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‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ – by Khaled Hosseini

June 10, 2013

Finished reading the second one by Hosseini after a while since its published.  Once again overwhelmed by the familiar sadness heart-tugging at every turn of page, nevertheless with a simple unadorned narration outstanding in depicting human greed, sorrow,  misery, meanness, depth of affection, inner strengths, charater and determination in a manner its impossible for those in western countries to fathom about…. i take this privilege to give this not-so-important opinion of mine when it comes to emotions (the so-called ‘desi’ emotions if i could call it)because, i live in India and in every page of Hosseini’s tale, i find a lot of Indianness strangely embedded, or is that because we are all part of the same Indian subcontinent (even if i doubt Afghanistan could be part of the subcontinent)…   because we are i know, an emotional pressure-cooker, ready to burst anytime…  uncontainable,  seething and boiling from at the very surface (so you imagine the high volatility deep down)  unlike the cool and calm Europeans or Americans who are so sure about themselves…  so that lack of self-control does us in i guess…  (an d i am in this bad habit of reviewing everything in Indian context)….

And once again i am taken by surprise even if must have expected this kind of vocabulary and story-telling, the importance attached to the so-called much touted but hollow ‘nang and namoose’,  the familiarity of the tandoors, the boiled  rice, roti and qorma  etc because they are also part of our Indian heritage… and most of us connect with Pakistan somehow but the umbilical cord connection with Afghanistan was long severed with the arrival of Islam in this part of the world in the 7th century AD,…   Afghanistan was the first to break from Akaand Bharat that some still speak of in this part of the world – the Greater India that once existed from Afghanistan and Tashkent one side to the three converging  ocean-seas on the other southern tip.

For me always and for most hindus,  Afghanistan  thus will remain the kingdom of Gauravs of Mahabharatha.   And Kandhahar is Gandhar, the seat of the Gaurav kingdom, with the mother of the Gauravs being ‘Gandhari.’   Is it all a mere myth as the west claims?  I doubt it.  Somehow i believe all this happened in another age in another plane of time, proofs for which cannot be unearthed until now, but will be someday.  From the time of Buddha, Buddhism seems to have replaced Hinduism significantly in Afghanistan,.

I am attaching a picture here taken in a Karnataka monastery about how Buddhism reached Tibet from the banks of river Sindh(u), in today’s Af-Pak borders.  Unbelievable quite!  Mr.  Hosseini, did you ever give a thought to what and who were Afghans even before Buddhism became their way of life?

The Afghan Monk who gave Buddhism to Tibet

As a woman of this semi-liberal country (semi-liberal in the sense, one feels even if our constitution bestows upon Indian women the same and equal fundamental birth rights as for our men, much and far above Islamic Sharia countries in most ways, women as such here are still enduring a different dimension than rest of the world, about the traditional, conservative way of Hindu life  that’s  least relenting when it comes to second chance at marriage (re-marriage).     While muslim women atleast can remarry so easily and have children from different husbands and muslim men could be tolerant about that even in a war-torn country like Afghanistan, in the supposedly much literate and better Hindu society, re-marriage for widows or divorcees until today is a taboo which continues to be adroitly unbreakable  …..  so as a woman of this semi-liberal country called India still steeped in far graver conditions for women out of which its not so easy for us to climb out, even if our women are all not donned in burqas all the time, i always feel Islam gives that way the women some far deeper sense of acceptance and leverage than its ever possible for women in my own society…

During our Malaysian days i have seen Malay and Indonesian muslim women, most of them in head scarves (called ‘tudong’ there), most westernized than any Indian woman can ever be.   Tudong over the jeans and tee-shirts!  Dating by 12 years with tudong, changing partners with tudong still in-tact….  but always with tudong and tudong only!  Ever since i am having this personal debate: like who is more freer, us hindus or these muslim women.    In Malaysia, it was quick for an aggrieved woman always to get out of a disturbing relationship/marriage and remarry.  The  malay husbands would take care of the children of his new bride from her former marriage with no fuss.  Universally this is the norm when it comes to divorced or widowed women for human beings are after all, social animals, who have been living in groups since evolution.    Only in India, even if remarriages are happening of late, this concept is unacceptable all the way,  and do you think you can find any Hindu man wanting to look after the children of his wife from a previous marriage?

