The Golden Legend
(2017), a novel by Nadeem Aslam, tells the story of Nargis, a Muslim woman who loses her husband in an American terrorist attack. As Nargis tries to protect herself and her Christian friends from the radical Muslim community, her own secret heritage is revealed.
The novel takes place in the fictional city of Zamana, Pakistan. Nargis and Massud are a middle-aged couple who are getting ready to participate in a ceremony in celebration of the new library that they've designed. The two architects are partaking in the task of passing sacred texts from the old library down a mile-long line of other volunteers, going hand to hand, to be placed in the new library.
A car pulls up to the scene, and an American spy opens fire, killing many of the civilians at the ceremony. Massud is caught in the crossfire between the American and a Pakistani man. Despite a blood transfusion, Massud dies.
Nargis and Massud’s housekeeper, Lily, is a Christian, a faith persecuted in the largely Muslim country of Pakistan. His wife was murdered three years ago, and he cares for his nineteen-year-old daughter, Helen, using his income as a housekeeper and also as a part-time rickshaw driver. Before Massud's death, his employers saw him as part of the family and even paid for Helen's education.
With Massud dead and Helen motherless, Nargis and Helen seek solace in each other's friendship. Meanwhile, the corrupt Pakistan military captures the spy and plans to trade him to the American government for one of its own men. Major Burhan meets with Nargis asking her to make a statement forgiving the spy so that the trade will be possible. Nargis refuses, realizing that both governments are trying to cover up the attack.
Before the shooting, Massud had just found the treasured manuscript written by his father, That They Might Know Each Other
. The book was published the year Massud was born and connects ideas from some of the greatest works in literary history. After she refuses to forgive the American spy, Massud's torn and mangled book is sent to Nargis as a warning.
However, Nargis has her own secret. She was born with the name "Margaret," and previously lived as a Christian. In order to escape persecution, she changed her name and began living as a Muslim. Lily, too, has been keeping a secret. He has formed a romantic connection with the Muslim widow Aysha, even though she is related to a radical Muslim who is pro-terrorist.
When a man named Imran arrives at Nargis's house, claiming he donated blood to her husband before his death, he becomes close friends with Nargis and Helen.
Someone unearths Lily's relationship with Aysha, and a group of Muslims goes searching for him. They arrive at his home in a Christian neighborhood and, finding him away, decide to kill his neighbors and burn down their houses.
Meanwhile, the authorities are also trying to arrest Helen for articles she has been writing in her local paper that have been deemed "blasphemous." Helen and Nargis go on the run. Imran, who used to be a guerilla fighting anti-Indian guerillas in Kashmir, offers to assist the women. Together, they flee the area and go to an island at the center of a wide river. They hide in an abandoned mosque on the island and their bonds grow stronger. Eventually, Helen and Imran become romantically involved.
Lily, now a fugitive, lives on the streets.
The authorities discover Nargis, Helen, and Imran on the island and arrest them. Nargis tells Burhan that she will make a public statement forgiving the American spy for her husband's death if he agrees to leave Helen and Lily alone. Burhan agrees, but not before some of his officers capture Lily and kill him, unaware of his agreement with Nargis.
Nargis returns to her life as normal, and Helen and Imran decide to escape from the city. Nargis repairs her husband's treasured manuscript, stitching it together with golden thread.
A prominent theme in the novel is violence enacted in the name of religion. The novel tells the story of a girl who was raped repeatedly, of a pregnant woman beaten so that her newborn baby (Imran) was born with a broken arm, and details the mass graves of Kashmiris that contained many missing men. Particularly in a neighborhood like Nargis's where Muslims and Christians live together, violence is a part of everyday life. Massud and Nargis both lost siblings to violence in the area.
Critics met the book with positive reviews. The Boston Globe
called it "Stunning…masterful and compelling fiction, intricately layering symbols and parallels, unspooling its plot in dramatic twists until the very last sentence." The novel was shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize, a British literary award for writers of color, in 2018.