There are very few living authors about whom I’d say to someone who is serious about books ‘Don’t die before you have read him’. And I happen to know something about books. Khaled Hosseini is one of that elite.
He writes about love and hate, pain and longing, folly and illusion and evil and sin and remorse and redemption and finding out through long, diverse and intense experience who we are, what we were born for, how to make the best of our human condition against the most unfair and unmanageable odds, make peace with ourselves and be glad or at least quietly content when our number is up. Yes, the stuff of the finest works through the ages in every land…old hat. Only, some people do it their own way and very much better than others, leaving permanent footprints on the sands of time, making you thankful that they wrote and you read them.
He knows how to make pain, gut-wrenching pain, more beautiful and beguiling and fulfilling than even the sweetest pleasure. In this mind-numbed, crudely hedonistic age he defies your expectations of gooey happy endings and dares you not to read him. You go back to him even though you know you can’t take it any more. After The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, I had sworn to myself I shall never read a Hosseini again. His new book has come out last month – five years after the previous one – and when Abhirup brought it along, it took me half a minute to forget my resolve: I finished the first hundred pages in a breathless hour-long rush, and I knew I was hooked, and had to finish the book no matter what.
This book too, originates in Afghanistan; indeed most of it dwells on present-day, war-torn, poverty-ravaged, religion-and-drug-crazed Afghanistan, but it covers a much longer time span than the previous ones, travels all over the world from Greek islands to Paris to Spain to Californian suburbs and even fleetingly to India, and deals simultaneously with a much greater number and variety of characters, most of whom interweave and interact with one another in one way or the other, in the best tradition of grand narratives of yesteryear. There are poor marginal farmers quietly bleeding their lives away in back-breaking labour to keep their families alive and there are corrupt, violent warlords wearing masks before their childen that ultimately drop off, there are beautiful, dissolute, frustrated poets and math PhDs trying to understand them as parents and human beings as they themelves raise families and grow old; there are savaged, ugly but gifted women trying to live decently with a purpose and little boys growing into doctors trying to respect them and love them, there are homosexual masters who are nice but frustrated people and lovelorn servants who wish they knew with their dying breath they had done the right thing; there are ‘good’ men who eventually have to admit to themselves they are lesser human beings than their ‘bad’ siblings, there are faithful daughters desperately trying to find out what is missing from their lives and stern mothers who shame their grown up sons in the dusk of their lives by praising them, there are men and women and children suffering in exile and making do and changing and yet remaining unchanged… but always, also in the grand tradition, everything revolves over and around one basic template: two human beings who loved each other with an uncommon love, cruelly separated in childhood, longing and forgetting and remembering and searching all their lives for each other, and finding each other and bliss at last, more than half a century later, not in a way that makes for fairy tales but the sort that brings a wrenching cry from the heart – oh Allah, who is all merciful, it is not for us to judge, but could it not have been done in a kinder, nicer way? At the same time you are richer and deeply thankful for the experience: a master spirit has shown you what it means to be human.
The quote before the story begins is from Jelaluddin Rumi: ‘Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there’. Indeed, the book reconfirms the truth of the French proverb, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner… and reminds us of Jesus’ admonition ‘Judge not, so thou shalt not be judged’. The best writers can do it far more persuasively than your run of the mill priest. And the book ends with a cathartic vision that, if you are capable of appreciating it, you will find it hard to forget.
Hosseini has single-handedly put Afghanistan on the world’s literary map: that is just one of his achievements. He reminded me once again why I read math and science and economics but chose to live by teaching literature, and also why a man may own all the baubles of this world but will die pitiably deprived and poor if he has not read a few good books of this sort. Also, how hard it is to be both a parent and a child. And what love and loving means. Those who know me will understand how hard it is for me to call someone my teacher: Hosseini has earned his place on the pedestal. I wonder what an incredible husband and father he must be. And he is the rare kind of man that I envy in this world – a man who has managed to do well by writing books that can find permanent places on the shelves of the most civilized among us. May God grant him a long and happy life devoted to writing. Visit his website at khaledhosseini.com, and do listen to the video where he talks about his new baby.
Statutory warning: Mutual sibling love of this ethereal quality surviving into adulthood is even rarer in this world than that between a teacher and his student. I should know.
P.S..: The stupidest people write book reviews these days, people who cannot distinguish Chetan Bhagat or E. L. James from Hemingway, Shaw or Shakespeare, and people who basically have nothing to say but are desperate to say it anyway – you can look up a few at goodreads.com yourself. Talk about chattering apes, and what harm a smattering of education can do…
[And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini, Bloomsbury, 2013, pp. 402, Indian edition Rs. 599, ISBN 978-9-3829-5100-1]