Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini

"One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls."

This is where the title of the novel comes from - an old poem. The novel has been dedicated to the women of Afghanistan and quite rightly should be as it brings out the agony and suffering of Afghan women in a way few other books or movies before have. The main characters of this book are Mariam and Laila who despite their vastly different upbringing end up sharing abuses in the same house.

She feared she might say hurtful is she stayed: that she knew the jinn was a lie, that Jalil had told her that what Nana had was a disease with a name, that pills could make it better. She might have asked Nana why she refused to see Jalil's doctors, as he had insisted she do. why she hadn't taken the pills he had bought for her. If she could articulate it, she might have said to Nana that she was tired of being an instrument, lied to, laid claim to, used. That she was sick of Nana twisting the truths of their life and making her, Mariam, another of her grievances against the world.
You're afraid, Nana, she might have said. You're afraid that I might find the happiness you never had. And you don't want me to be happy. You don't want a good life for me. You're the one with the wretched heart.

The book gives little mention of Nana but it is worth pondering how much that first relationship affected Mariam. Nana, an outcast, living outside city limits, is possessive about her daughter Mariam, but yet makes Mariam believe that she was her burden and the origins of her sufferings. Mariam makes the mistake of trying to prove Nana wrong by seeking out happiness in the world that rejected her mother. Almost everyone grows up under some kind of a cloud, a presumption that something would be unattainable for them. Could you resist the urge to reject this presumption without burning yourself out to prove it wrong? And to whom are we trying to prove anything anyway? As the book unfolds, there are conflicting parts where Mariam is convinced that she has won the battle only to concede at a later stage that Nana's words were painfully right.

Mariam signed her name - the meem, the reh, the ya and the meem again - conscious of all the eyes on her hand. The next time Mariam signed her name to a document, twenty-seven years later, a mullah would again be present.

This was a piece of genius by Hosseini - "conscious of all the eyes on her hand". The sign that would seal her fate? Relieve the onlookers from this burden that had fallen on them and was refusing to go? The fact that Mariam signs her name only twice in twenty-seven years shows how little she can do with her life. And even those instances were under the watchful eyes of people who had no intention of letting her have her way.

She looked at this photo for a long time. There was something vaguely unsettling about the way Rasheed seemed to loom over this woman. His hand on her shoulders. His savoring, tight-lipped smile, and her unsmiling, smiling face. The way her body tilted forward subtly, as though she were trying to wriggle free of his hands.
Later, as she was doing laundry, she regretted that she had sneaked around in the room. For what? What thing of substance had she learned about him? That he owned agun, that he was a man with the needs of a man? And she shouldn't have stared at the photo of him and his wife for as long as she had. Her eyes had read meaning into what was a random body posture captured in a single moment of time.

Mariam had seen something about Rasheed in the photograph - his possession over his wife. Even in the photograph, the wife seems to shrink from him. But still Mariam brushes it away. Another attempt to prove her mother wrong? Refusing to see before her own eyes what she should not have missed and what would later prove to be agonizingly right.

It was dizzying how quickly everything unraveled.
The leadership council was formed prematurely. It elected Rabbani president. The other factions cried nepotism. Massoud called for peace and patience.
Hekmatyar, who had been excluded, was incensed. The Hazaras wit their long history of being oppressed and neglected, seethed.
Insults were hurled. Fingers pointed. Accusations flew. Meetings were angrily called off and doors slammed. The city held its breath. In the mountains, loaded magazines snapped into Kalashnikovs.
The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but now lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other.
Kabul's day of reckoning came at last.
And when the rockets began to rain down on Kabul, people ran for cover. Mammy did too, literally. She changed back into black again, went into her room, shut the curtains, and pulled the blanket over her head.

The book does contain several mentions of the wars in Afghanistan that seem factually right. But the interesting phrase in the above paragraph is "Kabul's day of reckoning came at last." So far the wars had been fought in the mountains, the countryside. The people of Kabul had not felt it though they waited for their sons who had gone off to fight to come back to them. Now these people couldn't escape. Because this war was for power.

Laila examined Mariam's drooping cheeks, the eyelids that sagged in tired folds, the deep lines that framed her mouth - she saw these things as though she too were looking at someone for the first time. And, for the first time, it was not an adversary's face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured. If she stayed, would this be her own face, Laila wondered, twenty years from now?

When you see the face of someone from the previous generation, do we not think "are these the footsteps we need to follow?" So now the question arises, if we avoid the ending, are we betrayers? Is it foolish to expect it to be any different? Or would be cowardly to escape the ending?

Seasons had come and gone; presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered; an empire had been defeated; old wars had ended and new ones had broken out. But Mariam had hardly noticed, hardly cared. She had passed these years in a distant corner of her mind. A dry, barren field, out beyond wish and lament, beyond dream and disillusionment. There, the future did not matter. And the past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice hope, a treacherous illusion. And whatever those twin poisonous flowers began to sprout in the parched land of that field, Mariam uprooted them. She uprooted them and ditched them before they took hold.

Mariam wished for so much in those final moments. Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last. No. It was not so bad, Mariam thought, that she should die this way. Not so bad. This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate beginnings.

It seems cruel of Hosseini to have chosen Mariam for all this - almost like choosing a mouse as a control specimen in an experiment. But Mariam symbolizes the entire generations of women who lost everything in those decades the country was ravaged by war. This book is worth reading for Mariam if not for anything else. A gem of a book and I wish it had a happy ending for Mariam.

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