Nov 4, 2008

Thoughts on A Thousand Splendid Suns

There is little wonder that Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns stayed on the New York Times’ Bestsellers top spot for well over three months. Even though critics have been quick to scoff at his melodramatic set ups and starkly etched black and white characters, ultimately it is his gift of telling a story well, in a way that is meant to arouse powerful emotions in his readers and remind them of those things that they cherish and value above all else, that saves the day. As in his debut novel The Kite Runner, in this novel too he takes us on a journey to his unfortunate homeland Afghanistan, a nation that has been torn asunder not only by war, foreign invasions and internal factions, but also by a steep decline in its moral and cultural values. The Afghanistan of yore who’s surrounding mountains and green valleys nurtured poets, musicians, scholars and mystics gradually metamorphosed into a hostile nation where women were forced to wear the burqa and hide upstairs when their husband’s friends visited in the evening, where the quality of hospitals was so wretched that women were forced to undergo c-section deliveries without the necessary anesthesia and where a man could beat his wife to death for no apparent offence and get away with it. Spanning several decades, his story charts the history of two exceptionally resilient women as the nation reels under one assault after the other, first the Soviet invasion, then the nightmare regime under the Taliban and finally, the recovery of some measure of harmony under the leadership of Hamid Karzai.
A Thousand Splendid Sun shares several features with his first novel -- the almost invincible villain who goes about doing evil with impunity, an odd friendship between two people who have almost nothing in common and belong to different social strata, the sacrifice that one of them makes for the other and the final hope of redemption that allows a glimmer of hope to pierce these heartbreaking sagas of lives destroyed, loves lost, hopes dashed and aspirations betrayed. It tells the story of two women, Mariam and Laila and their life-affirming love for each other. Having told the story of brothers in The Kite Runner, he pays tribute to the strange rituals of empathy and sacrifice that is the domain of these oppressed women.
We meet Mariam at the novel’s opening, the illegitimate child of a rich Herat merchant who lives somewhere on the outskirts of the city with her neurotic, bitter mother whose generalizations regarding ‘our lot in life’ would seem straight out of a B grade film were it not for the fact that she has indeed paid a high price for being born with a double disadvantage, that of being poor and a woman in a world where the only identity that affords any measure of security and respect to a woman is that of the legally wedded wife. Mariam’s joyless existence is punctuated with weekly visits from her weak and insincere father Jalil and the Koran lessons that she receives from Mullah Faizullah who dotes on her. Circumstances conspire in the teenaged Mariam’s being married off to the middle-aged Rasheed, a cruel, vicious and petty monster who’s behavior plumbs new depths of depravity as Mariam suffers one miscarriage after another and is unable to bear him the mandatory male heir. Few passages in the novel are as moving as those describing the newly wedded Mariam’s eager thoughts that despite the difference in their ages, for the first time in years, she hopes that together they can build a contented life and share a home that she could call her own. She silently accedes to Rasheed’s order to wear a burqa, though the “padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen.” It is this loss of clear vision, the lack of choice and clear alternatives that is the curse that women like Mariam and Laila have to bear when they are thrown at the mercy of misogynists like Rasheed who derives his boundless power from a social order that does not allow women do go outdoors without male presence, where women were denied any education beyond the rote learning of Koranic verses and where a woman’s sole preserve in life was the appeasement of the different masculine relationships she had acquired over a lifetime, at the cost of an almost deathlike annihilation of her individuality. Not surprisingly when Mariam fails to provide Rasheed with a son, he starts treating her with cruel disdain and beating her savagely without the slightest provocation. Hosseini paints a dark portrait of a patriarchal despotism where women are completely helpless and the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status and recognition.
As the years pass, so do Mariam’s hopes for any love or understanding and she loses a lot more than her teeth in the daily bouts of physical violence that chiefly comprise her life – “his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks..”
