Khaled has this uncanny way, as most good novelists do, of making you feel a part of the story. You become so entrenched in the plot that you develop feelings for some characters – some you pity or love, some fill you with such disgust, you feel like blowing them out of the book.
As you turn the pages, every scene or line or quote help your feelings, your sentiments, evolve. Along the way, you learn some Afghani words, too, and get to picture how the cities and the Afghan culture disintegrate with every bomb blast, with every political regime.
The title of the book was derived from a poem composed by 17th century Persian poet Saeb-e-Tebrizi: “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or a thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls“.
The way we may never know the true Afghanistan or its war-torn people.
At the end of the book, you feel a mysriad of emotions – from sadness to happiness to dismay, shock even hatred. You also feel the injustice of life. He gives you unexpected endings. You ask yourself a thousand questions, all summarised into one over-arching querry: doesn’t great sacrifices or good deeds pay at all?
Here, Khaled Hosseini makes you taste the agony of Afghan women, but also their pride, endurance and their unconditional love. He tells his story in simple prose and easy language. He tells you that every woman in his book made either an independent decision or forced to accept their fate in life, and yet suffered for it.
The book spans four decades (1959 – 2003) and four political regimes – from the Soviets to the Talibans and US invasion in 2001. In every political change, the people’s hope for peace became more illusory. Though there were some semblance of real life. For example, women do not need to wear the burqa and were allowed to go to school and work during the Communist reign.
The lives of all the women in this book intertwined in someway or another. There is Nana, a Herati woman who gives birth to Mariam, an illegitimate child. Nana is incessantly complaining about women’s lot in life, reminding her daughter that men are ruthless, careless, cruel and insincere. “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman“. Mariam did not believe her mother in the beginning but later, she understood the wisdom in those gems of words.
Then there is Mariam, the poor “harami” girl, for whom I felt the most for. Throughout the story, life was unkind, even brutal to her. From her father Jalil, a wealthy cinema owner with three wives and many children, and who was ashamed of Mariam and treated her as his “penance”, providing for her from afar with weekly visits, false promises and insincere gifts. Later, it was her elderly, brutish and violent husband Rasheed, who sent her to prison and eventually her execution.
From these two men, Mariam learned the harsh and painful truth about her mother’s pearls of wisdom: “A man’s heart is a wretched, wretched thing, Mariam. It isn’t like a mother’s womb. It won’t bleed, it won’t stretch to make room for you”.
There is also Laila, Mariam’s ambagh (or “madu” in Malay, they share the same husband), who is somewhat educated, more willful as her father Hakim, a teacher sacked by the Soviets, had encouraged her to seek knowledge and gave her confidence as a woman. There is also her childhood sweetheart Tariq, who fathered her daughter Aziza, but left kabul before he knew about the baby, forcing Laila to marry the overbearing Rasheed, who saved her from a bomb blast, which killed both her parents.
Life had been kinder to Laila. At first the two women were hostile to each other, but later their grievances, sufferings and sadness, brought them together. The women learned that sometimes it was a mistake to love: “The future did not matter. And past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion“.
Of course, Khaled Hosseini made me loathe the male figures in the story. I condemned their authority and violence, not only in their families, but in their politics. They were as hard and horrifying as the guns, rockets and bombs which rained kabul and Afghanistan, sending millions or more refugees scurrying across the borders into Pakistan and Iran. Then ones who remained were mostly maimed, bloodied or charred bodies.
At the end of the pages, I felt that during those years in Khaled Hosseini’s book, it must have been a tragedy, even a curse, to have been born a woman, perhaps not only in Afghanistan but some other places in the world as well.
“Each snowflake was a sigh of aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. That all the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fall suddenly on the people below as a reminder of how women like us suffer. How quietly we endure all that falls upon us”.
A must read, this book.