Intersections Of Gender Maps For Lost Lovers English Literature Essay


This article proposes a reading of Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers as a novel of multiple critiques on the situation of Muslim immigrants in Great Britain. Using the solution of the case of the eponymous lost lovers as the starting point for the narration the novel relates how the Pakistani immigrant community deals with the loss of the couple and the challenges the honour killing poses to their religious beliefs. In the narration the two main characters, Kaukab and Shamas, represent two conflicting perspectives on life in the diasporic community and the coping with the tragedy. By focusing on the setting and the created atmosphere in the novel and connecting it to the intersections of gender and religious identities this article aims to point out the ways in which Aslam’s novel gives the reader insights into the Pakistani immigrant community of the novel and how it, by subversively reconfiguring the patriarchal society, exerts manifold criticism on the Muslim immigrant community as much as on the failing multicultural British society.

Das Ziel dieses Artikel ist es, verschiedene Interpretationsansätze des Romans Maps for Lost Lovers vorzustellen, die auf der Kritik an der Situation muslimischer Einwanderer in Großbritannien basieren, die Nadeem Aslam eindrucksvoll in seine Erzählung einfliessen lässt. Der Roman, der die Auflösung des Ehrenmordes an den namensgebenden „Lost Lovers” zum Ausgangspunkt der Erzählung wählt, erlaubt durch seine Erzählstrategien durchaus unterschiedliche Lesarten. Durch die Fokussierung der Erzählung auf hauptsächlich zwei Protagonisten, Kaukab und Shamas, die grundverschiedene Einstellungen zu dem Leben in der diasporischen Gemeinschaft widerspiegeln und ihre persönlichen Ansichten wiedergeben, erlaubt Aslam dem Leser die Ereignisse in der patriarchalen Gemeinschaft durch ihre Perspektiven wahrzunehmen und zu interpretieren. Die dabei aufeinanderprallenden Wertesysteme geben Einblicke in die verschiedenen – teils radikalen – Positionen innerhalb der Gemeinschaft, die letztendlich zu der am Anfang stehenden Katastrophe führen. Durch eine verbindende Analyse des Handlungsorts und der vorherrschende Atmosphäre des Romans mit der Intersektion von Geschlechts- und Glaubensidentitäten zeigt dieser Artikel die vielfältigen Möglichkeiten zur Interpretation und vollzieht die verschiedenen Kritiken die der Roman an der die Integration verweigernden pakistanischen Gemeinschaft und der versagenden multikulturellen britischen Gesellschaft übt.


In conjunction with almost daily news-coverage on terrorist attacks by fundamental Islamist groups in the Middle East a growing suspicion against Muslim communities in Europe can be noticed. In the wake of 9/11 and 7/7 the strong foundations of European multiculturalism seem to have been unsettled. Even in Great Britain, which has a long history of immigration from the South Asian subcontinent, racism against Muslim communities is worsening, as has recently been found in the report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance on the United Kingdom. [1] Stereotypes and prejudices against so-called parallel societies, as some closed immigrant communities have come to be designated, are repeatedly underscored, for example by public discussions about the right of Muslim women to wear the traditional burka or a veil. [2] In such a precarious socio-historical context a novel like Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers [3] seems to be adding fuel to the fire.

Maps for Lost Lovers, Aslam’s second novel and winner of the Pakistan Academy of Letters Patras Bokhari award of the Government of Pakistan, centres on a South Asian immigrant community in an unnamed British town. The narration sets in after the disappearance of the lovers Chanda and Jugnu and the ensuing arrest of Chanda’s brothers for the alleged murder of the couple. In the year that follows the honour killings of the lovers, who lived in sin according to Islamic law because Chanda’s husband could not persuaded to divorce her even though he had left her years ago, Maps for Lost Lovers dramatises how the Pakistani inhabitants of the tightly-knit community try to cope with the anguish the disappearance of the lovers and the uncertainty concerning their fate brings over them. Wavering between the unlikely hope that the couple just fled the community to enjoy a peaceful life and the almost certain knowledge of their deaths although their bodies were not found, the characters of the novel also have to deal with the challenges to their religious beliefs posed by the murders and the question how to abide to Islamic laws in exile.

