So, then.You want a story and I will tell you one. But just the one. Of course, thats not true, as this one story will drift into many, many compelling tales. Its fall (a very western term, one must add) 1952 in a small village called Shadbag north of Kabul and Pari and her brother Abdullah are settling down to hear a story from their father Saboor. Its a fable in which a father has to choose between siblings so that one gets a better life, a fable that will have a cruel resonance in their lives.
As if the siblings needed any more heartbreak, and here the sentimental Hosseini surfaces: Abdullah lost his mother when he was seven, she bled to death giving birth to Pari and he rues the fact that he cant love his stepmother Parwana like his own. The memory of his mother lives in a lullaby she used to sing to him: I found a sad little fairy/Beneath the shade of a paper tree/I know a sad little fairy/Who was blown away by the wind one night. This will become a tragic reality, a wheel within a wheel, when Pari (which means fairy) will be taken away from the brother she adores.
The story shifts to Kabul at this point, into the home of the wealthy Wahdatis, where Pari is given away because they cant have a child of their own. As soon as Pari and Abdullah are separated, one reads the pages in a hurry in anticipation of a reunion, which isnt a simple one. Unlike in his first two novels, Hosseini, aware that he has a captive audience, will delve a bit deeper, take many twists and turns, and present a slew of characters apart from the star siblings who are largely able to hold our interest through the narrative.
From Parwana, the step-mother, who has her own sibling tragedy and a beautiful sister Masooma she wronged, her brother Nabi who starts off the story by having a hand in separating Abdullah and Pari, and yet someone who isnt really the villain, to the two cousins who left Kabul for America and return years later to pick up the pieces, Idris and Timur, and the Greek aid official Markos who lives in the house Pari grew up in Kabul before her stepmother moved to Paris, their lives intertwine to give Hosseinis third novel a rich, complex feel. One other interestingand importantcharacter is the cigarette-smoking, wine-drinking Nila Wahdati, who dares to bare her arms in conservative Afghanistan, and in an ultimate act of rebellion will leave her husband to lead a carefree existence in Paris with Pari, and take the story back and forth from Kabul to the West. Pari will bear little resemblance to Nila Wahdati, and hence suspect that she is adopted, opening up another strand in the narrative. Growing up, Pari has always felt that there was in her life the absence of something, or someone, fundamental to her own existence. While she misses this fundamental link to her past, memories of which fleetingly appear, like in the form of an oak tree (their village had one) she spots somewhere, her brother lands up in California and runs a kebab shop and names his only child Pari, who dreams of reuniting her father with his beloved sibling. There was nothing in the world I desired more than to be one to take away his sadness, she says.
It has to be said the novel is eminently readable, and as we are transported from Afghanistan to the world outside to France, America, Greece and back, we realise that this is perhaps Hosseinis most ambitious Afghanistan story. It is definitely less melodramatic than The Kite Runner, though it is sentimental in parts.
Through the lives of his charactersand this is something which Hosseini has done in the pastwe get a lesson in Afghan history as well, right from the pre-Soviet occupation days to the occupation, the rise of the Mujahideen and the Taliban and the USs invasion after 9/11. In summer 2009, we encounter the chilling commander, a criminal of war and the education his son Adel gets about his father: He saw for the first time his fathers house for the monstrosity, the affront, the monument to injustice, that it privately was to everyone elsethe house was built on usurped land, we are told, this is Afghanistan in 2009. He saw in peoples rush to please his father the intimidation, the feat, that was the real underpinning of their respect and deference. And yet, and yetAdel, like his mother, will learn to live with the most unimaginable things.
It is to Hosseinis credit that he manages to weave a thread of unity through all this seemingly disparate tales of the characters. Each has a bearing to Abdullah and Paris story and that is the beauty of this novel. But did he have to do so much Well, the answer is blowing in the wind as Afghanistan struggles to find a place between wrongdoing and rightdoing where everyone can meet and live.
Sudipta Dutta is a freelancer