Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Reading Khaled Hosseini

And the Mountains Echoed
A Review 

‘Out beyond ideas
Of wrongdoing and right doing,
There is a field.
I’ll meet you there.’

‘And the Mountains Echoed’ begins with a Rumi quote. Khaled Hosseini keeps this promise and does indeed usher the reader into a field where there is no right and no wrong, where ‘cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color.’ Many readers want to know: “How this third novel different from his previous two?” Well, one big difference is that unlike the ‘Kite Runner’ and ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ there is no untarnished hero, no irredeemable villain. There is only life, and circumstance, and the reader is set up to ponder over rather than judge each character.

Part of Hosseini’s brilliance lies in the firmness with which he pulls together the strings of the Mashreq and Maghreb until, in flat defiance of Kipling’s prophecy, that twain finally meets. He uses English as the deft medium but the novel defies the classical western tradition of the ‘story arc’. That is, there is no simple “exposition, conflict and resolution”. Instead, from his very first chapter, Hosseini proceeds in the timbre of the ancient storytellers of the east, spinning many different tales, sometimes leaving the listener at the clutching throes of one before tumbling headlong into a totally different other. Of course the tales are connected. A character from one tale sometimes appears in another (as in the Ramayana or the Arabian Nights). And they all emerge from a common womb.

That womb is Afghanistan. Protagonists may spill in from Greece or spill out into France and America, but a merciless Kandahari wind blows through their lives wherever they are. Though it is about Afghanistan, this is not a book about war. In the voice of one of his characters, Hosseini explains: “I need not rehash for you the those dark days. I tire at the mere thought of writing it, and, besides, the suffering of this country has already been sufficiently chronicled…” The war may thunder on in the background but the real stories are of separation and pain, of sibling rivalry and forbidden love, of duty, identity and complicated parent-child relationships that span a lifetime.

The reader will meet leg-revealing, cigarette-smoking Nila, who rebelliously scratches erotic poems with her pen and also Parwana, who bears none of the lightness that her name implies. The reader will meet humanitarians who rush in to heal Afghans from the war and watch how they manage, in the process, to heal themselves. Above all, the reader will question, whether a little girl whisked off to Paris or a little boy pampered in an ivory tower were better off than children who faced the poverty and war. As we can expect from life, and from the great literature that mimics it, there is never an easy answer.

Yes, it is possible to find flaws in ‘And the Mountains Echoed’ starting with the clumsiness of the book-title itself. Readers who are used to plots that provide instant gratification or satisfying resolutions will have a bone to pick with Husseini’s refusal to create neat little endings to the wounds he gashes open. The multiple sub-plots can feel distracting, especially to readers who prefer to finish their novels in one sitting. And of-course readers who dislike crying will be downright mortified. By the time she reached the last sentence, this reviewer had raw eyes.

How many stars for this book? As many as shine down on the deserts of Afghanistan. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Voter Turnout

Dear Imran,

I was a schoolgirl in the 80’s and I know you. I remember the excitement of the Brookebond ad, the value of your autograph. I remember the pages in slambooks dedicated to you. I know who my boy-cousins and chacha’s were pretending to be when they swung a bat over their shoulders and sauntered onto a cricket pitch, the way a teenage Waseem Akram used to look at you. That’s right, Skipper, my generation remembers all that.

I also remember the day your beaming face lifting the World Cup was banned from national TV. My nineties-born boy cousins were named ‘Imran,’ they live with that name today. I remember one of Jemima’s earliest interviews when she said she knew her husband ‘was popular in Pakistan—but she had no idea he was this popular.’

‘Bimbo,’ I thought…along with the rest of the women in this country. ‘Where did you come from?’ Who could like that woman for marrying…and then leaving…Imran Khan… ‘No Hugh Grant ever matched up, huh Jem?’

I watched with unease when you were ridiculed in politics, when flibbertigibbets like Nadia Khan could smirk publicly at you. When you shed the playboy shirts and donned the awami suit. You made my heart sink with your vote on the Women’s Bill. I winced as you talked about the Ahmedis. ‘Who is he, really?’ I wondered. But my eyes were also opened by the way my students—now men in their 20’s—began to attend your jalsas. And then, when my sister skyped in to tell me that my seven-year-old nephew all the way across in Liverpool, dropped his plastic cricket bat and began sobbing loudly, heartbreakingly, at the sight of your bloodied face being carried away from the forklift. It’s happened all over again.

One nation held its breath at precisely the same second, last night, when you tumbled off that forklift, Skipper. We held our breath and reached for each other, de-ja-vu washing over our hearts. You’ve made us hold our breath countless times before: West Indies, India, Sharjah, the World Cup. But not quite like this. We exhaled together when we heard you were ok, ignoring partisanship to look each other in the eyes to read the same thought: We cant afford to lose…this man.

There was nothing play-boyish, nothing glamorous about your face looking out at us from the hospital bed. There were 60 years etched in those lines, pain in those puffy eyes. But it gave us goose bumps to hear what you had to say. I never watched cricket. I never believed in politics. Until you, Skipper. For years, I’ve heard the drawing room talk lamenting our leadership crisis. Last night, despite ourselves, we saw a Leader.

I disagree with you on so much but you make me determined to fight for it all. If you get elected, someone might actually listen. Looking at how you’ve persevered through the last 17 years till all turned to look twice: this makes me believe in democracy in a way that the Bhutto legacy or the Shareef baradaran never could. I’m coming to believe in democracy, thanks to you, Skipper. For so many years, we’ve waited for a moment to feel our collective heartbeat, for a moment to celebrate. Beneath our sarcasm and skepticism, our blood—though these days it trickles rather than flows—remains forever, green. 

I am 37 and I’ve never voted. This morning, I sms-ed my ID and noted my polling station. This morning, I fished around in my ilmari for a green dupatta to iron for the 11th.  This morning, I let Junaid Jamshed sing ‘Inshallah…’ in my car as I dropped my daughter to her school. Even though I boycotted his lawn this year over his comment that women shouldn’t drive, even though I share no beliefs with that man, I clutched at the steering wheel and joined my voice with his: InshAllah…InshAllah. Voter turnout will determine the election? Well then. This voter will turn up.

‘Come on, Imran.’ I remember the way the commentators used to say it as the crowd’s feet began to thump in the stands, soft and so slow at first, then louder, much louder, gaining speed…as you gained speed. ‘Come on, Skipper.’

You have a people to lead.