Although the narration portrays “some of the worst aspects of life in Pakistani communities – honour killings, religious obscurantism, gender inequities to name only a few” it is however also a “book of great humanity and compassion” [4] . These ‘few aspects’ of the Pakistani community depicted in Maps for Lost Lovers, which Kamila Shamsie pointed out in an interview with the author, will be the starting point of the following analysis. This paper sets out to examine the immigrant community, which is based on the obedience of the Islamic law, and illustrate how an atmosphere of claustrophobia is narratively created in the patriarchal society. In a second step I will point out intersections of gender and religious identity and gender inequities that are reinforced by the Islamic belief of the communities. Further, I will try to show how the characters, on the one hand, fall victim to the gender roles their belief assigns them, but, on the other hand, also use and subvert these roles to shape the community in traditional and religious ways that reinforces the patriarchal structures of the community and promotes religious obscurantism.

By focussing on the atmosphere of the patriarchal society as well as the gender roles presented in the novel I aim to show the diverse levels of criticism Aslam offers for interpretation in Maps for Lost Lovers. It is my main argument that the novel offers at least three ways for reading: first, it can be read as backing up suspicious looks at Muslims in British streets and confirm the stereotypes presented by the media. Second, it can be read as inherent criticism of colonisation in that certain structures of the British Empire are being invoked, reproduced and proven to be leading to catastrophe. And last, the novel can be read as a criticism on immigrant communities in Britain and their desperate wish to avoid integration. An interweaving of these possible readings of the novel will show the potential of the novel to help fix the foundations of European multicultural societies.

Dasht-e-Tanhaii, or The Desert of Loneliness

The eponymous lost lovers of the novel’s title are Chanda and Jugnu, who disappear before the narration sets in and whose fate remains unsolved for most part of the story. In the absence of the couple the rest of the community and their reactions function as a foil for the lovers’ decision to forsake the laws of Islam in order to be together and their readiness to bear the consequences of their choice. In the wake of their disappearance the rest of the community is torn between mourning the loss of members of their community and a sense of righteousness that the lovers have been punished for their indecent behaviour.

Especially Jugnu’s older brother Shamas and his wife Kaukab, who live next door to the “house of Sin” (MLL 59), move into the centre of the omniscient narrator’s attention. Through a varying focalization on the two main characters, Shamas and Kaukab, and a further complementation through isolated points of view of other, minor characters such as Shamas and Kaukab’s children and Suraya, the woman Shamas has an affair with, a multifaceted narration of the year following the arrest of Chanda’s brothers for murdering the lovers is presented. The created open perspective structure of the novel, the various individual perspectives within the text and their relation to each other, gives insights into the norms and value systems of the characters and the perspective of the omniscient narrator and thus allows inspection into the workings of the represented society. [5] 

The unspecified English town in which the drama around the lost lover unfolds is renamed Dasht-e-Tanhaii by the diasporic South Asian community. The inhabitants of the town have come to England from all over the South Asian subcontinent, representing the manifold nationalities that had come under the rule of the British Empire. Translating as “The Wilderness of Solitude” or “The Desert of Loneliness” (cf. MLL 29), Dasht-e-Tanhaii is a telling-name for the neighbourhood. Although the characters share a similar cultural background and the experience of exile, their religious differences and the fear to have to interact with white people paralyses them. Representatively for the community Kaukab relates that

she had made friends with some women in the area but she barely know what lay beyond the neighbourhood and didn’t know how to deal with strangers: full of apprehension concerning the white race and uncomfortable with people of another Subcontinental religion or grouping. (MLL 32)

The inability to interact with people of a different skin colour or different religious beliefs renders it impossible for the people of Dasht-e-Tanhaii not to be lonely. The neighbourhood is further described as very quite, as “it hoards its secrets, unwilling to let on the pain in its breast. Shame, guilt, honour and fear are like padlocks hanging from mouths. No one makes a sound in case it draws attention. No one speaks. No one breathes.” (MLL 45) The claustrophobic atmosphere created in the novel forces the characters to spend their lives in solitude, always afraid their neighbours might learn about their secrets.

