(Book Review Series: And the Mountains Echoed- by Khaled Hosseini)
The first chapter is a giveaway! As young Abdullah listens to the story of the Div ( ogre) taking away the little boy Qais , into his castle up in the mountains you can guess what the book is going to all about. Nobody can tell a tale of lost and found characters like Khaled Hosseini does! Like the “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns” this one is also about separations and reunions but with a slight twist.
Saboor, a poor farmer in the village of Shadbagh, nestled in the mountains outside Kabul makes a trek across the hills with his little daughter Pari and son Abdullah. They are supposedly visiting the children’s step uncle Nabi who works as a chauffeur with the wealthy Wahdati family. Saboor initially starts the journey with just Pari but when Abdullah refuses to let go of his dear sister he allows the boy to accompany them.
Abdullah and Pari are more than brother and sister. The love they share is almost like that of a father and daughter. After his mother died giving birth to Pari, it is the young boy Abdullah who looks after the new born baby like a father. Once their father remarries, he becomes more protective of the little girl and she in turn cannot stay without him. Once they reach Kabul the father hands over the little girl to the rich childless couple in exchange for some money and after the heart wrenching description of how the children are separated the story goes on to tell us the tale of the other characters-Parwana , Saboor’s second wife and her bedridden sister Masooma being one of them.
The little girl brings joy to the childless couple and the mentally unstable Nila Wahdati is happier. Then ,as her much older husband Suleiman suffers a stroke, she is unable to bear the stress of caring for him. She leaves him moving to Paris. A French citizen and a poet, Nila begins life in Paris with Pari. But soon we realize that she is not cut out to be a mother. The child grows up almost on her own and after sometime taking on the responsibility of her alcoholic and suicidal mother.
Nabi the chauffeur whose idea it was in the first place to get his brother in law to exchange his daughter for money finds himself cut off from his family as his brother in law is unable to bear the sight of him , reminding as it does to him his own compulsions. Nabi stays behind and cares for Suleiman almost like a wife. Suleiman, a talented artist had always had affections for Nabi that ran very deep –almost like a lover. He dies willing his entire property to Nabi. Nabi in the meanwhile is consumed by guilt for what he had initiated – the separation of the children. It is almost a confession that he writes in a letter he leaves behind for his tenant, the Greek plastic surgeon Dr. Markos before his death.
The entire story traverses almost six decades, taking us through the different phases in the history of Afghanistan, in the way that only Hosseini can. However this one does not deal with the political turmoil in the country in the detail that his earlier books do. This one takes us through Paris, the United states and a small island called Timos in Greece.
The entire book is written in different narratives giving us the story of each of the characters at various points in their lives. It moves back and forth in a way that I never thought was possible outside of a screen play. Starting from 1947 until 2012, the writer tells us about how the characters grew up but remained unchanged deep within.
The non judgmental way in which he describes some of them like Nila is very commendable. “Some people are more haunted by sadness than others” says Nabi about Nila . And then, there is the older than her age , Pari who decides to opt for a degree in Mathematics at the Sorbonne University because “ there was comfort to be found in the permanence of mathematical truths, in the lack of arbitrariness and the absence of ambiguity . In knowing that the answers may be elusive but they could be found. They were there waiting , chalk scribbles away”
The story winds through different lives and places until Pari, now a sixty year old woman is reunited with her brother Abdullah. The meeting engineered by Abdullah’s daughter (also named Pari after her aunt) is not how we think it would be! That section of the book is the most touching of all! The second Pari is also a girl who is wise beyond her years taking on responsibilities that are too heavy for her young shoulders. The book ends with both the Paris trying to bridge the gap of time that separates their lives and generations.
Hosseini leaves you with a strange feeling – a bit of sadness , a bit of hope and some happiness! You may say that as a typical Indian and consumer of Bollywood potboilers, I have a natural liking for “Lost and found” stories. But lost and found stories do not always make you feel this way. I have read in the recent past another “lost and found” by an author called Mridula Koshy. (I strongly advise you not to read her though I was forced to complete it because the book was gifted to me by a very dear friend) Koshy’s story which is also about a lost child, at times makes you feel disgusted. You do not feel the pain of the unwed mother who dies waiting for the son she gave up in adoption to come and see her. Neither do you have any feeling of sympathy for the boy Madhu who is adopted by an American couple and who drifts along in life aimlessly as he leaves his adopted family when he is a teen.
I guess when we read the lost and found stories we like to imagine that those who were lost emerged stronger as they grew up and when they found each other realized what they had lost. That feeling of hope is what makes sadness seem less bleak. But I am digressing….! Let me come back to Hosseni
The one thing that makes me want to read Hosseni again and again is the way he portrays his people- the Afghans. He does not rob them of their dignity even while describing their poverty and misfortune. This country nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains, has had a tumultuous existence through history. In many ways, close to us in cultural values, it has an ethnic identity that is very heterogeneous. Though the Soviets and Taliban played havoc with the country what they could not touch was the spirit of these mountain people- their determination to survive it all and emerge stronger. It is that spirit that Hosseini’s books celebrate!
And for every one of us who believes that there is a silver lining behind a cloud, reading Hosseni is a must !