Let me confess at the outset: I have not read The Kite Runner. I therefore began reading this, Khaled Hosseini’s second book on wrecked and ravaged Afghanistan, unburdened by the weight of expectations. While many adjectives hover in my mind, the one that best describes the experience of reading A Thousand Splendid Suns is quite simply: ‘Moving’. In fact, a blurb at the back quotes The Independent proclaiming that the book is ‘guaranteed to move even the hardest heart’. Indeed, it moves one virtually to tears. Hosseini paints with broad brush-strokes across a canvas that is vast and varied, richly textured and vividly coloured. His concern is with telling an epic tale, painting the big picture, giving a bird’s eye view of the horror and devastation visited upon his poor benighted country. He is not particularly concerned with the minutiae of story telling: of plot, characterization and narrative technique. And, to be perfectly fair, in a novel such as this, given its scope and brilliance, you do not ask for more.
For, it is the depiction of a place and its people that becomes paramount. With every page you turn, you are living the life of the two main protagonists—Mariam and Laila.
Hosseini succeeds in doing so because he makes the events of their lives so real and so immediate; the sights, smells and sounds of their lives are brought so vividly before our eyes that the sketchiness of their characters seems not a flaw but simply a necessity. It is the story, the kernel of any good writing, which is the real strength of A Thousand Splendid Suns. In the end, it is the story that stays on in one’s mind.
The story is, at one level, elementary, at another epochal. It is the story of two women tested to the limits of their endurance but never found wanting. And, it is the story of a country torn apart by persistent internecine warfare but refusing to bow down to the enemy within and without. The saga of personal sorrows and losses is played out against the backdrop of a country at the mercy of shifting political and ethnic alliances. Early on, the young and innocent Mariam, the bastard child of a poor maid and a rich business man, growing up in a mud kolba in the picturesque Herat countryside is told by her mother that women must learn tahamul, endurance, for ‘like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.’ Married at 15 to a brute of a man, Mariam travels across the width of her country to Kabul, to a city poised on the brink of disaster. The year is 1974. King Zahir Shah’s placid 40-year reign is drawing to a close; a new era is waiting to dawn and her watan will shortly be known as the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and be plunged into chaos and anarchy.
Over the next three decades, her life and that of the much younger Laila—who enters her home as her husband’s far-prettier second wife but becomes a friend, daughter and sister, a soul mate, as it were—become the prism through which to view the fragments of their broken country. Broken shards—of their lives and their beautiful blighted land—come together to form new, shifting patterns as in a kaleidoscope. The only constant is change as fresh atrocities are perpetrated and newer outrages devised. The victims are always the innocent who, through it all, hold on to the staff of tahamul. With the coming of the Communists begins a bloodied orgy of violence and more violence as power slips and slides, falls from one hand to another, each more willful more self-seeking than the other. In short, terse sentences Hosseini outlines the vagaries of shifting alliances that hold a whole country and its people hostage: It was dizzying how everything unraveled… Insults were hurled. Fingers pointed. Accusations flew. The city held its breath. In the mountains, loaded magazines snapped into Kalashnikovs. The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but now lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other.
Rockets began to rain down on Kabul, and by 1992 the city took a severe shelling as the Pashtun forces of the warlord Sayyaf and the Hazara tribesmen turned the streets of the city into a combat zone, killing, raping, looting and burning in mindless retaliation. Unmindful of the casualties the players on the political arena come and go with dizzying regularity. There is Dostum, the charismatic Uzbek leader who fights the Soviets with the Mujahideen, later sides up with Najibullah’s puppet communist government, then joins forces with Massoud only to switch sides and join Hekmatyar Gulbadan. Together Dostum and Hekmatyar rain fire and destruction on Massoud’s and Rabbani’s combined forces and in the process turn Kabul into a place worse than hell: ‘From either side of the Kabul River, they released rounds of artillery at each other. The streets became littered with bodies, glass, and crumpled chunks of metal.’ The grisliest incident, by far, is the account of a stray rocket blowing up a bunch of schoolgirls walking home from school, scattering their body parts up and down the street, ‘a decomposing right foot, still in its nylon sock and purple sneaker, would be found on a rooftop two weeks later.’
And, then in October 1994 along came the Taliban, the pure and incorruptible, ending the factional wars whenever they wrested power from the Mujahideen. Unlike all the others who jostled for power, they were united; they had found Common Cause but that would not last for long. For, eventually they too become mere puppets in the hands of the real masters—the Pakistani and Arab Islamists. In September 2001 Massoud is killed (probably by the al-Qaeda), the Twin Towers fall and Bush declares War on Terror. Bombs fall once again on Kabul, but this time they are American bombs. The forever-at-war warlords are again armed to the teeth—this time by the Americans and not the Russians— and the Americans enlist the help of the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban and ferret out bin Laden. The Afghans wait for Bush’s bombs to stop falling in the hope that this time there will be peace.