Another interesting aspect of the setting of the novel that further contributes to the claustrophobic atmosphere is the concealment of the name and location of the English town in contrast to the renaming through the immigrants. The appropriation of the metropolitan neighbourhood through the diasporic South Asian community and a setting of strict limits to isolate it from the rest of the town [6] , reverses the imperialist colonization of the immigrants’ home countries. The renaming of streets and landmarks within the neighbourhood further supports this argument and highlights the reverse appropriation of social space.

As in Lahore, a road in this town is named after Goethe. There is a Park Street here as in Calcutta, a Malabar Hill as in Bombay, and a Naag Tolla Hill as in Dhaka. Because it was difficult to pronounce the English names, the men who arrived in this town in the 1950s had re-christened everything they saw before them. They had come from across the Subcontinent, lived together ten to a room, and the name that one of them happened to give to a street or landmark was taken up by the others, regardless of where they themselves were from. But over the decades, as more and more people came, the various nationalities of the Subcontinent have changed the names according to the specific country they themselves are from – Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan. Only one name has been accepted by every group, remaining unchanged. It’s the name of the town itself. Dasht-e-Tanhaii. (MLL 29)

As Cordula Lemke has pointed out, the process of the multiple renamings according to the various cultural backgrounds of the immigrants transforms the neighbourhood into “an enormous palimpsest” [7] . Taking up the street names the British introduced in their colonies on the Asian subcontinent, naming a road after a German writer, and transplanting them to the immigrant community in Britain can be read as a strategy of decolonization. With the originally British structure of the neighbourhood is left scarcely discernable underneath the different names, this process accentuates the “transitional status of all cultures” [8] . Analysing the ‘map’ [9] and ‘cartographic discourse’ as a “demonstration of the empowering strategies of colonialist rhetoric” [10] , Huggan argues for the palimpsest to illustrate the deficiencies of the colonialist strategies:

The ‘contradictory coherence’ implied by the map’s systematic inscription on a supposedly ‘uninscribed’ earth reveals it, moreover, as a palimpsest covering over alternative spatial configurations which, once brought to light, indicate both the plurality of possible perspectives on, and the inadequacy of any single model of, the world. [11] 

However, the process of renaming the streets in this novel also significantly resembles the developments of the different countries of the subcontinent under the British rule leading up to the partition of India in 1947. From a peaceful living together the situation of the immigrants’ changes to a silent coexistence without much interaction – just like on the subcontinent itself where the former Indian nation splits up into India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. And exactly as on the subcontinent it is the religious beliefs that now segregate the people where they, before the partition, had belonged together. [12] Therefore, in occupying parts of the British town and renaming its streets the neighbourhood, on the one hand, subversively replicates the colonial situation on the subcontinent. On the other hand, however, it also relives the traumatic experience of a society being divided along religious lines. [13] In the doubling of post-colonial criticism the narrative intensity of Aslam’s writing becomes clear and challenges the reader for an interpretation. The possible interpretations that are invited by the renaming of the British streets, namely the subversive criticism on the Empire and the imitation of the colonial situation to stabilize and promote the rigid religious division of the community, can both be argued for.

