“They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.”
(The chauffeur Nabi on his mistress, the poet Nila Wahdati, after she’s visited his village. This reminded me of Wordsworth, how poetry is supposedly about the humble and rustic life, written in the real language of men and how wrong it is when put into perspective.)
That night, the poem she chose to read caught me off guard. It was about a man and his wife, in the village, mourning the death of the infant they had lost to the winter cold. The guests seemed to love the poem, judging by the nods and the murmurs of approval around the room, and by their hearty applause when Nila looked up from the page. Still, I felt some surprise, and disappointment, that my sister’s misfortune had been used to entertain guests, and I could not shake the sense that some vague betrayal had been committed.
(Referring to the near murder of a little girl by her uncle, after he slaughtered her family. Idris’s awkward courtesy was disturbingly easy to relate to, in contrast to the show of airs that his cousin Timur put on, of concern and philanthropy. When it came to actually doing good, Timur’s falsities bore better results than Idris’s hypocritical importance on good intentions. It hurts me to think of myself the only-opinions-haver. I’d be easily sucked back into my own life; it’s better to be someone who may not care but does help, anyway.)
Even if he could talk, which he cannot at the moment, Idris wouldn’t know the proper thing to say. He might have said something, some offering of impotent outrage, if this had been the work of the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or some megalomaniacal Mujahideen commander. But this cannot be blamed on Hekmatyar, or Mullah Omar, or Bin Laden, or Bush and his War on Terror. The ordinary, utterly mundane reason behind the massacre makes it somehow more terrible, far more depressing. The word senseless springs to mind, and Idris thwarts it. It’s what people always say. A senseless act of violence. A senseless murder. As if you could commit sensible murder.
(Nila Wahdati, poet, in an interview, on the daughter no one knows she’d adopted, Pari. This made me think of all those poor, hard, lined faces people keep taking photographs of in the name of beauty. As if you could know what goes on behind those eyes. As if all the romantic fancies about hardship and simplistic beauty could match either the terror or the happiness of someone else’s life. I takes a lot more than a picture to know the truth about a person, I think.)
I didn’t want her turned, against both her will and nature, into one of those diligent, sad women who are bent on a lifelong course of quiet servitude, forever in fear of showing, saying or doing the wrong thing. Women who are admired by some in the West – here in France, for instance – turned into heroines for their hard lives, admired from a distance by those who couldn’t bear even one day of walking in their shoes. Women who see their desires doused and their dreams renounced, and yet – and this is the worst of it, Monsieur Boustouler – if you meet them, they smile and pretend they have no misgivings at all. As though they lead enviable lives. But you look closely and you see the helpless look, the desperation, and how it belies all their show of good humour. It is quite pathetic.
(Markos, the plastic surgeon from Greece now living in the Wahdati’s old house. I would have gladly had the book end right here, but the actual ending, some fifty pages down the line, is surprisingly touching too.)
If I’ve learnt anything in Kabul, it’s that human behavior is messy and unpredictable and unconcerned with convenient symmetries. But I find comfort in it, in the idea of a pattern, or a narrative of my life taking shape, like a photograph in a darkroom, a story that slowly emerges and affirms the good I have always wanted to see in myself. It sustains me, this story.
I often say that some books are worth trudging through to the end because the final showdown is worth the few slow parts in the middle. In case of this book, if it doesn’t grip you by the fifth chapter, it probably won’t till the finish. But it’s worth a try, definitely. I highly recommend this read to anyone who likes detailed, emotional, generation-spanning stories.