02 May 2009

Some thoughts on 'A Thousand Splendid Suns'

The Veil of Disenchantment

Author: Khaled Hosseini
Pages: 420
Publishers: Bloomsbury
Genre: Epic- drama
Price: 495

His stories still resemble the good old Bollywood film with the 'oh-so-it-was-him!' kind of twists, but here, fortunately there isn't that much  contrivance and the few that are there take nothing away from the central premise - ie the wretched state of women in Afghanistan and the inhuman nature of their existence.

Where The Kite Runner' story appeared more and more corny by the end, here Hosseini keeps his narrative more natural - capturing well the vulnerable state of his two spirited women protagonists. For better or worse, their fates are intertwined with the erratic and ever fluctuating socio-political situation in the country. It's poignant to see Marium and Laila being stifled under regimes like Taliban (that won't even allow them to step out of their house without a man to take them!) because both of them grow up as smart girls in relatively happy conditions. The author draws your attention to an erstwhile Afghanistan in the 60s, 70s and 80s where you had educated women who were doctors and lawyers. Having seen a better life in their childhood, both Marium and Laila are but naturally shocked by the cruel blow of fate that falls upon them in adulthood.

Marium is the illegitimate child of a rich father, and following the death of her mother marries a much older man, Rasheed. The latter is a prototype of a male chauvinist - perfectly happy with the status quo of a woman being treated subservient to a man. Which is why, he never quite criticises the gorilla army of the Taliban when they take over the country much later. He views their rigid, inhuman laws with ' a sort of forgiving bemusement' as Hosseini so fittingly describes. And yet, to the author’s credit, Rasheed never slips into being a caricature. In the initial stages of the marriage, he displays some tender fibres - even if he expects complete submission from his wife.
It is when Marium fails to deliver him a child after a douzen miscarrages that he unleashes his cruel male side, stinging her with sarcasm and crushing her spirit at every turn.

The Soviet invasion in the 80s incites a freedom struggle. Late towards the 90s, the Muhajadeens take over from them but it doesn't last, as different factions (based on caste and ideology) emerge, leading to a civil war. Families are destroyed, many of them flee to neighbouring countries like Iran and Pakistan..some even to US and UK. But the crisis mounts as many borders are sealed and refugee camps come up.

It is in this crossfire that Laila, the novel's second protagonist finds herself in. With her family dead and lover declared dead, she agrees to marry Rasheed who gives her a home. Marium and Laila are now step-wives sharing the same roof, each one living in sorrowful silence. In The Kite Runner, the novel's heartbreaking moments involve Amir and Hasan's childhood. In this novel, things are more tempered but still there are moments of great intensity that the author manages to build up. For example. Laila and her relationship with the crippled yet serenely sensuous Tariq comes closest to being one of the most touching parts of the novel.

The union of their souls - Marium and Laila-- coincides with the disintegration of Afghanistan into an abyss of religious fanaticism, propagated by the regime of the Taliban. It is amidst this chaos that both women form a bond and ultimately find their redemption.
Laila and Tariq return to Kabul (they settle in Pakistan in the meantime) after the US take over Afghanistan after 9/11 and the place starts to appear safer. This is obviously an autobiographical element - as Hosseini and his family had come visiting their homeland in 2003 to see how it had changed and if they could offer any help to its people.

What is commendable about the author's writing here is that even though the theme allows him to probably go all out and be emotionally manipulative in his treatment, he shows restraint - never losing focus of the bigger picture. Given Hosseini's present work as a US envoy for a UN refugee agency, you know his concerns are heart-felt and that clearly comes forth in the novel.

A Thousand Splendid Suns - in its theme of displacement, human suffering on account of wars and human rights violation ----is much like another favourite book of mine, Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I like how both these books weave in a fictionalised dramatic story mirroring the real life human crisis around them.

The novel has an expansive, textured setting that he achieves once again and his skill as a writer - finding the exact words to describe something (great dialogues) or never letting his leads slip out of character- it all works well for the story. Importantly, he opens up an interesting window into a country and its people, telling stories with much passion and yes, readability.


arwa said...

Hey Sandy.. Your reviews, whether positive or negative, always create an urge to read those particular books... waiting to read this one too.. great post! :)

janaki said...

Adiche's new collection of short stories already released abroad, to be released shortly. If you liked Adiche, you will also like "the color purple" by alice walker. Chk out "sacred kerala" by Dominique sila-khan. good in parts, but different in subject and treatment.

sandhya said...

Thanks Arwa.

Janaki: Great to see you! Will check out both the books you mention for sure. I still have to read Adiche's Purple Hibiscus BTW