What the interpretations share, however, are the sense of loss and an essential sadness, which Edward Said ascribes the exile. [14] 

At bottom, exile is a jealous state. With very little to possess, you hold on to what you have with aggressive defensiveness. What you achieve in exile is precisely what you have no wish to share, and it is in the drawing of lines around you and your compatriots that the least attractive aspects of being an exile emerge: an exaggerated sense of group solidarity as well as a passionate hostility towards outsiders, even those who may in fact be in the same predicament as you. [15] 

In this piece, written for Harper’s Magazine twenty years prior to the novel, Said describes exactly the situation of the characters in Maps for Lost Lovers. In the blind defensiveness of their traditions and beliefs, the immigrants of Dasht-e-Tanhaii are passionate in their racism against the white inhabitants of the town and condemn their exile in Great Britain for all the evil that has happened to them.

Kaukab knows her dissatisfaction with England is a slight to Allah because He is the creator and ruler of the entire earth – as the stone carving on Islamabad airport reminds and reassures the heartbroken people who are having to leave Pakistan – but she cannot contain her homesickness and constantly asks for courage to face this lonely ordeal that He has chosen for her in His wisdom. (MLL 31)

The loss of their home country and the realisation that they will never go back to Pakistan fills the women with a feeling of unbearable loss. Whereas they manage to bring back the colours of their parental homes and rename the streets so that they do not sound so unfamiliar, there are too many things in exile, which they cannot replace. The constant feeling of loss, which makes the immigrants in Dasht-e-Tanhaii refrain from leaving their solitude, is the ubiquitous atmosphere of the narration and as such is already introduced in the opening of the novel by Shamas.

Among the innumerable other losses, to come to England was to lose a season, because, in the part of Pakistan that he is from, there are five seasons in a year, not four, the schoolchildren learning their names and sequence through classroom chants: Mausam-e-Sarma, Bahar, Mausam-e-Garma, Barsat, Khizan. Winter, Spring, Summer, Monsoon, Autumn. (MLL 5)

The loss of the season, of a structuring part of a year, a part that marks the passing of time, and is as irretrievable as the lost lovers, reflects the stasis of the society of Dasht-e-Tanhaii. In missing a part that marks the passing of time, change and development have become impossible for the inhabitants of the community. In the knowledge of missing a season, the structure of the novel, which is divided into four parts, each named after one of the four seasons in England, seems like a constant remainder that Maps for Lost Lovers is all about encompassing loss. Correspondingly, Said points out: “a life of exile moves according to a different calendar, and is less seasonal and settled than life at home.” [16] 

The thus created atmosphere is a fertile soil for the kind of religious fundamentalism some of the characters, especially Kaukab, the sister-in-law of the murdered Jugnu, prefer to integration. The “immense fact of isolation and displacement, which produces the kind of narcissistic masochism that resists all efforts at amelioration, acculturation, and community” [17] , which Kaukab claims for herself, leads to what Vijay Mishra has termed the “diasporic imaginary” [18] . Mishra theorizes that, in order to preserve the loss of the diasporic experience communities construct racist fictions of purity as a kind of joy and pleasure around which anti-miscegenation narratives of homelands are constructed against the reality of the homelands themselves. [19] The unknown British town is constantly contrasted with Pakistan and depicted as foreign territory, in which the laws of Islam have become the sole source of orientation for most of the inhabitants. Kaukab, as the rest of the community, therefore exalts the Pakistan of her memory to an idealised nation in which Islam still figures prominently in everyday life.

If her children were still living at home, or if Shamas was back from work, Kaukab would have asked the matchmaker to lower her voice to a whisper, not whishing her children to hear anything bad about Pakistan or the Pakistanis, not wishing to provide Shamas with the opportunity to make a disrespectful comment about Islam, or hint through his expression that he harboured contrary views on Allah’s inherent greatness; but she is alone in the house, so she lets the woman talk. (MLL 42)

This ‘diasporic imaginary’, the glorification of Pakistan, serves the immigrants as a role model for their society. As Islam prescribes they recreate the patriarchal social structures in which the women wait at home for their husbands to return and are afraid to be seen talking to men on the street, daughters are being arranged to marry their cousins in Pakistan, lovers of different religions forbidden to marry (cf. MLL 9), husbands agreeing to medical procedures on their wives for fear of immigration authorities (cf. MLL 14) and fathers renouncing their daughters for living in sin after three failed marriages to Pakistani men (cf. MLL 176). In this strict Islamic law-abiding community the gender roles of the characters seem to be as traditional as the rest of the customs the immigrants live by. However, in the following section I will argue that in the patriarchal society with the claustrophobic sentiment it is not only the male characters that drive on the strict Islamic code of behaviour but even more so the women who obstruct any kind of integration.

