Friday, August 17, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns - A Review

I'm reproducing here my review of 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' that I wrote for Hafta Mag last week:

Right from the beginning, Khaled Hosseini had something to live up to. When you author a first book as critically acclaimed and widely read as ‘The Kite Runner’, you know expectations will be running high for the book that follows in its wake. With ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’, Hosseini has successfully managed to meet those expectations. Judging by the fact that apart from the political setting of Afghanistan there is not much else common with ‘The Kite Runner’ and Hosseini has still managed to weave an extremely compelling tale, I would even say that it surpasses those expectations.

Hosseini has stuck to a backdrop that he knows well, and that also worked well for him in ‘The Kite Runner’. As the story moves across generations, Afghanistan is painted as a country with a once-rich past which starts disintegrating rapidly as the rule of power moves from the Soviets to the Mujahideen, the Taliban and finally the US-backed government with Hamid Karzai at the helm. You feel for the innocent civilian who is forced to bear the brunt of each attack as the wars between different factions progress, as his life falls apart with his loved ones dropping by the wayside or his home and possessions being destroyed in the shelling. But this is not the story of just any innocent civilian, though the protagonists are very much innocent themselves. In that respect, just as ‘The Kite Runner’ was primarily told through the eyes of males, this story is about women, whose condition can be argued to have been much the worse of the two. One reading of the rules of the Taliban for women in Afghanistan makes you grasp this reality at once – and these are only selected lines:

You will not, under any circumstances, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.

You will not wear charming clothes.

You will not speak unless spoken to.

You will not make eye contact with men.

You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.

You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.

Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools ofr girls will be closed immediately.

Women are forbidden from working.

If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.

Listen. Listen well. Obey.

And so, this is the story of two remarkably strong women, Mariam and Laila, born about nineteen years apart, and the strange kinship they come to share after being thrown together under extenuating circumstances. As we are taken through their initial years – Mariam first, then Laila, we realise that their pasts could not be more different. Education, the harbinger of intellectual curiosity and freedom, is the key distinguisher, with the city-bred Laila actively encouraged to speak her mind by her progressive parents, and Mariam not allowed to be educated at all, coming as she does from rural Herat. When their stories converge and they finally meet each other, the bitter, lonely Mariam is understandably antagonistic towards the much younger Laila, unaware of all that she has been through. But they begin to realise that as women, they share more than just their ill-tempered, scheming husband Rasheed, whom they are both pushed into marriage with as teens. The increasingly bloody wars have left both women without family and friends, and as Rasheed’s rule of tyranny within the household begins to tell on them both at the same time as the Taliban takes over Afghanistan with their impossible rules, Mariam finds a strength she never had, and Laila a saviour.

Khaled Hosseini’s language is tellingly lyrical as he depicts the Afghanistan of yore (‘vines pregnant with plump grapes’), but as the novel moves forward it is his story-telling abilities which carry the book through. Once I started reading it, I could not put it down till I reached the last page, and then to ruminate over what it must be like to be an Afghan woman today. This is after all fiction and therefore, in itself, part of the book’s success – if I was pushed to think about the issue because of a fictional story, then there must be others who will be too. And for that, Hosseini must be applauded.

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