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kite-runner1“For you,

a thousand times over.”

These words still bring tears to my eyes and cause a lump in my throat, even now, weeks after I finished reading and very proudly displayed Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner on my book-shelf. These simple words uttered by Hassan to Amir, a child servant to his master’s son, a Hazara to a Pashtun – full of unconditional love and affection, is the premise of the whole book.

The Kite Runner is a tale that unveils in Kabul, Afghanistan and spans the reign of King Mohammed Zahir Shah, his eventual toppling by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan and the birth of the Afghan Republic (1973), President Daoud’s removal and execution by the military-communist coup plotters in the Saur Revolution (1978), thereafter the eruption of the civil war between the Republican/Communist-Soviet forces against the mujahideen rebels up until the arrival of the Taliban in present day Afghanistan – told the way it is seen and experienced by ordinary Afghans in their daily lives.

In the heart of this rich tapestry of history and colors lies the story of a childhood friendship and that of a family torn apart amidst the conflict that led to the Afghan diaspora. Our protagonist is the young boy Amir, son of a successful and well-respected businessman whom we know only as “Baba” (Father), belonging to the upper class and more politically dominant ethnic Pashtun and his relationship with Hassan, the son of Ali who is a servant in Amir’s palatial house in the Wazir Akhbar Khan district in Kabul. Ali is a Hazara, an ethnic group generally regarded as inferior in Afghan society.

Amir lives in the grand house with Baba. Hassan lives in the small servant’s hut outside the house with Ali. Both boys do not have their mothers. Amir’s died giving birth to him and Hassan’s abandoned him and his father (Ali) shortly after delivering him. Both boys grow up and play together though only Amir goes to school whereas Hassan stays home to do house chores – cooking meals, cleaning and ironing, amongst other things. Both are very loved by Baba and at times, Amir fights for his father’s affection and attention; jealous at Baba’s almost equal treatment of Hassan. This leads Amir to seek attention from Baba’s good friend and business partner, Rahim Khan, whom Amir thinks has more patience for him and also, a better understanding of him. It is Rahim Khan who encourages Amir to hone his writing skills by giving him a notebook on his birthday.

Hassan is illiterate but enjoys the quiet moments he has with Amir under their pomegranate tree (on its trunk thekiterunner_855_18380299_0_0_7008355_300theycarved, “Amir and Hassan –  The Sultans of Kabul”) where they go after Amir comes home from school. There, Amir reads to him from various books of which his favourite is the Shahnamah, a tenth century epic of ancient Persian heroes. His favourite story from the Shahnamah is “Rostam and Sohrab” which he pesters Amir to read over and over again.

They play games along the streets, go watch American movies such as The Magnificent Seven and Rio Bravo dubbed in Farsi and of course, during the winter school holidays, take part in the annual kite-fighting competition. As is the practice, the winner is the one with the kite still flying after all the others have been cut down using glass-coated kite strings in mid-air, something Hassan and Amir excel at. And when a kite is cut and falls back to earth, it is the  crowd of kite-runners who run towards it, coveting it as a prize, pushing and shoving each other.

“When a kite-runner had his hands on a kite, no one could take it from him. That wasn’t a rule. It was custom.”

In the winter of 1975, Amir takes part in the kite-fighting competition, eager to win and gain Baba’s admiration. kite_runner_01Hassan, as always, is at his side as his faithful friend … and kite-runner. As the competition draws to an end, only two kites are left flying, one of which is Amir’s. He glances repeatedly towards Baba trying to see if he is watching. This is his shining moment and he shines even more when he cuts down his competitor’s and emerges the winner. In jubilation, he runs towards the direction of his father as Hassan runs off in the opposite direction to try and retrieve the fallen kite.