Many years younger to Mariam, it is not only Laila’s rare beauty that contrasts with Mariam’s plain, coarse looks. Laila is the daughter of a university professor and his educated wife who not only holds strong political convictions but has never been asked to not speak her mind. In fact it is in the details of Laila’s early life that we glimpse the complex nature of Afghan society. Laila’s parents and lover Tariq are a foil against the other boorish, insensitive and hypocritical male counterparts who populate the novel. It is most notably in the portrait of her disjointed yet happy family life that Hosseini shows how it is individual families who made the choice, not society, to follow a particular path of liberty and emancipation or suppression and tyranny. This is an issue which those writing about the Arab or Muslim world must address repeatedly as many Islamic nations come under the sway of fundamentalists and narrow minded religious fanatics.
As fate, once again, conspires to deprive another young woman of her dreams and Laila is forced to accept Rasheed’s offer of marriage, the novel begins its journey of healing and recovery, of course not before much has been laid waste forever. What is interesting is to note Hosseini’s depiction of Mariam’s initial anger as she forced to accept the presence of the younger, more beautiful Laila as her husband’s second wife. It is not jealousy that Mariam feels for her marriage has long become a miserable drudgery of neglect and abuse. Western readers are unlikely to understand her reaction and may argue that given the fact that Laila’s presence actually mellows Rasheed, why is Mariam so hostile toward her? It is difficult for many to comprehend Mariam’s jealousy as its deeply rooted in a social system where only a man’s wife is accorded respect, status and security, much of which will be compromised if she has to share it with another. Mariam is especially aware of how important it is to be rightfully attached to a man because of the murky circumstances surrounding her own birth. Illegitimate and a female to boot, it’s only natural that she will do anything in her power to prevent another from usurping her rights as Rasheed’s wife, despite being treated worse than a stray dog. Similarly, it is but natural that it’s Mariam who becomes a second mother to Aziza, Laila’s illegitimate first born, for who better than Mariam can intuit her vulnerability as a girl child bereft of the protection of a father.
As the novel proceeds, a tentative bonding develops between the two wives. It is through Laila that Mariam derives some measure of validation and affection. It is through Laila’s eyes that we see what the young girl whom we’d first met at the novel’s beginning has become 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…”
It may seem that the novel is without any light moments or redeeming male characters. It is not so. Hosseini’s descriptions of the ‘Titanic’ film malady that afflicted the people is hilarious when one imagines them hiding their television sets underground for fear of the Taliban fatwa which forbade such licentious pleasures as films or music. It recalls to the mind another story of oppressive regimes and the extraordinary resilience of people who survive and fight them – Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
Laila’s fiancé Tariq and her father Hakim, Aziza’s teacher at the orphanage where she is later sent are all portraits of men who are truly the upholders of others’ dignity and honour. For these men the pashtun code does not consist of beating one’s woman into submission but of behaving honorably towards those whom they had pledged to protect and love.
A Thousand Splendid Suns occasionally suffers from the kind of excesses that we have witnessed in Hossseini’s debut novel too. The scene where Laila visits Mariam’s childhood home in Heart is imbued with all the trappings of Bollywood sentimentalism and could have been avoided. After all there is no doubt in our mind about the great and enduring love these two women shared; milking it for all its worth certainly does not earn any extra brownie points. Also sentences like, “Once again Mariam did, what she was asked” as she is about to be executed seem overdone and gratuitous.
One of the chief reasons for Hosseini’s success stems from his choice of subjects who though victims of circumstances far removed from anything we have ever known, share the same hopes, values and dreams that do the rest of us. In fact Mariam’s and Laila’s lives of abuse and horror find echoes in the lives of petrified American wives married to drunk and abusive rednecks whose only hope of salvation comes from a system that recognizes a woman as an individual and offers her the same rights as a man; it is this alone that separates them from the two women of the novel. What is truly poignant about Mariam and Laila’s lives is not the violence or indignity they suffer but the complete lack of hope that the outside world affords them. Hopefully as more and more readers become aware of this magnificent book, this too will someday change.
I havent had time to blog for a while. Am gonna add a few articles & book reviews that i'd done earlier in the year for a diff site but which i have been permitted to reproduce here only now. This was one of them.

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