Little Mariam lives with her mother Nana in a kolba – a small, squalid shack – in a clearing near the Afghan village of Gul Daman. Mariam is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy cinema-house owner named Jalil Khan; the embittered Nana relishes calling her a harami, telling her she will never have claim to such things as love, family and acceptance, and painting a bleak picture of a woman’s destiny. “What’s the sense schooling a girl like you? It’s like shining a spittoon. You’ll learn nothing of value in schools. There is only one skill a woman like you and me needs, and it’s this: tahamul. To endure. It’s our lot in life.”
But Mariam continues to hope. She loves and hero-worships her father, yearns to be part of his legitimate family, dreams about siblings she’s only heard of, and one day an act of over-enthusiastic, childlike indiscretion leads to the collapse of her world. Orphaned and abandoned, she is hurriedly married off to Rasheed, a middle-aged businessman, and sent to live in Kabul where, as the years pass, her dreams and ambitions fade away.
Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is a sensitively told if slightly uneven story about the crushing of the strong-willed Mariam’s spirit and the opportunity she gets, decades later, to validate her life by helping another innocent – a young girl named Laila, Rasheed’s second wife. We are already familiar with Laila’s past, for Hosseini has introduced her to us in the book’s second section (where he somewhat clumsily cuts us off from Mariam). The converging stories of these two women are told against the backdrop of an Afghanistan that is lurching from one era of instability to another. The narrative moves between 1974 (the year of Mariam’s wedding) and 2003, a period that includes the military rule of President Daoud Khan, the long years of Soviet occupation, the internecine fighting that turn swathes of the country into a war zone and its civilians into target practice for rocket bombers, and the emergence of the Taliban in the mid-1990s.
Hosseini’s description of life in Kabul over these strife-filled years is as absorbing as it was in his first novel The Kite Runner, which became a huge international success. Some of the flaws of that book are on view here also. The Kite Runner was a near-perfect example of the cosily satisfying, middlebrow work of fiction with appeal for casual readers who wouldn’t ordinarily plough through books about “heavy topics”. The first Afghan novel to be published originally in English, it opened a window to a period and setting most of us knew very little about, and did this in accessible language, and through a page-turner of a plot. However, part of its accessibility to a wide readership came from the fact that it was occasionally manipulative, carefully underlining key sentences for the reader; some of Hosseini’s attempts to extract emotion from the text were embarrassingly transparent.
Some of this persists in A Thousand Splendid Suns. The image of an aged Jalil Khan looking up at Mariam’s window, hoping for a glimpse of the daughter he cast away years ago, would be poignant enough on its own, but Hosseini must elbow-nudge the reader thus: “He’d stood there for hours, waiting for her, now and then calling her name, just as she had once called his name outside his house…their eyes had met briefly through a part in the curtains, as they had met many years earlier through a part in another pair of curtains.” Also, Rasheed is an underdeveloped character (though perhaps that’s the idea) and his skirmishes with his wives seem farcical and over the top; some passages read like the script for an exploitation film about two women and their chauvinistic male tormentor.
Thankfully, such simplifications are fewer here than in The Kite Runner. Much of the power of A Thousand Splendid Suns resides in its small, almost throwaway observations about the nature of relationships, societal and family structures: such as Laila bitterly reflecting that people “shouldn’t be allowed to have new children if they’d given all their love away to the old ones”, and Mariam’s sense that her mother doesn’t want her to find the happiness and freedom she never had herself. This latter idea may seem cynical, but it’s an acute commentary on the ambivalent, complex relationship between many parents and children in conservative societies that are straining for liberalness. (We in India know quite a bit about this phenomenon; witness how older women are often the most strident defenders of traditions that are detrimental to women’s interests. The convenient notion that parents always act purely and unequivocally in their children’s interests masks the many complexities of human behaviour and doesn’t account for the self-interest that all of us carry within us.)
There are other nice vignettes. For instance, when the free-spirited Mariam and Laila are each coerced into wearing a burqa for the first time (many years apart), they are surprised at how secure they feel: given their recent experiences, it’s comforting that people can no longer see their faces, look into their eyes, scrutinize and judge them. I also liked the way Hosseini uses the Pinocchio tale to bookend his novel. The story of the puppet who wants to be a “real boy” has parallels with Mariam and Laila (and other women in this society) being denied human rights and control over their own lives, but it also finds a small echo elsewhere – in Rasheed’s desperate, all-consuming need for a son to replace the one he lost a long time ago, and how this only leads to tragedy.
It’s easy to understand why Hosseini has such a wide readership around the world. In stories like the ones he tells in The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, form usually takes second place to content: even if the writing is patchy or overwrought, most readers are swept along by the sheer emotional sweep of a narrative about people living in constant fear for their lives; of a setting where you step out of your house knowing you might be blown to pieces any moment, and where women have few rights even during the relatively good times.
However, form and content are better balanced in this new novel, which indicates that Hosseini has grown as a writer, learnt something about restraint and about letting a story tell itself.
P.S. Based on conversations with various people, I find it interesting what contrary feelings The Kite Runner evokes among readers. I imagine that a debate on the merits and demerits of this book, conducted between an enthusiast who was moved to tears and a critic who thought it shallow and contrived, would lead absolutely nowhere since the two people concerned would be occupying entirely different planes on the reading experience. The first might accuse the second of being pedantic, “too critical”, or perhaps even insensitive to human tragedies in Afghanistan; the second would probably have to resort to snobbery and suggest that the first expand the scope of his reading in order to discover how an author can convey genuine emotion.
As usual, I’m on the fence. My gut reaction was an uneasiness about parts of the book ringing false, and this is certainly problematic when serious topics are being dealt with (I’ve felt similarly about films like Matrubhoomi and Provoked). But I didn’t think it was at all bad for a first-time novelist trying to tell a very circumscribed story to a global readership. And of course there are the usual points about writing that can hold the attention of the casual reader, perhaps serve as a stepping stone for him to move to better things (or not, for that matter).