Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Khalid Hosseini - The Kite Runner

There’s not a single book I have read recently in my life that brought tear to my eyes when I read the last few words before closing it. (A good part of the book was read lying in a hospital bed, while drips were being administered by white-frocked denizens of the heavenly kind. Needless to say, this story, and the other eternal best seller of all time – the Bible – were the two books that hastened my recovery, and those which put me back into the circle of life.) And I decided I must write this review, though time – the monster – is sitting on me and not letting me look this way or that these days.

What can I say about the novel “The Kite Runner” by Khalid Hosseini except that it’s a tragic tale about a tragedy of a country that has been attacked, over-run, raped, and talibanised. And I am shocked and amazed that though there is such a precedent so close to our country, some people in our own country is bent on trying here the failed experiment of religion ruling over governance and statecraft. Those people who kill in the name of religion and those people in power who turn a blind eye to such progroms should read this book as a case study in keeping religion away from government. I mean it; it should be made must reading for the likes of Narendra Modi and Lal Krishna Advani.

First things first, the author should be admired, nay, congratulated for writing so candidly about the tragedy of a “reckless” people so effectively. Truly the Afgans are a tragic people circumscribed by their own recklessness. I had the opportunity of having a few Pathan friends when I was working in the Persian Gulf and I can vouch that they are a very warm people, acutely conscious of their tradition and culture. However, except for their culture and tradition, which, the book proclaims, aren’t rules but just traditions, the country has nothing that would propel it to modernity, governance, organisation, and progress, in short, betterment and a happy state of existence. They don’t even have a great many movies to call their own. The movies they fancy are stale Hindi movies and re-runs of old Hollywood movies such as: “Magnificent Seven”, “Dirty Dozen” and others. (Gives me goose pimples to remember how they would crowd before a television set every evening for the nightly show of a Hindi movie when I was working in Saudi Arabia.) Coming from such a background this novel stuns with its originality, it’s realistic and believable portrayal of a society much like our own.

Obviously, India has much in common with Afganistan, no, not only the words like “sahib”, “Zindagi” and Hindi movies, but a lot of other things besides. The Mughals who ruled us came from thence, the songs and gazals came from there, so did Sufism and a lot of what we call Hindustani culture and cuisine. But apart from all this we have always considered the Pathans from Afganistan as our valiant friends from across the borders. Maybe it is because of their looks and bodies, but they have always held a charm for us, and our rulers have used them as mercenaries because of their recklessness, and easy initiation into any mercenary mission with bloodcurdling intent.

That such a brave people would be so easily brainwashed by the Russians, the Northern Alliance communists, and subsequently the Taliban is something very sad and unfortunate. The Pathans have a traditional code of conduct called Pathaniyat by which they treat guests with honour that is due to them. So they can be easily exploited, and I guess the Russians overstayed their welcome and even exploited their hosts. A doctor in an Islamabad hospital asks Amir why Afgans are a reckless people. Afgans, a majority of whom are Pathans are spread into Pakistan and into India’s north-western border. Being Sunnis they have contempt for the “Hazaras” or the Shias, who are a minority in Afganistan. (The same contempt we have over here for the minority community, I guess.) That may be the reason why Amir, born to a rich father, hates his father’s servant’s son Hassan, who is a Hazara. But Hassan is also Amir’s best friend and protector, who saves him from the bad boys of the locality, who are led by Assef, the local bully. This hatred is kindled and sustained by the fact that his father loves his servant’s son Hassan as his own. Amir is consumed by jealousy and starts betraying Hassan in small ways to attempt to win over his father’s affections.

Amir and Hassan grow up as master and slave respectively, not knowing that they are half brothers. But this knowledge comes too late in his life for Amir to make amends. The boys have a common passion for flying kites, much like any Indian boy who enjoys this pleasurable pastime. And when Amir, the master, wins the kite fight tournament over the skies of Kabul, Hassan runs to retrieve the kite and is waylaid and cruelly dealt with by Assef, just because he is a Hazara.

What tragically happens afterwards is the main theme of this path breaking novel, which though it drags at times, has ominous portents for India and the road its mercenary religious zealots have chosen. The situation changes dramatically after religious bigotry wins. Afganistan is taken over by the Taliban. This devastates the country, leaving it a bare skeleton of its earlier glorious days. (It is obvious here that mere religious ideology cannot rule a country for long. Before you could say “Abracadabra,” the country descends into bedlam and misrule by the misguided Mullas of Taliban who dispense justice through the barrels of Kalashnikovs while seated in pickup trucks. There is a climate of fear and men are regularly picked up and killed.) Fearing for their lives Amir and his father immigrate to the US to save themselves from the Taliban’s autocratic rule. In the US Amir finds love in the beautiful Soraya, a teacher. Amir’s father dies soon after. Amir is called back by the ailing Rahim Khan, a friend of his father, who tells him that Hassan is his half brother and that he is dead, but that he has a son who is still alive and is living in an orphanage inside Afganistan.

This novel is a seminal work in that it dissects Afgan life like never before. It struck me that Indian life and Afgan life have a lot in common and that we are two countries bound by a common destiny. What happened to Afganistan may happen in India if we aren’t too careful. Our religious zealots are also as reckless and unscrupulous as the Gujarat genocide shows. Already rumblings of such types were seen after the demolition of the mosque at Ayodhya and the carnages that followed.

What is happening is that leaders who have absolutely no clue about solving the country’s problems are promising a heaven they cannot deliver, on condition that a certain section of the country is either eliminated or pushed into the ghettos. Such politics has failed for the first time in Afganistan and will fail again if it is tried elsewhere. This is because of the simple fact that zealous priests who can preach deliverance cannot rule. Too much divine power in a priest’s hands would corrupt him as much as that in any other individual’s hands.

Hosseini’s writing is simple, lucid, and though he uses a few novelistic techniques, he doesn’t overdo it or make such techniques obvious. There’s a hidden subtlety in the book that makes one want to read more from this promising author. And Amir is unashamedly the intellectual writing type of person, without making any pretence to anything vaguely virile and manly. His failings are very obvious to the reader and that makes him/her want to relate to the author’s prose all the more. Buy this book, read it, and give heed to the message it has to offer. I am sure it will be time well spent.