A female perspective on exile in Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (2004)
By Joanna Antoniak
Exile is not a modern concept as people have been forced to leave their homes since the emergence of the first communities. Therefore, it is not surprising that living in the exile is strongly connected to dislocation, the cultural, psychological, personal, and social experience resulting from the physical act of moving – or being moved – from one’s home (Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin 2007). The process of abandoning one’s homeland is marred by trauma resulting from the loss of familial connections and familiar social networks, isolation, the lowering of socio-economic status, and the poor command of the host language (Perez Foster 2001). Perez Foster also notes that living in exile is particularly difficult for women “who often find themselves isolated, forced to deal on their own with the multiple demands of life in a foreign environment” (2001: 154). Moreover, women living in exile are more likely to become subjected to tensions within family which often escalate to physical and psychological domestic abuse (Perez Foster 2001).
The hardships of South Asian women living in exile are depicted in Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (2004). The novel, set in the 1997 England, focuses of the lives of members of the Pakistani diaspora formed on the borders of a small anonymous town in the north of England. While the big part of Maps for Lost Lovers is devoted to Shamas’ quest to discover what happened to his younger brother Jungu, Aslam also portrays anguish and struggles of Shamas’ wife, Kaukab, who cannot adjust to the life in the exile and every day dreams of returning to Pakistan.
The effects of living in the exile in Maps for Lost Lovers
Kaukab and Shamas were forced to leave Pakistan for economic and political reasons. As the financial situation of their small family was getting worse – a change which can be attributed to Shamas’ political beliefs – they are forced to move to the United Kingdom. For Shamas, England is the land of personal and civil freedoms, a place where he can finally be himself and, while Kaukab initially shares her husband’s views, she quickly realizes that life in the exile is more difficult and challenging for women. In the end, every aspect of her life in the United Kingdom has become unbearable and suffocating.
Kaukab notices that the life in the exile is characterised by linguistic restrictions. The women immigrating from South Asia to England often find themselves incapable of learning English, either because they simply did not have time to learn it due to being focused on house chores and raising children, being restricted to interacting only with other members of their small community, or finding the new language too ‘alien’ and impossible to use to express themselves properly as “even things in English spoke a different language than the one they did in Pakistan” (Aslam 2004: 35). The inability to use a new language observed in Kaukab and other female representatives of the South Asian community fuels their feelings of separation, isolation, and loneliness; they not only struggle with expressing their emotions in the language they deem alien, but also with speaking for themselves and fighting for what is important to them. The linguistic dimension of the exile experienced by the female protagonists shows the depth of their disconnection from the society of the host country and simultaneously highlights how the trauma of exile affects even the most basic human abilities, such as the ability to communicate with others.
Aslam’s novel presents also the negative social impact of the exile of the South Asian women. The moment of leaving one’s country resulting in the exile is compared by Kaukab as the closing of the door (Aslam 2004: 32). The life in the exile makes the Pakistani women presented in the novel apprehensive not only of the representatives of the British community, but also of other people from the Subcontinent living within their small diaspora. It is almost as if the stress and trauma of the exile robbed them of the most essential social abilities and skills – the same abilities and skills they used on daily basis back in Pakistan and which helped them to create connections and relations they later wove into the delicate – and yet surprisingly strong – structure of their small communities.
Kaukab and other female characters in Maps for Lost Lovers are fully aware that they are perceived by the members of the white British society as primitive in their willingness to subject themselves to the traditions of their lost homeland and refusal to embrace the freedoms granted to them by the British laws. Yet, they do not perceive said freedoms as blessings, but rather as the source of corruption; hence, it is not surprising that Kaukab describes the Western culture as “[a] deplorable […] nest of devilry from where God has been exiled” (Aslam 2004: 30). Life in the exile in Europe is for the South Asian women not only a mere culture clash – the difference in cultural and social values and beliefs – but also a constant fight with the negative influences of the Western world.
Interestingly, Kaukab’s description of the Western culture presented earlier points to the irony located at the root of feelings of isolation and disconnection: Kaukab and other Pakistani women are exiled to the land whose inhabitants exiled God himself – the women in Aslam’s novel are forced to live in a godless place which symbolises everything they stand against. Hence, it is not surprising that the only method of counteracting the negative cultural, moral, and religious effects of living in the exile used by the women in Maps for Lost Lovers is the celebration of customs and tradition brought to England from Pakistan. Moreover, the presentation of those traditions and customs on the foreign land is seen by the women as the only genuine connection they have with their lost and abandoned homeland.
This fear and reluctance to interact with the Western culture results in the almost panic need to separate themselves from the host society, which is seen as “diseased, vice-ridden and lecherous race” (Aslam 2004: 44). Kaukab and other women from the South Asian diaspora want to fully alienate themselves from what they perceive as a corrupting influence and dream of a day in which they would not have to interact with the representatives of the host culture: “for once [Kaukab] would like to go from her house to, say, the post office without being confronted by the decay of Western culture” (Aslam 2004: 269). However, the only way of achieving that is through returning from the exile, an option which, at that moment, is not available to them.