Intersections of Gender and Religion in Maps for Lost Lovers

Analysing gender identities in a novel such as Maps for Lost Lovers is, as the previous discussion of the atmosphere of the novel has shown, closely interlinked with religious identities within the community. With the discussion of gender roles and gender identities in relation to power structures has been an established field of research for literary scholars, a terminological distinction between different religious identities within Islam appears to be helpful for the further analysis. [20] Therefore I want to draw attention to the difference of the terms ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islamist’, as spelled out by Miriam Cooke [21] . Cooke points out that the two terms, which might inadvertently be confused, hint at a significant distinction.

To be Muslim, according to Cooke, is an ascribed identity: “Those to whom a Muslim identity is ascribed participate in a Muslim culture and community without necessarily accepting all of its norms and values.” [22] While Muslims can be secular and only occasionally observe some of the rituals, Islamists achieve their “sometimes militant identity by devoting their lives to the establishment of an Islamic state.” [23] This opposition, which arguably attracts criticism of essentialism, in this analysis, however, will serve the purpose of breaking up common stereotypes concerning the intersection of gender and religious identities. It is the aim of the following analysis to show that the intersections of gender identities and religious identities, which would be expected in patriarchal societies as the one depicted in Maps for Lost Lovers to draw the picture of ‘male Islamists’ and ‘female Muslims’, are being subverted to point out the dangers of religious fundamentalism and how it can lead to religious obscurantism.

The arising question of religion and feminism has posed itself as difficult field for research, especially for postcolonial feminists. Ania Loomba has pointed out two significant developments in this field: “Many postcolonial regimes have been outrightly repressive of women’s rights, using religion as the basis on which to enforce their subordination.” [24] Especially in Islamic countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran or Afghanistan national identity is based on the Islamicisation of civil society, an alliance between fundamentalism and the State, which entails severe curtailment of freedom for women. [25] However, she also sees a development that tries to “harness women’s political activity and even militancy to right-wing movements and especially to religious fundamentalism. In various parts of the world, women have been active campaigners for the Hindu, Islamic or Christian right-wing movements.” [26] These two opposing developments, however contradictory they seem, deal with stereotypical assumptions as the figure of the “immigrant woman victim” [27] , as for example jurist Leti Volpp has analysed and debunked.

Kaukab and Shamas as well as Suraya, the characters the narrator focalizes upon for the most part of the novel, through their personal perspective give a very interesting insight into their conceptions of the intersections between gender and religious identity. [28] They represent different positions on the spectrum between secular Muslims and Islamists and interestingly provide a one sided picture of the gender distribution amongst these religious identities.

Shamas, who opens the narration, was brought up as a Muslim yet considers himself a non-believer (MLL 20) and instead of drawing on religion for moral and ethical support as the rest of the community, he turns to communism (cf. MLL 324). [29] His secularism makes him a mediator between the different religious groups of Dasht-e-Tanhaii. He uses his outsider’s position to move about freely between the mosque and the Hindu temple of the community. Further, his general openness and willingness to interact with people of different religious and cultural backgrounds, which again renders him an outsider to the community, makes him become the only connection to the British society:

The director of the Community Relations Council, Shamas is the person the neighbourhood turns to when unable to negotiate the white world on its own, visiting his office in the town centre or bringing the problem to his front door that opens directly into the blue-walled kitchen with the yellow chairs. (MLL 15)

