Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns

(Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007)

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

And so the 17th century Persian Poet Saib-e-Tabrizi immortalized the spirit of Kabul forever.

Prejudiced and judgmental to a fault, I happened to pick up 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' at a time when the out-sourcing of terrorism (and terrorists) from Islamic States into the West was at its peak. I flopped on my bed, swimming in all my preconceived notions, and turned to the first page of the book.

And then I started reading.

Before I knew it, I was sucked into the magical world spun by Hosseini, landing bang in the middle of the narrative of a woman in Pre-Taliban Afghanistan...of her trials, her tribulations, the stories of the lives that revolved around her, that came before, with and after her time.

The book starts off in 1959 Afghanistan, with Mariam, the protagonist, as an outcast living on the edge of the city of Herat, a hustling-bustling melting pot of Persian culture, art and literature. Herat, with its towering minarets from Queen Gauhar Shad, green wheat fields, plump grape orchards and crowded, vaulted bazaars would be the setting of the first 15 years of the protagonist's life, yet she would never come around to experiencing it.

For Mariam was confined to her ghetto, set a hill and a stream away from this cultural paradise, a one room kolba made of sun dried bricks, plastered with mud and straw, housing two cots, a table, two chairs and wooden shelves around a single window. Outside, among a few other things, a chicken coop and a trough for feeding sheep. That and the endless green.

A 'bastard child', she tried escaping to her real father's house, spending a night getting rejected at the doorstep of his mansion, only to be brought back home to find her mother swinging lifelessly from the branches of a tree outside the kolba, not having had the strength to stomach the apparent abandonment.

Soon after, Mariam's well-off but socially insecure father took her in, and put her in an alien world, a prison of marble statues, expensive vases, richly colored tapestries and carpeted hallways, from which she was rarely allowed to step out, for 'honourable' reasons. All that before he married her off to an apparently 'rich', abusive shoemaker, thirty years her senior.

And THAT is how Kabul happens to this story.

As a reader moves through the various phases of Mariam's married life, Kabul's changing face and seasons serve as a suitable backdrop. When Mariam first comes to the city, Kabul betrays its big-city self, with its bursting populace, big cars, grey administrative buildings, crowded markets, lipsticked and skirted women, with all the steely resolve of a city in progress.
This same city transforms itself during the month of Ramadan, taking on a sort of golden hue by night, since it is mostly dead during the day. Sweetmeat sellers with delicious wares piled up in carts, men and women dressed in their finest, lights decorating the facade of anything and everything, and firecrackers lighting up the sky, as the city pours into the streets and crowded markets for iftar together.

Hosseini's Kabul is a joyful place, a potpourri of people from all walks of life, with ethnically diverse backgrounds, co-existing with other people and the elements. Kites, pots, pans, cycle tyres, public tandoors, et al. Here, poets and artists teamed with ordinary men over cups of cardamom tea in roadside cafes. Here, the wise and the foolish, ate together and made merry together. People were kind, people would share, and people were happy. Kabul was alive.

Mariam's street itself is an expression of the people of Kabul trying to make the best of what they have. Public wells, shared cooking spaces, gossiping women, and blossoming friendships in the shadow of bad administration, worse amenities and the worst, abusive husbands.

This of course, was the pre-war scenario.

When the Taliban finally descended upon the streets, it was mob rule at best.

Rockets bombing friends next door, houses collapsing, as the skies outside lit up in garish shades of orange and yellow, with flashes of blinding light and deafening roars at all odd hours of the night. Kabul was a changed place, the spirit of a city raped. Bodies piled upon bodies, as the people took sides between the government and the Taliban, some choosing to stay on and die, some leaving for safer skies. The infrastructure collapsed, as the streets became the death zone, with occasional fires in mountains of rubble. Death and disease were as prominent as Kalashnikov-toting, bearded Taliban leaders with suffocating rules, patrolling the streets in jeeps.

The civil strife reached it's ugliest lows when people accused of flouting senseless laws were publicly prosecuted, either shot, or stoned to death in stadiums, in front of thousands of other people. During the war, these public executions served as perhaps the only way of gathering communally, exchanging news, and inquiring about family.

The main characters of the story then choose to leave Kabul for safer lands in Pakistan, where they live and work, albeit half heartedly, for their hearts and minds are still in Kabul. Their story meets its just end when they return to Kabul and are a part of a new wave of reform sweeping through the country, slowly prodding it back onto its feet again.

This story is as much about Kabul, and the author's longing, for its dining halls piled high with meats, for the joy resonating through its hallways, for its centuries old Pashtun- Uzbek ethnic mix of culture, for the call for azaan as the sun rises, for the din on Id in its marketplaces, and for the people who lived, and died in it, long long ago...