Let me confess at the outset: I haven’t read The Kite Runner. I therefore began reading this, Khaled Hosseini’s second book on wrecked and ravaged Afghanistan, unburdened by the weight of expectations. While many adjectives hover in my mind, the one that best describes the experience of reading A Thousand Splendid Suns is quite simply: ‘Moving’. In fact, a blurb at the back quotes The Independent proclaiming that the book is ‘guaranteed to move even the hardest heart’. Indeed, it moves one virtually to tears.
Hosseini paints with broad brush-stokes across a canvas that is vast and varied, richly textured and vividly coloured. His concern is with telling an epic tale, painting the big picture, giving a birds’ eye view of the horror and devastation visited upon his poor benighted country. He is not particularly concerned with the minutiae of story telling: of plot, characterization and narrative technique. And, to be perfectly fair, in a novel such as this, given its scope and brilliance, you don’t ask for more. For, it is the depiction of a place and its people that becomes paramount. With every page you turn, you are living the life of the two main protagonists – Mariam and Laila. Hosseini succeeds in doing so because he makes the events of their lives so real and so immediate; the sights, smells and sounds of their lives are brought so vividly before our eyes that the sketchiness of their characters seems not a flaw but simply a necessity. It is the story, the kernel of any good writing, which is the real strength of A Thousand Splendid Suns. In the end, it is the story that stays on in one’s mind.
The story is, at one level, elementary, at another epochal. It is the story of two women tested to the limits of their endurance but never found wanting. And, it is the story of a country torn apart by persistent internecine warfare but refusing to bow down to the enemy within and without. The saga of personal sorrows and losses is played out against the backdrop of a country at the mercy of shifting political and ethnic alliances. Early on, the young and innocent Mariam, the bastard child of a poor maid and a rich business man, growing up in a mud kolba in the picturesque Herat countryside is told by her mother that women must learn tahamul, endurance, for ‘like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.’ Married at 15 to a brute of a man, Mariam travels across the width of her country to Kabul, to a city poised on the brink of disaster. The year is 1974. King Zahir Shah’s placid 40-year reign is drawing to a close; a new era is waiting to dawn and her watan will shortly be known as the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and be plunged into chaos and anarchy.
Over the next three decades, her life and that of the much younger Laila -- who enters her home as her husband’s far-prettier second wife but becomes a friend, daughter and sister, a soul mate, as it were – become the prism through which to view the fragments of their broken country. Broken shards – of their lives and their beautiful blighted land -- come together to form new, shifting patterns as in a kaleidoscope. The only constant is change as fresh atrocities are perpetrated and newer outrages devised. The victims are always the innocent who, through it all, hold on to the staff of tahamul.
With the coming of the Communists begins a bloodied orgy of violence and more violence as power slips and slides, falls from one hand to another, each more willful more self-seeking than the other. In short, terse sentences Hosseini outlines the vagaries of shifting alliances that hold a whole country and its people hostage:
‘It was dizzying how everything unraveled… Insults were hurled. Fingers pointed. Accusations flew. 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.’
Rockets began to rain down on Kabul, and by 1992 the city took a severe shelling as the Pashtun forces of the warlord Sayyaf and the Hazara tribesmen turned the streets of the city into a combat zone, killing, raping, looting and burning in mindless retaliation. Unmindful of the casualties the players on the political arena come and go with dizzying regularity. There is Dostum, the charismatic Uzbek leader who fights the Soviets with the Mujahideen, later sides up with Najibullah’s puppet communist government, then joins forces with Massoud only to switch sides and join Hekmatyar Gulbadan. Together Dostum and Hekmatyar rain fire and destruction on Massoud and Rabbani’s combined forces and in the process turn Kabul into a place worse than hell: ‘From either side of the Kabul River, they released rounds of artillery at each other. The streets became littered with bodies, glass, and crumpled chunks of metal.’ The grisliest incident, by far, is the account of a stray rocket blowing up a bunch of schoolgirls walking home from school, scattering their body parts up and down the street, ‘a decomposing right foot, still in its nylon sock and purple sneaker, would be found on a rooftop two weeks later.’
And, then in October 1994 along came the Taliban, the pure and incorruptible, ending the factional wars whenever they wrested power from Mujahideen. Unlike all the others who jostled for power, they were united; they had found Common Cause but that would not last for long. For, eventually they too become mere puppets in the hands of the real masters – the Pakistani and Arab Islamists. In September 2001 Massoud is killed (probably by the al-Qaeda), the Twin Towers fall and Bush declares War on Terror. Bombs fall once again on Kabul, but this time they are American bombs. The forever-at-war warlords are again armed to the teeth – this time by the Americans and not the Russians – and the Americans enlist the help of the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban and ferret out bin Laden. The Afghans wait for Bush’s bombs to stop falling in the hope that this time there will be peace.
While all this is going on in the political realm, there is the ravagement of the two women:
‘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, 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.’
But in the end, love returns as does hope. By July 2002 the coalition forces have driven the Taliban out of every major city, pushed them across the border to Pakistan and the mountains on the southern and eastern fringes of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai takes over as interim President under the watchful eye of the ISAF, the international peacekeeping force. War is over and Afghanistan calls out to its hamshire and hamshira, sons and daughters, to return and rebuild. People begin to thumb their collective noses at the Taliban by growing their hair and shaving off their beard, and publicly screening the Titanic (a national obsession). Music is back on the streets of Kabul, but then so are the warlords. They live in grand walled-in mansions and drive dangerously around in landcruisers and are appointed ministers. In the end, there is acceptance of things past and hope of a better future when the Ode to Kabul will once again come true:
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
Or the thousand splendid suns that hid behind her walls.
Reminiscent in parts of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth -- with echoes of the restless, violent uprising followed by a period of turmoil and change when an old order and a way of life crumbled inexorably away in China – A Thousand Splendid Suns ends on a more positive note. For all its unrelieved brutality and mind-numbing horror, in the end there is the hope of a better life. While every individual story in the book is marked by death, loss and unimaginable grief, the spirit of the Afghan people survives intact and unharmed. For, according to Hosseini just as surely as love triumphs over destruction so does hope over despair and heroism over cowardice. To those who grumble about the promised aid not coming in, the process of rebuilding being too slow, the corruption being too rampant, the Taliban regrouping and re-arming themselves, the answer lies in these lines from poet Hafez:
Joseph shall return to Canaan, grieve not
Hovels shall turn to rose gardens, grieve not.
If a flood should arrive, to drown all that’s alive,
Noah is your guide in the typhoon’s eye, grieve not.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury, 2007, pp 372.
-- Rakhshanda Jalil