I wanted to make this point because, in this story its remarkable that how inspite of her long sufferings, Laila, the chief character could still remarry and how her new husband takes in the boy from the previous marriage.  Very much similar to the way Laila’s first husband confesses towards the end how he knew their daughter was not his.  After all that turned her world upside down, Laila in Afghanistan is still able to lead a normal life with two children from two different men, which really is unthinkable in the so-called secular democracy called India, what a pity.  Unlike yours Laila, we do not have the Taliban here, yet we have a certain mindset, certain unlaid, unspoken norms in our society where the most stringent punishment awarded could not be the death sentence like Mariam was awarded, but a quiet social ostracizing from mainstream circle of one’s friends and relatives which is the cruelest punishment that could be awarded to anyone …

So before i go to the content of the book, i wanted to underline this important point.  Divorces are finally happening in India as well (and not that i am happy about that) and at an alarmingly increasing rate, still our conservative attitude has not undergone any significant change.  So what is a burqa before this social ban, social shunning that we have here to counter ‘bold’ women?  With the burqa and all that, isn’t Laila having a better chance at life.  So in what way are we the so-called better-off women with better education and amenities priding that we are in any higher strata than these impoverished, unfortunate women of Afghanistan?  Marriage is a one-chance gamble for most of us.  Either you win or lose, but no second chance please, we are Hindu women.

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But try as much i do to put Afghan women in a pedestal far above our Indian women when it comes to a second chance in matrimony, i cannot deny that none in the world today must be suffering the way the Afghan women do for the only reason they are born the female sex.  The atrocities committed against them seems to be unparalleled in any other part of the world including in India (where now we have an increasing number of the rape crime).

As with my other book of Hosseini, i found myself moved to tears easily, so easily, with the simple narration of how Mariam is being married off callously by her family to a much senior Rasheed.  The consummation of their marriage broke my heart!  What a monster he must be, and what further when he does the same to an even younger Laila….  But it was easy guess for me that Laila was being manipulated with a sly lie into marriage with this man of about 60 years, senior to the younger girl by atleast 45 years!  Where else in this world can you come across this atrocity, cruelty than in islamic nations?

Who can forget the little girl of age 9 years Amina who was de-planed  from an Air India flight from Hyderabad, about to fly to Saudi years back.  The girl had been married off to a rich old man from Saudi of over 70 years of age, through what they said was  a ‘one month marriage contract.’  The man had come to Hyderabad to marry this little innocent girl who was sold to the man by her impoverished family for handsome money.  However, the same caught the attention of NGOs who had been monitoring for sometime because Amina’s wasn’t really the first case.  The girl’s incessant crying drew the attention of the flight crew who helped save the girl child from being kidnapped and raped by the old man from Saudi and cast off after a month with a simple ‘talak’ as it was being done with many young girls from poorest muslim families in Hyderabad.  With little police intervention, the girl was secured free and it made headlines in the press for days, weeks if i remember right.

I later learned that it was the easiest way for men from arab countries to procure youngest brides for their amusement from the poor muslim families of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Yemen etc.    The girls would be of use hardly for one or two months.  The older men quickly got rid of them with the ‘one month’ contract marriage (supposedly) once their lust would start subsiding.

I was reminded of this Amina episode when reading about Mariam’s and Laila’s marriage to an older man, very much their senior.  And the ease with which its done!  The other unacceptability in other parts of the world is,  more than one wife sharing a husband in the same house, in the same home, with children of different wives growing up together!    Its impossible for women from any other society to imagine themselves in this scenario, readily accepting to share their spouse so amicably!   Doesn’t feel normal!  Felt revolting to read about Jalil Khan’s three wives and children living in the same house seemingly at peace, and then about Mariam and Laila sharing the same house with Rasheed.  What kind of culture is this!  Its beyond my understanding sorry!

The woman Mariam comes out as the strongest character in the story.  Her endless patience and endurance make her a remarkable human being.  Hosseini seems to be good at crafting this kind of character.    Domestic violence like this is not such a rarity in other societies admittedly, but in Afghanistan it could be a daily affair, home to home, or perhaps a national hobby one can guess.  But i suppose, the domestic violence scene is aggravated by the tough life men have to lead, to earn a living given the free-for-all lawless society they are living in.  Just feeding the family must be one enormous task for the men.  Women for all their burqa are atleast spared this ordeal of scrounging for tidbits and small pennies for running their homes and keeping off hunger like the Afghan men still  have to in a place that can be described second to ‘hell.’  A very risky life with more exposure than the men can ever hope for.  Did Hosseini ever think in this angle.

The brutality to which Mariam and Laila are subject to could be partly due to the constant mental and physical pressure that Rasheed was probably enduring in the merciless man-eat-man society, to eke out a simple life devoid of starvation, nothing more.

