(A couple of days back, the images of Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai accepting their respective Nobel Peace Prizes were the toast of the majority of Indian news channels, a welcome relief from the grim news about terrorist violence in Pakistan and the menace of increasing Hindu fundamentalism in India. It made me think of this book immediately. The demon of intolerance and violence lies hidden inside all of us; it may escape its cage and take wing any day, then it may be impossible to cage it again. We need people like Malala to remind us of the fact – also that there are bright spots even in the darkest of times.)
All citizens must pray five times a day…
All men must grow beards…
All women must stay inside at all times…
No woman, under any circumstances, may show her face…
Singing is forbidden.
Dancing is forbidden.
Playing cards, playing chess, gambling and kite flying are forbidden.
Writing books, watching films and painting pictures are forbidden.
Cosmetics are forbidden.
Jewelry is forbidden.
Women will not wear charming clothes.
Women will not speak unless spoken to.
Women will not laugh in public.
Girls are forbidden from attending school.
Women are forbidden from working.
If you steal, your hand will be cut off.
If you commit adultery, you will be stoned to death…
Listen. Listen well. Obey.
Welcome to Taliban country.
What is the enduring attraction of dystopias? Why do we keep on reading about these hellish landscapes where humanity is long dead? Maybe it’s just the devil within, that makes many of us stop and stare at road accidents; maybe there is a cathartic effect, showing us that however bad things are, they could be worse. Or maybe it is the fascination of watching the human spirit soar above the inhuman universe. Most probably, it is a combination of all three.
Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is a dystopia with a difference: instead of being hatched in the brain of some gifted writer, it is one which existed, very near to us in time and space. For the second time, Khaled Hosseini trains his spotlight on his unfortunate home country-however, whereas in The Kite Runner it was only a plot device for the protagonist’s personal redemptive journey, here it is one of the main characters, this land of A Thousand Splendid Suns.
This novel is the story of two women, and through them, Woman in general; as she exists and endures in most parts of the world. Marginalised, a vagina in her youth, a womb in her womanhood, and a pair of hands for sweeping and cleaning in her old age. Created by God as an afterthought as a playmate to His star creation which He made in His own image.
Mariam is a harami, born on the other side of the blanket to the wealthy Jalil Khan and his housekeeper Nana. Nana accepts the fact they are outcasts, while Mariam doesn’t. She demands her share of her father’s love, which he is ready to give on the sly – the problem is, she wants it publicly. Her insistence on visiting her father at his town house ends in her mother’s suicide. Orphaned Mariam, an embarrassment to her father and his three wives, is married off at fifteen to Rasheed, an elderly widower… with whom she endures a loveless and abusive marriage. She is also an object of shame to him because she consistently fails in carrying a baby to term.
Laila is better off as far as family is concerned – she has an educated and loving father, a mother who is much more considerate than many others (even though she is slowly on her way to madness because of her missing sons who have gone off to fight the Soviets), and a charming friend, the one-legged Tariq, who is fast becoming much more than a friends as the children mature. However, her world slowly starts to unravel as Afghanistan’s war with the USSR is won and then the various resistance groups starts fighting among themselves. One of her best friends meets a horrible death, another friend is married off, and Tariq leaves for Pakistan with his family. Ironically, when her family finally decides to move to Pakistan, a stray missile lands on her home killing both her parents. The injured Laila is taken in by Rasheed; with ulterior motives, it is soon revealed. However, she has no option but to become the second wife of the lecherous old man as she is carrying Tariq’s illegitimate child: and the news of Tariq’s death has come from across the border.
As Afghanistan moves through the Civil war era to the Taliban era, the two women, initially hostile, form a bond. The bond is strengthened when Laila gives birth to a girl and loses glamour in the eyes of Rasheed, making her a fellow-sufferer with Mariam: and Mariam simply loves Aziza, Laila’s daughter, all the more because she is a little harami like herself!
Things slowly spiral to a climax when Tariq returns. It seems the story of his death has been manufactured by Rasheed. In a climax slightly reminiscent of a Hindi movie in the best Bollywood tradition, Mariam puts paid to her brute of a husband with a garden shovel, as he is trying to strangle Laila. Laila escapes with Tariq and her children, while Mariam confesses to her crime and receives the Taliban’s swift and brutal justice.
In the last part, we find Laila returning to the Taliban-exorcised Afghanistan, where she makes a pilgrimage to Mariam’s birthplace and unexpectedly receives the money left for Mariam by her repentant father. With it, she revives the orphanage and school where Aziza had been given shelter during the worst years of her life. We leave the story with the news of her third child growing inside her – whose name is already fixed (we can all guess what it will be!), should it turn out to be a girl.
Khaled Hosseini is definitely not a literary writer. His style is emotional: the story is given all importance, not the way it is delivered. There were complaints (rather justified, IMO) about the lack of dimension of the characters, especially the villain, in The Kite Runner: Hosseini was accused of playing up to the gallery by vilifying the Islamic world for the benefit of a largely Western audience. In hindsight, I have to reluctantly agree, even though I loved that book.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is slightly better in the sense that all the characters are better drawn. The Taliban are shown as human beings, even though believers in a barbarian philosophy. Rasheed is unabashedly evil, however: but that has nothing to do with religion or geography – SOB’s like him are a dime to dozen in almost all third-world countries. However, the women protagonists are well-etched. Thankfully, they fight back even when the dice is loaded against them.
The novel follows a beaten path: there are very few surprises. The narrative structure is linear, and the author does not challenge the reader at any time within the narrative. The result is a story which flows at breakneck pace, loaded with emotion. We root for the good guys and boo the bad guys at all the appropriate places. And in the end, when Mariam cracks open Rasheed’s skull, we stand up and applaud. But I do not care if the emotion is cheap – I thoroughly enjoyed it. One needs to load up on junk food now and then!
The most noteworthy thing about A Thousand Splendid Suns is the way Afghanistan is portrayed: one weeps for the destruction of a beautiful country, gang-raped and mutilated by hordes and hordes of marauders. One wishes that the current tenuous peace holds, so that she can get back on her feet.
Once a taxi driver here in Abu Dhabi talked to me about his family back in Pakistan, on the hilly borderland near Afghanistan. These areas are still outside the police scanner and largely controlled by the Taliban. He told me how his brilliant daughter was forced out of school by armed men on pain of death. He had wanted to make her a doctor, and now she was confined to sooty pots and pans in the backyard. The poor man was almost in tears.
I remembered him when Mariam brought down the shovel the second time on Rasheed’s head. She was striking a blow for the taxi-driver’s daughter: and all such women, crushed under the iron boot of tradition which gives them existence only as man’s playthings and possessions.
You are fearsome: yet I bow to you, O Mother.