Much time passes before Amir realises that Hassan is missing and he goes off in search of him, only to find him in an alley cornered by Asseff and his gang. Amir and Hassan had previously been bullied by Asseff and had managed to break free from him only after Hassan took out his slingshot and threatened to shoot Asseff’s eye if he harmed Amir. This time, Asseff is set on exacting his revenge for that past humiliation and this he does by sodomising Hassan. Amir watches on from the corner of the alleyway, torn between keeping quiet or rushing to Hassan’s aid. Ultimately, he chooses to close his eyes and run home, pretending nothing happened.

Hassan comes home shortly and hands over to Amir the kite he had managed to retrieve. A gift. He says nothing about what had happened to him in the alley. Amir also keeps quiet. But as the days pass, Amir begins to feel guilt-ridden for not helping Hassan, for standing there while Asseff raped him, for being a coward. Slowly, unable to come to terms with his own guilt, Amir begins to despise Hassan for everything that Hassan does –  his total love and affection towards Amir and Baba,  his selflessness, how he stood up to Asseff for Amir .. everything that is Hassan is a reminder to Amir about what he is not. He distances himself from Hassan, refusing to play with or talk to him. One day, he puts money and a watch under Hassan’s mattress and accuses him of theft. Without any protest, Hassan readily accepts responsibility.

“I flinched, like I’d been slapped. My heart sank and I almost blurted out the truth. Then I understood: This was Hassan’s final sacrifice for me. If he’d said no, Baba would have believed him because we all knew Hassan never lied. And if Baba believed him, then I’d be the accused; I would have to explain and I would be revealed for what I really was.”

Baba steps in and forgives Hassan but that cannot stop Ali from leaving the house, bringing Hassan with him. He begs and pleads with him to stay but Ali says no. The bags are packed and they must go and return to Hazarajat. And so they leave and that is the last Amir sees of Hassan and Ali.

Soon after, Amir and Baba themselves flee Afghanistan, away from the civil war. First to Peshawar in Pakistan and finally to the US where Amir grows up, graduates from university, meets a fellow Afghan and gets married and through it all is still haunted by his memories of Hassan and his own guilt. That is, until he receives a phone call one day all way from Pakistan … from an old and ailing Rahim Khan, who tells him:

“There is a way to be good again.”

And with those words, Amir journeys back to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to revisit his past and ultimately, to seek redemption through the rescue of a small orphaned child, named after his dead father’s favourite story character, Sohrab.

Many things come full-circle in Afghanistan. Promises are kept, a threat carried out to fruition and a family reunited. I don;t want to reveal anymore because I strongly feel that this is a book everyone should read. The story is both devastating and beautiful. It touched me so deeply and still resonates within me. So many times, I had to stop reading because I could not read the blurred words through my teary eyes.  My heart ached and I struggled to accept how so much misfortune could befall such kind and innocent souls such as Hassan and Ali.

But there are also beautiful and sweet moments, between Hassan and Amir during their childhood; the romance between Amir and Soraya and also between Baba and Amir. At this juncture, I am reminded of one part of the book where Baba teaches a young Amir something about religion, and it is something I truly agree with.

“Now, no matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. … When you kill a man, you steal a life,” Baba said. “You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness.”

There are so many truths in this story that we all share, truths that transcend race and religion. We sometimes forget what is beautiful about Afghanistan because for so long we have seen only images of war, suffering and religious extremism. This book is a timely reminder that there is so much more to this country, so much history and age-old wisdom.

Read. Read this book. Your life would be much better for it.

kites1

The Kite Runner (Persian: کاغذ‌پران‌بازKāğazparān Bāz) was adapted into film and was nominated for the 2007 Academy Award. It was directed by Marc Forster. (See more on Wikipedia).

Verdict : 5 out of 5

What’s Good: An unforgettable book with a story that leaves you altered and changed, for the better.

What’s Not Good: The series of misfortune that befalls Hassan and his father sometimes seem so incredible. I found it hard to accept that so many bad things could happen to good people. But that is life, perhaps. It’s always the poor who suffer the most.

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