This is no licence for inflicting violence on anyone least of all helpless women, still its worth our consideration.  The worst cruelty to me seems to be the consummation of Rasheed’s marriage with Laila, of all.  Somehow, i am still unable to come to terms with that horrific act by a man who must be old enough to be her father or grand father.  Why the idea called ‘adoption’ never crossed Rasheed’s or Mariam’s minds given they’re childless, beats me.

I was hoping for the story to end with Laila and Tariq’s fleeing of Afghanistan with the children.  Its good to see that like an after-thought, the author has rounded off with the return of the family to Afghanistan from Pakistan with a purpose.

Before i read this book, i hardly gave much of thought to burqa-clad women.  In middle-east i accept them readily because i think its their traditional attire in their native land.  However, the burqas in India, in my own Chennai, give me the creeps, rare as they may be.  I am scared of going anywhere near the burqa-clad women, of even standing close to them in shops or wherever, i wonder why.  Must be a psychological effect, from reading too many terror news, watching too much Al Qaeda, Taliban in television bulletins.  But after reading the book, i am thinking of the women in burqas,  like seriously for first time ever.   I never credited them by way of any substance somehow, shame on me.    From being a non-entity to me all these years, suddenly Hosseini has seen to that the burqa women are to be taken seriously by me  from now on!    May be this is true of others as well?  Is this so finally the point he makes?

What I do like about burqa now is also the relative anonymity it seems to offer women as Hosseini claims.  Another whole new perspective.  But not good in the interests of our national security, sorry!

From what i read about Afghanistan in both of his books, its pretty evident, that never did Afghanistan have a glorious time in recent past, say over a few  hundreds of years.   Looks like ‘nang and namoose’ are more important to Afghans than hunger and thirst, that make most of us swallow our pride.

The poverty and harsh way of life in Afghanistan is cruel.  But its mostly the making of Afghans themselves.  I am stumped by their constant expectation from others to bail them out  by way of providing aid, defence etc.  So where goes their ‘nang and namoose’ into hiding, now?

Hosseini, do you know that my poor country India has also been doing its bit to rebuild Afghanistan?  There are indian doctors there, nurses, with our people running hospitals to building highways.  For a reward our embassy got bombed i guess, and our engineers kidnapped and beheaded.

But whether its Afghanistan or Pakistan, their main problem is when it comes to acknowledging their true Hindu ancestry.  Both were fine until they had a hindu way of life, their glorious native culture.   Both went out of control the day they embraced Islam, an alien faith in this part of the world, starting from 7th century AD.  Because Islam suits the Arabs, for it is theirs.  Whereas for everyone else in the subcontinent, it is foreign.   Oh i am wasting my time here i guess, because what is there to say even after the Bamiyan Buddhas were reduced to rubble by the Taliban to prove to the arab world ‘how they belong.’  I have no respect for those who want to disown their own ancestry, their own cultural and native heritage.

Do I see a bright future for Afghanistan?  Sorry, i don’t.  Waiting for withdrawal of US troops by 2014.  Will wait and watch.  I have a friend whose husband worked in a construction project in Kabul for over an year.  During this period, my friend and her son visited Kabul and my friend is the bravest i know in the world, for having shopped in Kabul for muslin and handwoven carpets!  Says she, they were escorted by armed tanks in the front and back, but she remained undeterred like a few more like-minded friends of hers, who all went shopping in downtown Kabul!  However their courage failed the moment her husband returned to India for a short vacation.   He resigned the well paid job on insistence of relatives who feared for his life.

Says my friend, every single day her husband worked in Afghanistan, was a nightmare for them.  The husband would log in in the mornings and assure his wife before he left for the site, that he was okay.  Again, reaching the site, he would log in and assure her through ‘skype’ that he was alive and kicking.  Evenings when he returned to living quarters surrounded and patrolled by armed security, the routine was repeated. This went on for an year or so.  Finally when he returned home for holiday, the enormity and gravity of the situation overwhelmed the family.  “Only for the paycheck’ assures my friend about the motive to work in Afghanistan.

Hopefully Laila and Tariq and Azeeza and Zalmai and the little unborn Marriam in her mother’s womb outlast 2014 and years to come.  My best wishes to Laila even if she is only a fictional character.   Her decision to return to Kabul is a good and selfless move.  Its women like her who make a difference to make this world a better place to live in.    I can see why hotshot women like Angelina Jolie and Madonna are keen about educating the Afghan, Pakistani women.  Perhaps Hosseini has been an influence?

The world of Lailas and Malalas is still bleak but one hopes there i will be light at the end of the tunnel, as it happens always.

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