A Thousand Splendid Suns – A Deeply Moving Elegy to Afghan Woman
Khaled Hosseini’s “Kite Runner” sold 4 million copies in United States and remained in best sellers list for two years. It tracked the friendship between two young boys, in Kabul, before and after a fate-changing betrayal. Hosseini has lived in US since 1980 (his family requested and received political asylum in the United States after Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). He went to medical school and became a physician, but when he kind of lost touch with his birthplace, he got back to his roots through literature. The author’s rich prose and powerful storytelling method was not the only reason for “Kite Runner’s” success. It also took us to a beautiful as well as sorrowful, war-devastated land, which has largely remained obscure in the eyes of the world. Four years later his first book (in 2007), Hosseini came back with another riveting story in “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, which focused on the plight of Afghan woman throughout the turbulent history of their country (his latest book “And the Mountains Echoed released last year).
The novel (title taken from a poem written by the seventeenth century Afghan poet Saib-e-Tabrizi) chronicles Afghanistan’s history over 30 years (from communism to terrorism) through the eyes of two burqa-clad women – Mariam and Laila. The story begins in 1974, as Mariam, 15, recalls the first time her mother used the word “Harami” (illegitimate child) to call her. Her father, Jalil, is a wealthy business man in Heart and visits Mariam only on Thursdays. Rest of the week, she bears her mother’s rants and longs for Jalil’s visit. Mariam thinks of her father as a noble-minded guy, an illusion which shatters, when he presses her into marrying a man, Rasheed, three times her age. Mariam’s 45 year old husband is a shoemaker in Kabul. The overly controlling Rasheed becomes a brute, when she undergoes several miscarriages and when it becomes clear that she’ll never bear the son he covets.
The second part of the book (set in 1987) introduces us to a girl, named Laila – Mariam’s neighbor (who is born around the time Mariam moves to Kabul). Her parents are far more liberal than Rasheed. Laila’s father is a bookworm and her mother is not forced to wear a burqa. Laila has two brothers, who have gone to fight the Soviets, when she was a little girl. After the Soviet’s defeat, the Mujahideen warlords run amok and devastate Kabul. In this chaotic situation, Laila loses her childhood friend and lover, Tariq, as he moves to Pakistan. Soon, a rocket lands into her house and takes down the parents. At this time, Laila comes under the care of Mariam and Rasheed. Some shocking turn of events traps Laila with Mariam, as they both endure degradation, starvation and brutality under the hands of a man, who is as vicious as the Taliban.
We could anticipate what’s gonna happen next. Sometimes we know that it is going to be heartbreaking, but still, what keep us glued to this 402 page novel, is Hosseini’s storytelling method and the way he explores every possible corners of a character. Another added strength of the novel, is Hosseini ability to weave historical events into the narrative. The lives shared by those two women, in the author’s writing, becomes a kind of allegory of the ways in which all women’s lives are shaped in this misogynistic world. Mariam and Laila portray the truncated lives of women, while men around them roam lazily and sensually, showcasing their overbearing power. “Kneel here, hamshira, and look down – One last time, Mariam did as she was told.” These simple lines, towards the end, makes us picture about the bereaved women, who live their lives under the command of men.
Hosseini’s writings about the old Afghanistan take a nostalgic turn, as he remembers the graciousness of spiritual Islam and the grandness of the ancient Buddhas of Bamyan (destroyed by Talibs in 2001). These sentences filled with joy also bring an underlying hope for Afghan’s future. The tone gets darker, when he writes about the Afghanistan as of today and recent past. Hosseini’s mission is not only to educate the educated ignorant (like us), but also to make us see his country through the eyes of a native. If there is a flaw, we can say that the characters are not very complex: Mariam and Laila showcase saint-like endurance throughout, while Rasheed remains irredeemably evil for a very long time. Yeah, a more subtle character sketch might have made it a far greater; nonetheless, it still makes us ponder over the unimaginable grief of Afghan women.
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” tackles challenging and untold subject matter. It never makes us avert out gaze from the horrors committed and in a way makes us wonder about the good fortune and sheer luck, we have been granted.