This position, as mediator between the immigrant community and the British society, on the one hand makes him a person of respect in the neighbourhood. On the other hand, his secularism arises suspicion, even in his own wife who disapproves of his criticism of Islam and even blames her father for choosing an unbelieving husband who is not even a proper Muslim in her eyes (cf. MLL 34). His worldliness and openness further, in the eyes of his wife, make him a bad father to their three children:

Oh your father will be angry, oh your father will be upset: Mah-Jabin had grown up hearing these sentences, Kaukab trying to obtain legitimacy for her own decisions by invoking his name. She wanted him to be angry, she needed him to be angry. She had cast him in the role of the head of the household and he had to act accordingly ›â€¦. (MLL 111)

Even though Kaukab, in accordance with her own upbringing, expects Shamas to fulfil his role as head of the family his performance does not seem satisfactory to Kaukab, as Mah-Jabin’s remembrance shows. Shamas thus disappoints the expectations on his character as believing Muslim and head of the family.

When Suraya, Shamas secret love affair, comes back to England from Pakistan, where her husband had divorced her in a drunken stupor, her sole aim is to find a man who will marry her for a short period of time and then divorce her again so that she can return to Pakistan to her first husband to remarry him (cf. MLL 149). As the Islamic law states that she has to be married to another man before her first husband can take her back, she is desperate to quickly find somebody before her first husband changes his mind and does not want her back. When Suraya meets Shamas he is immediately drawn to her. Finding her scarf on his way back home from the town centre, where he regularly picks up the newspaper, his paper falls into the river he walks along while bending down to pick up the scarf. “He’s suddenly lighter, his muscles relieved, the fingers holding nothing but that scarf which has butterfly blue lozenges along its crenulated edges.” (MLL 135) Suraya takes advantage of the physicalness of this first encounter, in which Shamas seems to shift off a burden, maybe the burden Kaukab has put on him with her expectations, and starts an affair with him. While Shamas actually enjoys the tenderness of their encounters, Suraya just wants to trick him into marrying her and is not reluctant to lie about being pregnant. She thus exploits her femininity and her religious beliefs to get Shamas to commit adultery and thus fulfils her own personal needs not caring about the consequences of her actions or Shamas feelings (cf. MLL 254). Suraya just legitimises the affair with the Islamic law and her wish to remarry her first husband.

In contrast to the secular Shamas and the moderate Muslim Suraya, Kaukab is a strict Islamist, justifying all her actions and her behaviour with her belief in Islam. With her religious bigotry she puts off her three children who, in the course of the narration visit the house only once. In the course of that visit her estranged children get into a heated discussion with Kaukab about the status of women in Pakistan and in which she has to defend herself against reproaches of her family (cf. MLL 323 ff.). Her misconducts, as for example poisoning her youngest son with bromide because a Muslim cleric told to do so (MLL 303 f.), or marrying her only daughter to a violent man in Pakistan and not seeing where she could have done wrong (cf. MLL 326), which stem from her religious obscurantism come to a climax when Shamas is being attacked by a group of Islamists who Kaukab had once secretly charged with finding her sons. In her blind belief in Islam she finally blames Shamas for her children’s hatred (MLL 328) and tries to take her own life. Even when it comes to her own physical health she does not deviate from her faith:

›â€¦ Kaukab has reached that age where her womb is slipping out of her vagina and must be either surgically removed or stitched back to the inner lining of her body ›â€¦. ›â€¦ Her womb – the first dress of her daughter, the first address of her sons – is a constant source of pain these days and she comes down the stairs carefully. She tells herself that she must bear up patiently, that a person is like a tealeaf: drop it into boiling water if you want to see its true colour. She reads verses from the Koran when the pain looks as though it is about to increase. (MLL 260)

In contrast to the imagination of the woman “usually cast as mothers or wives ›â€¦ called upon to literally and figuratively reproduce the nation” <span

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