In Maps for Lost Lovers, the exile is also presented through the psychological lens. From this perspective, the exile is presented as a double isolation – the South Asian women living in England are the victims of an isolation from their homelands imposed on them by others but also a self-imposed isolation from the representatives of the host culture. The aim of this double isolation is to preserve their psychological comfort which, at the same time, is slowly being undermined by not only by the creeping realisation of the impossibility to return to one’s abandoned homeland, but also by fear of being exiled from the place of exile: “the heart of every woman in the neighbourhood sinks whenever there is an unscheduled ‘newsflash’ on TV, making them think the government is about to announce that all the Asian immigrants are to be thrown out of Britain, just like they had been expelled out of Uganda two decades ago” (Aslam 2004: 45-46). The women, who had already been exiled and were left traumatised by it, are afraid that they may be forced to undergo the same process all over again – while they desire to leave England and return to their homelands, they want to do it on their own terms and in their own time.
The internal exile of South Asian women
Although they live in the country with plenty of opportunities, the South Asian women are still confined to the small neighbourhood, almost as if in the act of an internal exile – an exile to the margin, both metaphorical and geographical one. This internal exile takes numerous forms, the first of which is the linguistic one. Unable to learn English properly, the women are almost completely excluded from conversations led in English and need to rely on someone else when communicating with authorities. Not only is their supposed freedom drastically reduced, they are also robbed of their own voice – the voice which would be understood by the representatives of the majority – and, as a result, are pushed to and isolated from others on the margin of the society.
The exile of the South Asian women to the margin is also the result of social isolation. During one of her visits in her family home, Mah-Jabin, the English-born daughter of Kaukab and Shamas, explains to her mother that, through displaying the signs of cultural assimilation, such as the adherence to the Western norms of behaviour and appearance, it is possible for the immigrants to be fully accepted by the British society. However, Mah-Jabin is not living in the exile: she was born in England and for her it is her homeland; she does not share her mother’s trauma. For Kaukab and other South Asian women living in the small community, the prospect of cultural assimilation would equal a complete break from traditions and customs they brought with them from their respective homelands; however, at the same time, they have no guarantee that they will be accepted by the British, a situation which would leave them completely rootless. This fear which prevents them from even attempting socialisation with the host culture becomes the reason for which the members of the said host culture exile them to the margin – there is no place for the Other in the Occident culture.
Finally, the internal exile of the South Asian women presented in Maps for Lost Lovers also has a psychological dimension. As it has been mentioned earlier, the immigrant women often isolate themselves from the representatives of the host culture for the sake of their personal psychological comfort. However, at the same time, this self-imposed personal exile can be seen as a natural response to the internal exile imposed on them by the British. Traumatised by the fact that they were forced to abandon their homes and families and upon reaching their new homeland, the women find themselves exiled to the margin of the society they barely had the time to understand. This exile becomes not only another source of trauma, but also a form of betrayal – the country which was supposed to be a safe haven, proves to be nothing more than another oppressor. Hence, it is not surprising that such a treatment results in the self-imposed isolation from the dominant culture and its representatives – this way the women can avoid being traumatised even more and preserve their psychological comfort.
In his novel, Nadeem Aslam paints an interesting, in-depth, and multi-dimensional portrait of the female experience of the exile. It is worth mentioning that Aslam himself experienced first-hand the turmoil and trauma of the exile – as a fourteen-year-old, he and his family were forced to leave Pakistan due to his father’s political beliefs (Childs and Green 2013). As a teenager, Aslam observed the struggle of his parents as they attempted to assimilate and settle down in their new homeland. Hence, it is not surprising that, as a writer, he displays a great interest in examining and studying the consequences of life in exile.
Interestingly, although Aslam makes his main protagonist a man, he presents the experiences of the life in the exile almost exclusively from the perspective of female characters. In Maps for Lost Lovers, the female experience of the exile is predominantly presented as a constant struggle which seems to be encompassing and affecting all spheres of lives of Kaukab and other women living in the South Asian diaspora. For them, living in the exile is marred with trauma and isolation.
However, the exile of South Asian women in Maps for Lost Lovers is presented not only in its most common socio-political understanding as the act of being forced to abandon one’s homeland for the variety of social, political, or religious reasons. In fact, there are three types of exile presented in the novel: the aforementioned physical exile, the internal exile to the margin of the society, and the personal exile which manifests itself through a voluntary separation from other members of the society. Yet, while the trauma of physical exile is presented by Aslam as a shattering experience for many women, he also points to the connection between the internal exile and the personal one. Using fictional female characters, he highlights that the South Asian women living in the exile in the United Kingdom often find themselves exiled to the margin of the society before they even have a chance to assimilate with the host culture which, combined with trauma caused by their exile, forces them into personal exile. As a result, a vicious circle of exile is created, fuelled by trauma, isolation, and separation.
 Some critics have pointed out the imaginary town is somewhere in the north of England, one of those industrial towns populated by early migrants from the subcontinent.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. 2007. Post-colonial Studies: They Key Concepts. London and New York: Routledge.
Aslam, Nadeem. 2004. Maps for Lost Lovers. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
Childs, Peter and James Green. 2013. Aesthetics and Ethics in Twenty-First Century British Novels: Zadie Smith, Nadeem Aslam, Hari Kunzuru and David Mitchell. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
Perez Forster, RoseMarie. 2001. “When Immigration Is Trauma: Guidelines for the Individual and Family Clinician”, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 71(2): 153-170.
Joanna Antoniak is a PhD scholar at the Department of English, Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, Poland. Her research interests include the intersections between postcolonial theory and family studies, especially the connection between diasporic literature and men and masculinities. In her PhD thesis, she discusses the ways in which fathers are portrayed in diasporic literature in Canada and the United Kingdom.
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