This blog contains material I wrote and posted on multiply.com between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).
Saturday, 24 November 2012
A Thousand Splendid Suns: Review
Literature & Fiction
There is, or should be, some sort of limit to what human beings should be asked to tolerate.
Mariam is a bastard, a harami – her mother’s favourite epithet for the little girl living in a hovel near the Afghan city of Herat. Her mother, the cast away mistress of one of the city’s richest men, is the troubled and bitter Nana, who warns her constantly against her father’s wiles during his weekly visit to see her.
Then comes the day when Mariam breaks out in rebellion against her mother’s control over her, dresses in her best clothes, and walks down to Herat to find her father Jalil’s house – to be rejected and forced to spend the night sleeping on the pavement before his gates. Returning to her mother the next day, the little girl, just turned fifteen, finds she has hanged herself. Jalil, unwilling and unhappy, takes her into his house, and marries her off at the earliest to a man three times her age. This is Rasheed, a widower and shoemaker from Kabul, far to the east, where Mariam has never been.
Life in Kabul, difficult for the almost illiterate, lonely, disillusioned girl, is made tougher by her domineering bully of a husband, who rails against Western values, forces Mariam into a burqa, and yet has a shelf full of pornographic magazines full of pictures of naked white women with their legs apart. She endures his nightly marital rapes, becomes pregnant, is full of joy at the prospect of motherhood…and then suffers a miscarriage.
“The grief kept surprising Mariam. All it took to unleash it was her thinking of the unfinished crib in the toolshed or the suede coat in Rashid’s closet. The baby came to life then and she could hear it, could hear its hungry grunts, its gurgles and jabbering. She felt it sniffing at her breasts. The grief washed over her, swept her up, tossed her upside down. Mariam was dumbfounded that she could miss in such a crippling manner a being she had never even seen.”
Miscarriage follows miscarriage over the succeeding years, and Rasheed becomes ever more violent and abusive. Mariam bears up, like a rock in the stream. She endures.
In the meantime, King Zahir Shah is overthrown by his cousin Daoud Khan, Afghanistan becomes a republic, and Daoud Khan is himself unseated by a Communist rebellion. The Soviet Union sends in troops to bolster up the new regime (of Babrak Karmal) and the Americans and other western powers begin the familiar and sordid tale of pouring weapons, advisers and money to train, arm and finance the people who form the nucleus of Islamic terrorism today.
Laila is the living antithesis of Mariam. The daughter of an ex-schoolteacher, she is loved and cherished and educated by her father who, despite the fact that his two elder sons are both off fighting the anti-communist jehad, tells her that the communist regime is the best possible thing that could have happened to Afghanistan’s women and that Laila can be whatever she wants. The two sons are both killed and Laila’s mother retreats into semi-insanity, leaving her in de facto charge of the house. During these days she falls in love with Tariq, the son of a neighbour who has lost a leg to a mine and uses a prosthesis.
The Soviets withdraw, the government of President Najibullah falls, and the jehadis take over Kabul – only to immediately begin fighting each other…not to mention killing, robbing and raping the hapless civilian population of the country on the side. As more and more people die, Tariq’s family decides to leave for a Pakistani refugee camp. On a goodbye visit to Laila, Tariq makes love to her, unknowingly leaving the fifteen-year-old girl pregnant.
Soon the situation is so bad even Laila’s mother agrees that they have to leave the country. As they gather up their possessions, a rocket hits the house, leaving Laila the sole survivor. Partially deafened, severely wounded, she is taken in by Rasheed and Mariam and nursed back to health.
Knowing Rasheed, what happens next is predictable. He sweet-talks the girl, woos her, makes up his mind to either take her as wife or – when Mariam objects – to throw her out of the house, to go among the rapists and murderers that fill the “liberated” city. In the middle of this a stranger arrives with an account of having witnessed Tariq’s death in a Pakistani hospital from injuries sustained in an attack on the truck in which he was fleeing. Devastated, pregnant, Laila accepts Rasheed’s proposal.
Then it is that life becomes truly hell for Laila. After she gives birth to Tariq’s daughter, whom she has to pretend is Rasheed’s, she has to contend with Rasheed’s disappointment (he has wanted a son) as well as Mariam’s jealousy. After she begins to gather her own share of beatings, Mariam slowly grows closer to her and begins to share in taking care of the baby.
In the meantime, Laila has begun stealing money from Rasheed, and she and Mariam, along with the baby (Aziza) try to escape to Pakistan but are arrested at the bus station and returned to Rasheed, who brutally beats them and starves them for days in punishment.
Things move on. There is a new force that rises in the south, an army of religious students called the Taliban, who capture most of the country with astonishing speed and impose such brutal restrictions on women that Laila, pregnant again, has to undergo Caesarean section without anaesthetic while the woman surgeon positions a lookout at the operation theatre door because she is supposed to operate wearing a burqa.
Drought comes, crops fail, Rasheed’s shoe shop burns down. Things go from bad to worse and Aziza has to be dumped, albeit temporarily, in an orphanage while Laila has to brave Taliban whips to go and meet her once in a while. And then, the supposedly “dead” Tariq turns up again…earning Laila and Mariam a murderous attack from Rasheed.
The novel has four parts. I won’t give away the end of this story, except that the true end is at the conclusion of Part Three, where Mariam – the real soul of the story – makes her exit. The last part is mawkish, sentimental, and also inaccurate in its hopefulness about Afghanistan’s future. It is also the reason why I’m giving this book four, and not five, stars.
I read this book in two sessions, and could have finished it in one if I'd not needed to sleep.
Incidentally, I'm amazed at how many words Farsi has in common with Hindi - no Hindi-speaking person will need translation of such words as "harami", "moochi", "jan", and so on. But then we're all South Asians, so I guess it shouldn't be all that surprising after all.