Maps for Lost Lovers
is a novel by Nadeem Aslam that centers on the murder of a pair of lovers, Jugnu and Chanda. However, the book also serves as commentary of working-class Pakistani immigrants in England and the religious traditions they firmly hold. Aslam, a British Pakistani author, has said that the novel took him 11 years to finish, with six years for the first chapter alone. The novel, published in 2003, has received acclaim across many outlets, with critics often referring to the poetic prose, its remarkable characters, and its exposé of religious tradition.
The story is told through the lenses of Jugnu’s older brother, Shamas, and his wife, Kaukab. Set in a town north of London, which the immigrants call Dasht-e-Tanhaii (Desert of Loneliness), it opens with the disappearance of a pair of lovers, Jugnu and Chanda. Jugnu is a middle-aged naturalist who studies rare butterflies. Chanda, much younger than Jugnu, has been divorced by two husbands and abandoned by the third. The couple has broken Islamic law by living together before marriage and their disappearance sends the small community into chaos.
Police suspect and arrest Chanda's brothers for murder, believing they disposed of the couple in order to remove the shame brought on the family by their affair. There are even witnesses who claim the brothers murdered them. However, there are no bodies as evidence. Other community members believe that Chanda and Jugnu are alive and hiding.
While the community awaits the trial, the reader learns more about the narrator and his background. Shamas, a cultured man in his sixties, often clashes with his wife Kaukab over the disappearance of his brother and his brother’s lover. Kaukab is very strict and never approved of the relationship. Shamas is less patient of the strict religious upbringing, but not enough to forbid his wife from raising their own children as Muslim. He is a fluent English speaker and often bridges the gap between his community and the world they now live in.
The book takes turns into Shamas and Kaukab’s personal lives before the disappearance, detailing Shamas’ affair and his three-year separation from his wife, though they eventually came back together. The novel also tells of other often gruesome events about the inhabitants of Dasht-e-Tanhaii. One family subjects their daughter to an exorcism that ultimately kills her. A mother of a young bride tells her son-in-law to rape her daughter, because she has not slept with him for a week. A young girl is prevented from seeking medical care in fear of damaging her purity. In addition, rapes, honor killings, and illegal courts all make appearances in these vignettes. Because these events are told through Shamas’ eyes, they are often underscored with tones of anger and disdain for a culture he believes is holding onto superstition.
The reader also meets the three children of Shamas and Kaukab, who serve as reflections of the Western culture that is taking root in the community. In her eyes, she has utterly failed to bring up her children properly, as all three reject the strict Muslim code in varying intensities. One of her sons, Ujala, leaves home at 16 and is an outspoken atheist. Her other son became an artist instead of a doctor, against her wishes. Her daughter, sent to Pakistan to marry, has left her husband and wears Western clothes and her hair short. One of the climaxes of the novel occurs when Kaukab fights with her daughter and slaps her in the face. Her overwhelming fear of keeping up appearances for the neighbors keeps her from connecting with her children, especially with her daughter. Although the family sits to dinner and finally discusses the murder of Jugnu, where each person vocalizes their point of view
, the rift is too deep and strong to repair.