While all this is going on in the political realm, there is the ravagement of the two women: Seasons had come and gone; presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered; an empire had been defeated; old wars had ended and new ones had broken out. But Mariam had hardly noticed, hardly cared. She had passed these years in a distant corner of her mind. A dry, barren field, beyond wish and lament, beyond dream and disillusionment. There, the future did not matter. And the past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion.
But in the end, love returns as does hope. By July 2002 the coalition forces have driven the Taliban out of every major city, pushed them across the border to Pakistan and the mountains on the southern and eastern fringes of Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai takes over as interim President under the watchful eye of the ISAF, the international peacekeeping force. War is over and Afghanistan calls out to its hamshire and hamshira, sons and daughters, to return and rebuild. People begin to thumb their collective noses at the Taliban by growing their hair and shaving off their beard, and publicly screening the Titanic (a national obsession). Music is back on the streets of Kabul, but then so are the warlords. They live in grand walled-in mansions and drive dangerously around in landcruisers and are appointed ministers. In the end, there is acceptance of things past and hope of a better future when the Ode to Kabul will once again come true: One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs Or the thousand splendid suns that hid behind her walls.
Reminiscent in parts of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth—with echoes of the restless, violent uprising followed by a period of turmoil and change when an old order and a way of life crumbled inexorably away in China—A Thousand Splendid Suns ends on a more positive note. For all its unrelieved brutality and mind-numbing horror, in the end there is the hope of a better life. While every individual story in the book is marked by death, loss and unimaginable grief, the spirit of the Afghan people survives intact and unharmed. For, according to Hosseini just as surely as love triumphs over destruction so does hope over despair and heroism over cowardice. To those who grumble about the promised aid not coming in, the process of rebuilding being too slow, the corruption being too rampant, the Taliban regrouping and re-arming themselves, the answer lies in these lines from poet Hafez: Joseph shall return to Canaan, grieve not Hovels shall turn to rose gardens, grieve not. If a flood should arrive, to drown all that’s alive, Noah is your guide in the typhoon’s eye, grieve not.
Knowledge is power, it is said, but conversely what good is knowledge if it does not allow you to change anything? What good is knowledge if it seeps into you like poison, spreading its tentacles like cancer, destroying instead of nourishing? Is it better, then, to become a willing participant in the conspiracy of silence if not ignorance? The Bastard of Istanbul compels you to ask yourself this timeless, ageless query. It places you squarely on the horns of a dilemma that has dogged Man ever since the first awareness of Sin dawned upon him. Its author, Elif Shafak goes where no man—certainly no woman—has gone before. By intertwining a bastard child’s willful ignorance of her unknown father with the passionate search of an American-Armenian woman for her roots in modern-day Istanbul, Shafak peels away layers upon layers from memories old and new to reveal gaping wounds where no new skin shall ever form.
The Bastard of Istanbul begins as a popular novel, written in a somewhat racy American English, with a cast of eccentric and highly colourful characters arrayed against the magnificent, monumental backdrop of Istanbul. However, somewhere along the way, something strange happens; the book stops being a potboiler in the best traditions of a ‘family saga’ and catches you unaware and unprepared. For, suddenly, beneath its beguiling simplicity and chatty informality you begin to discern an ominous pattern and a portent of dark shameful secrets lurking beneath everyday harmless idiosyncrasies. At the center of it all are two young women: pouty, petulant Asya, the bastard of Istanbul, and the gentle Armanoush who has travelled from America to Istanbul in search of her family’s roots. Asya, born of the most shameful of unions, is full of contradictions and unspent rage that she directs at everything and everyone. She lives with her mother Zeliha who runs a tattoo parlour, her clairvoyant Auntie Banu who has tamed a djinni who can tell her everything, Auntie Feride who is a hopeless hypochondriac, Auntie Cevriye who teaches nationalist history, a grim grandmother and an Alzheimer-ridden great-grandmother. An unknown family curse causes her family to lose its male members under exceptional circumstances. Among her friends at the Café Kundera where she goes everyday is the Non-nationalist Scenarist of Ultra-nationalist Movies, the Dipsomaniac Cartoonist who is forever under threat of being banned for offending Turkishness, the Exceptionally Untalented Poet, and the Closeted-Gay Columnist.
