Archive for September, 2007



This Above All – Khushwant Singh – 09/01/2007

Harami. That seems to be the keyword of the most absorbing work of fiction I have read in recent years. The word means bastard. The novel, of which it is the keyword, is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Bloomsbury). It encapsulates the story of Afghanistan over the last 25 years. It is built around two women — one of whom is Mariam, the illegitimate child of a maid-servant through her master who has already three wives and nine children. That part of the story is set in Herat. She is married off to Rashid, a cobbler and shoe-shop owner in Kabul. The other woman is Laila, who becomes Mariam’s co-wife. She has a sex escapade with her lover, Khalid, a few days before she is married off to become the cobbler’s second wife. Nine months later she bears a daughter, Aziza, also a harami or bastard. Before I conclude the story, let me say a few words about my own impression of the country and its people.

I went to Afghanistan over 50 years ago on a Unicef assignment to write on its medical services in the country. I started with Kabul — a shed for an airport, a hotel in which I had to share my room with my photographer, ramshackle bazaars, and not a single building worth seeing. Chaikhanas served lamb or chicken cooked in animal fat (roghan); there was one cinema, which showed Hindi films, but you could not sit in it without being suffocated by the smell of roghan. Every Friday, vehicular traffic, made up of donkey carts, tongas and taxis, came to a halt as roads had to accommodate the spill from the mosques during the afternoon namaz. But fruits like sarda, garma, pomegranates and grapes were the sweetest I had ever tasted. The men would be tall and handsome and would walk ramrod straight; the women would be draped in burqas from head to foot. Everyone was over-courteous in speech. However, despite all the embracing and kissing, there was little warmth. It was the same across the country to Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, Ghazni, Bamiyan and Herat. But what I resented most was being addressed as “Lale”. Most Afghan Sikhs were money-lenders.

Although Kabul nestles in the hollow of low-lying hills, there was little about the over-sized town that deserved the praise showered on it by Saib-e-Tabriz, which inspired Hosseini in finding a title for his beautiful novel:

One could not count the moons

that shimmer on her roof

Or the thousand splendid suns that

hide behind the walls.

I returned to Afghanistan three years later — a swanky new airport, a five-star hotel, lots of beautiful women without hijab working in offices, more cars on the roads, new schools and colleges, hospitals and so on. I was impressed with the rapid pace of development. I wrote a booklet called Aryana to Afghanistan. Aryana was the old name of the country. Afghanistan was what it was shaping up to be — a modern Islamic republic.

My hopes are belied. Hosseini’s novel tells you why Afghans are split into several ethnic groups: Pakhtoons, Hazaras, Tadjiks, Uzbegs and many others. They speak two languages: Pashto and Farsi. Their clan loyalties are stronger than their nationalism. They come together only when foreigners occupy their country. After expelling the foreigners, they resume their clan warfare. They drove out the Soviets. They drove out the American- and Pakistani-armed mujahedin and taliban. Then went for each others’ throats again. Kabul was fair game for all of them by turns. They fired rockets into crowded parts of the city and killed hundreds of innocent men, women and children. Entrenched in the mountains, they took potshots at any moving object as target practice. They came into the city, raped women and slaughtered men. Taliban enforced its medieval codes — every woman was to wear a burqa, no woman could go out alone, schools for girls were closed down and women were forbidden to work outside their homes. Anyone caught indulging in adultery was sentenced to death.

Hosseini tells his grim story through the cobbler Rashid and his two wives Mariam and Laila. Both girls were in their teens when Rashid, already in his forties, acquired them. Mariam was rejected by her own father; she saw her mother’s body dangling from a branch of a tree before she was forced into a nikah and put on a bus bound for Kabul. Since she has several miscarriages, Rashid marries Laila, without knowing that she is pregnant. He ill-treats both of them till they decide to flee to Pakistan with Laila’s children. But they are handed back to Rashid who tries to throttle Laila to death. Mariam saves her by clobbering Rashid on the head with a shovel and killing him. A taliban court tries her and sentences her to death. She is then taken to a football stadium with the stands crammed with spectators. Her executioner courteously addresses her as sister and asks her to lower her head. When he hacks it off, the crowd roars, “Allah-o-Akbar”.

It is as spine-chilling a tale as I have ever read. Some of it is reminiscent of Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, about a country that could be great but is not. It is mostly about cruelty towards women. The author puts it succinctly: “like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.”

It is hard to believe that Afghanistan produced the likes of Romi Jamaluddin Afghani, the principal ideologue of pan-Islamism, the current president — the suave, urbane Hamid Karzai — as well as an author of the calibre of Khaled Hosseini.

Disarming logic

A bright young lawyer was pleading for his client on trial for burglary: “Your Honour, the evidence shows that my client did not enter the room at all. He merely inserted his arm through an open window and took a few trifles. His arm being only part of himself, why should you cause his whole body to suffer because of one offending member?”

“Very well,” said the judge with a twinkle in his eye, “Your logic is good. I therefore sentence your client’s arm to one year in jail. Your client may accompany it or not as he pleases.”

Whereupon the defendant unscrewed his cork arm, laid it on the judge’s desk and walked out.

(Contributed by Shivtar Singh Dalla, Ludhiana)

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