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Review – “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khalid Hosseini

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

I turned 30 this year. It was supposed to be a remarkable year, I had big plans for it. But my plans were overthrown by the virus’s plans and I was left seething at home. After months of agonizing that nothing is going as planned and my end of the 20s will not be as grand as I would have liked, I was heartbroken, naturally. When we entered the 10th month of the year, the 8th effectively under the pandemic and my birthday month as well, I decided to take matters out of fate’s hand and do something. What did I do? I splurged. I checked out all the books that I had wanted to read for so long and bought them all together. 16 paperbacks delivered to my house just before my big day. One of those books was A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini. I had wanted to read the works of the bestselling Afghan writer for a long time now. Having heard great reviews about all his works, I felt a certain calling each time I came across his books but never were they strong enough to compel me into buying them. I surprised myself this time, buying his 3 works together and delving straight ahead into this one.

As a reminder of how women like us suffer, she’d said. How quietly we endure all that falls upon us.

Mariam is a young girl living in the kolba with her Mammy. Just outside the city of Herat, on the way to Gul Daman, is her tiny house in which she spends her childhood and early teenage years. Her Babi is a hotshot businessman in the city, with 3 wives and 9 legitimate children. Mariam isn’t one of them. She, she is illegitimate you see. Born out of wedlock to the maid, the affair hushed up, Miriam never saw the grandeur of her father’s life. Until one day when she decides to give him a visit at his house in the city. Fed up and wanting more than just a few hours of his time every week, Miriam is devastated beyond repair when he shuns her, just like he did to her mother. With no hope, she is forced back to the kolba only to find her world crashing down. Life isn’t the same again.
A generation later, the newborn Laila cries and coos in her mother’s arms. Born on the night of the uprising against the Soviets, she grows up seeing her Mammy pine for her Mujahideen sons, wavering in and out of daydreams and depression. Her Babi is her only support in the times that are worsening with each passing minute. With the death of her brothers, when she thinks her life couldn’t get any worse, tragedy strikes and all that is left is fragments.

Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter. Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. 

Mariam and Laila come together under duress. Hostile at first and later the only support to each other, their bond spans only a decade but runs much deeper than blood. Will they stand the test of time together?

We’re all Afghans, and that’s all that should matter.

What does one expect from a novel that comes with extremely high reviews? A lot I must say, and in case it doesn’t live up to its reputation, it leaves you feeling underwhelmed. This novel did come with rave reviews. And I had bought it only because I have started loving stories of human suffering, not in a sadistic way (please!) but in a heart-wrenchingly beautiful way. However, I did not feel as moved as I should have. I don’t know why, and it is really troubling me. I have been thinking for the last 2 days if I have turned immune but I have no answers. The only thing I am sure of is that this is a wonderful book, a story of strong women in the face of adversity, and their own fight against the war.

Her war was against Rasheed. The baby was blameless. And there had been enough killing already. Laila had seen enough killing of innocents caught in the cross fire of enemies.

The story is narrated in 4 parts. While the first 3 parts are told in past, the last part is about the present. Reading the blurb gave me a misdirection about the plotline, the protagonists don’t meet until after 50% of the story and I found that weird because the whole intention of it was to point towards the bond between them. I understand that the backstories were a pre-requisite, but the blurb could have been worded better.

And the burqa, she learned to her surprise, was also comforting. It was like a one-way window. Inside it, she was an observer, buffered from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers. She no longer worried that people knew, with a single glance, the shameful secrets of her past.

The story deals with a lot of topics while giving us a brief history of a troubled country with the women at the receiving end, always. The Soviets seemed better when compared to the Mujahideen, and the much much worse, the worst Taliban. Wars never did benefit anyone, did it really? It only gave sadness and the citizens suffered without respite.
Entire generations of women were oppressed, and by whom! Their own families, and fathers, and brothers. I literally laughed out of shock at the interpretation of Sharia Laws that were imposed on women in the book. I can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like to live with it. Brainwashing and oppression walked hand in hand, it is evident.

Motherhood. How delectable it was to think of this baby, her baby, their baby. How glorious it was to know that her love for it already dwarfed anything she had ever felt as a human being, to know that there was no need any longer for pebble games.

Mariam is devoid of it and Laila is blessed. Being a mother has its own set of challenges and one who isn’t a mother has her own. Absolutely incomparable, like two children of a mother. 
Educating and empowering our children with the right knowledge and ideas will lead to a better and safe future for all. Today, when you sit with your child, tell them the lines written below. It was said to a girl in the book, but it holds true for whichever gender your child belongs to because there is no guiding light better than a parent, and the particular parent who said these words.

I know you’re still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now, he said. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance. 

While I write this last part of this long review, I have figured what is wrong with me, what I wrote earlier about the story not moving me enough. There are a lot of things that have been put into simple black and white. A hateful Rasheed, a compromising Mariam, a subdued Laila, a docile Aziza, and a tantrum-throwing Zalmai. I was literally pissed off when Laila feels sad about Zalmai having lost his father, I mean what the heck! And to say this when she herself had seen what her Mammy inadvertently did to her Babi while mourning her sons. I’d rather go with a no father than one like Rasheed. There are a lot of other things that are nagging me, but before I forget, I’ll mention only one more, that belonging to a man and being a mother doesn’t define a woman.
With larger than life goodness, the reality of the story misses out on me, though I do appreciate the story, no doubt about that. And with that, Mariam and Laila. To have lived, loved, and braved through an everyday battlefield in a war-torn country.
Also, I am angry, yes, a lot. And infuriated. I am full of hatred towards humans, especially men who start wars and those who side with them for whatever reason. No reason, I repeat NO REASON is ever going to be good enough to start a war, within or outside your walls.

But it is not an easy happiness. It is not a happiness without cost.

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