Little by little you realize that hidden in the book’s rich tapestry of many intertwining strands lie cameos of haunting pathos and pictures of unimaginable suffering. The sights and sounds and smells of Istanbul—so evocatively and hauntingly described—are in actual fact not merely a scenic backdrop but vital props for the mise en scene that gradually unfolds before taking you inexorably towards a terrible denouement. Also, behind all the smart talk of cultural clashes and chauvinistic jingoism, lies a far more haunting message, one that has been erased from collective consciousness. All old-fashioned Turkish and Armenian tales begin with the same preamble: Once there was; once there wasn’t. God’s creatures were as plentiful as grains and talking too much was a sin…
This is not the only thing Turks and Armenians have in common. For centuries, they lived together, along with the Greeks and the Jews sharing many similarities in food, culture and habits till one day the differences between them began to outdistance the similarities. Suddenly one became the odar, the Other. The Revolution of 1908 changed everything. It began with the systematic singling out of the Armenians; first all Armenian men were conscripted to fight the Ottoman wars, then all Armenian soldiers were disarmed and gathered into labour platoons, and then started the deportations. The two most notorious milestones in the history of Armenian remembrance are the 1909 Adana Massacres and the deportation of 1915. With the coming of the Young Turks, the ethnic minorities in Turkey thought they would finally find ‘a level playing field on unequal ground’ but that was not to be. The Armenians were hounded out of their homes, thousands were wiped out in state-sponsored genocides, others were scattered with the wind, settling in different corners of the world, the largest settlement being in California. For all these years, generations upon generations of Armenians have nursed the anguish of their brutal severance, tortured by the imperviousness of the world at large and the Turkish people in particular to their misery, causing them to launch many a crusade for remembrance of things past—through cyber chat-rooms and through community initiatives. But different people, unfortunately, perceive history differently. For the Armenians: ‘despite all the grief it embodies, history is what keeps us alive and united.’ For the Turks, history is subjective. In modern day Turkey reactions vary: ‘it’ didn’t happen because ‘we never heard anything like that’. Or: It was a time of war. People died on both sides. Do you have any idea how many Turks have died at the hands of Armenian rebels? Did you ever think about the other side of the story? How about the suffering of the Turkish families? It is all tragic but we need to understand that 1915 was not 2005. Times were different back then. It was not even a Turkish state back then, it was the Ottoman Empire, for God’s sake. The pre-modern era and its pre-modern tragedies.
What is an unhealed, open wound to Armenians young and old is something the Turks choose not to dwell too much on. And it is this blithe indifference, this uninformed forgetfulness if not outright denial, that most torments the Armenians. As one of the characters in a cyber chat-room frequented by exiled Armenians says: All we Armenians ask for is the recognition of our loss and pain, which is the most fundamental requirement for genuine human relationships to flourish. This is what we say to the Turks: Look, we are mourning, we have been mourning for almost a century now, because we lost our beloved ones, we were driven out of our homes, banished from our land; we were treated like animals and butchered like sheep. We have been denied even a decent death. Even the pain inflicted on our grandparents is not as agonizing as the systematic denial that followed.
The other charge levelled against the Turks by the Armenians is: ‘Since they won’t join us in our recognition of the past, we are expected to join them in their ignorance of the past.’ Whereas, the Turks counter this by accusing the Armenians of first generating, then suffer- ing from ‘collective hysteria’, of having a warped, self-centred notion of time and history: The Armenians and the Turks lived in different time frames. For the Armenians, time was a cycle in which the past incarnated in the present and the present birthed the future. For the Turks, time was a multihyphenated line, where the past ended at some definite point and the present started anew from scratch, and there was nothing but rupture in between.
And so it goes on, this volley and counter-volley of accusations and recriminations. In the midst of all this, what is a writer to do? Her job is not to find solutions but merely to bring issues to the fore, to talk of things that no one else wants to talk about. This Shafak does, bravely and passionately, putting forward the case of the Armenians in the face of collective unconsciousness on the part of her fellow citizens. Perhaps she is able to do so because she has spent a great part of her life living and studying abroad and distance has given her the courage and the vision that others might lack. For her outspokenness, Shafak, like the Nobel Prize winning Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, too has been charged with the statutory crime of ‘insulting Turkishness’. Like Pamuk, she faced trial though the charges under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code were eventually dropped. And like Pamuk her infamy at home brought her instant, tumultuous accolades abroad. To praise a good work for the wrong reasons seems such a pity but so in keeping with the polarized world we live in.
Rakhshanda Jalil is Media & Cultural Coordinator at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She writes on issues of faith, culture and literature.