Friday, April 5, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini

Books are powerful things. They can wield immense power over readers and keep us immersed in experiences that surround us a fine mist of joy or despair (depending on the book.) Then there are books that transport you to a different world altogether, a world that is full of characters & places that come alive for you & slowly become part of you. And even though you might never see those places or actually meet the people; you feel a kinship that is truly binding.

This book is about being from Afghanistan. The characters are in turn from either a remote Afghani village, from a refugee camp in Pakistan, or from Kabul or even from Paris after running away from Afghanistan. At the end of the book, you will be left feeling that being Afghani is something you can understand & relate with. In my case, I found myself being moved to tears about any news of Afghanistan on the news. It is almost like 

I feel personally involved now; they feel like my people, those are my stories. Just imagine the power of a writer to be able evoke that kind of strong empathy for a place I have never visited – truly extraordinary.

At the heart of the story is Pari, a little girl born in a small village in Afghanistan. She has an older brother with whom she shares a beautiful relationship. After the death of their mother, he steps in as her quasi-parent, taking care of her & anticipating her every need. In the hope of giving her & his other children a better future, their father decides to sell her to a wealthy childless couple. All these broken hearts & intense feelings bring to life an ensemble of characters that are so well-drawn that you can almost feel them.

It is Pari’s story that you learn about through the words of their uncle Nabi who started off as a driver for the family that Pari becomes a part of; then there is Nila, Pari’s adoptive mother who is looking for love in all the wrong places & who moves to France to escape Afghanistan. There is also Idris and Timur, cousins, whose families left Afghanistan & went to the USA. They come back to Kabul saying they want to help in the rebuilding of the country in the aftermath of the many wars. Their motives may be questionable but their draw to their country is undeniably felt through the pages.

This beautiful & heart wrenching story spans generations & continents but never lets you go. I fell in love with the stoic, strong, dark, brooding father who was ready to do anything for his family even if that meant never seeing his daughter again – a daughter who was his muse; a daughter for whom he loved making up beautiful stories & fables. I completely empathized with the step mother who grew up with a terrible guilt that translated into something deeper as life kept dealing her lemon after lemon. But her marriage to Pari & Abdullah’s father must have lit up her world for a while. That is atleast my fervent hope.

It is also Nabi who captured my imagination by its throat. His story of how a small town boy did good in the big city is a perfect example of how small town India works & thinks. His earnestness endeared him to me & his love for his employer just made him more real. His non-judgmental recounting of how a loveless marriage fell apart is a near-perfect autopsy of the death of a family. His description of an Afghanistan under Russian attack, the repercussions, the rule of the Taliban & the American war is a searing portrayal of everyday life in Afghanistan, life that is never talked about in the news but is important nonetheless. Life tests his loyalties but he holds strong, only to come to face to face with a world he doesn’t understand but wants to change so that the future may have a chance.

Nabi’s story brings us to another character that I fell in love with gradually, Nila the poetess. The privileged spoilt brat who spent her life straining against the system & the things she was supposed to do. Her fight to be independent, to discover her reality & to discover the truth about herself is an incredible journey to be a part of. We get to see a woman growing up from being an insecure teenager into a poet who embraces her sexuality and then into a woman who is fumbling along motherhood. Through her story we also get a direct view of a country regressing into the dark ages by men who didn’t know better. Her insatiable search for love & acceptance is something most of us can relate to on some level.

But this review has to end with the characters it began with – much like the book. Pari & Abdullah’s story ends on a note that will not fail to tug at the proverbial heartstrings. There will be no spoilers here but suffice to say that when all these characters tell their stories & move away so this brother & sister can take centre stage; you will feel a sense of relief & closure that you had no idea you needed.

The TL;DR version : Read And the Mountains Echoed to feel a sense of belonging. Amazingly enough this book will make you feel right at home though it talks about places you might never know. Read it also just to marvel at how much Hosseini understands people, emotions & language. I am sure you will find atleast one character who reminds you of someone so clearly that you smile to yourself. I did.

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