing someone because of blasphemy, right? But no, I’ve read enough now to understand that ignorance is dangerous, and exists everywhere. That makes me nervous, which makes me think about my relationship with fiction and reality even more. But that’s a topic for another day.


Nadeem Aslam does not criticize, nor does he condone. His tone is that of a teacher, throwing out points and waiting to see where the student will pick it up and take it from there. He stands at a distance, showing us a scene, and then lets us make a decision about its inherent morality.

There was a faint but permanent welt under his jaw. He had acquired it at the age of eleven when, to make him confess to the theft of a wristwatch, a policeman had put a noose around his neck and made him stand out in the open on a block of ice, the sun and the warmth of his own body strangling him slowly as they melted the ice.

This manages to both detract and magnify the writing, in conflicting ways. On one hand, because there is no moral high ground from which we are being lectured about, the missing didactic tone means someone is telling us a story, and letting us respond with horror or fascination with impunity. Aslam’s musings on sexuality and marriages and the complex relations between a husband and wife sound like the kind of conversation one could have with a friend, both serious and sombre enough to invoke the warmth of comfortable friends and coffee mugs. On the other hand, there is no condemnation. Even in the most horrific of scenes, there is a degree of aloofness in the storytelling that feels almost cold, the detachment producing a quality that repulses. The omnipresent narrator becomes a crutch through whom we must attempt to order our own thoughts.

Even though this delivery keeps the reader aloof, the story is worth reading just to feel the magic of his writing. Just to read that one long paragraph on page 47 which is so brilliant in its delivery that I went and read it twice. Just to experience the pleasure of a short story that knows what it’s doing, and how to go about doing it. Definitely recommended.