The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

Asne Seierstad, observes the day to day progress in the life of Sultan Khan – a bookseller in Kabul- and pens the nuances in The Bookseller of Kabul. Sultan, a dignified and righteous man owns a bookshop and fights to keep it running amidst a country torn by wars and political coups. His dream is to make resources available to every individual in the country-, especially for school-going children. What is appalling is the contrast of liberalism of sharing knowledge and the rules of staunch patriarchy displayed by Sultan. Through Sultan’s family, relations and their life, Seierstad puts forward the daily life of an Afghani individual, be it a man or a woman.

With Sultan being the strict disciplinarian and the perfect personification of the family patriarch, his family members follow his orders not by choice but by fear. His eldest son Mansur is forced to run his bookshop and other errands but wants to break free and complete his education. While his second son Eqbal, also dreams of going to school one day, his youngest, Aimul hasn’t even seen what a school looks like. It is indeed a paradox that a man who dreams of providing education to all children removes his own from schools prematurely. His sister’s marriage is a hurried giving away of an ‘object’ stored for too long at home. His mother is an institution of contemplation, living more in the past, than in the present. His youngest sister, Leila is a hard-working, unmarried, young girl who dreams of breaking the shackles of bondage and escaping someday for her own good. The narrative builds on these characters and takes the story forward.

The Bookseller of Kabul is a portal to a culture torn by politics and ruled over by men, almost untouched by modernity and equality in any form. Sultan, having been married for years and fathering three children with his first wife, goes out in search of his second wife. Every eligible daughter’s parents only want to give in to his demand and marry off their young girl despite a difference of several years because they want to gain a higher footing in the Afghan society by marrying off their daughter to a respected man. Sultan’s second wife ‘was petrified, paralysed by fear. She did not want the man but she knew she had to obey her parents. As Sultan’s wife her standing in Afghan society would go up considerably. The bride money would solve many of her family’s problems. The money would help her parents buy good wives for their sons.’  It is interesting to notice how brides are ‘bought’ almost as if buying clothes in the market- if one is worn out after a couple of years, get a new one! Love is a taboo with dire consequences like forced marriages, honour-killing, and even suicide. These pent up feelings of women which they are unable to put forth in the society often find their way into poems –‘Give me your hand, my loved one and we will hide in the meadow, To love or fall down beneath the knife stabs’.

The footing of a woman in  Afghan society is as good as being absent. In the male-heavy atmosphere, the voice of a lowly woman often gets lost. Such is the situation with Sultan’s youngest sister- Leila- who ‘often repeats herself, because she thinks she is not being heard’.  Following the storyline, it is quite obvious that the men of the family were applauded for the little things that they do and ‘the Khan family is not in the habit of celebrating women’.  Leila’s existence reflects the condition of thousands of women in a country where there exists no female individuality. They are only known to the society and the world as a shadow of ‘their men’.

While women have no voice of their own, men on the other hand, have both voice and domination that start from a very young age. Sultan’s eldest Mansur had been witness to his friend’s temptations at his own shop. Filled with guilt, he decides to make the arduous journey to Mazhar-e-Sharif to pray and beg for forgiveness. The description of the journey gives a respite to the readers as they can imagine the serene mountains and terrains of the country and not wonder at the ruthlessness of the people living in it. A shrine for contemplation, self-assessment, and pilgrimage becomes so beautiful a place to travel to, that Mansur gets engrossed in its pleasure and awe; and forgets the primary motive that brought him there. What gives him sleepless nights at first, gradually disappears from his mind altogether and a sin remains unacknowledged.

Sins and crimes are committed very often in Afghanistan. The socio-political condition, the rising poverty level, and an economy which will take years to recover, often lead men from poverty-stricken backgrounds to commit crimes such as theft, murder, or suicide. If caught, the penalty is also massive! But one needs to ponder as to who is to be blamed for the situation. And when someone tries to steal from Sultan, the consequences are disastrous for the criminal and his innocent family!

Hard-hitting, eye-opening and full of nuances of the Afghani culture, The Bookseller of Kabul is a picture of paradoxes between liberalism and patriarchy shown through the relation that Sultan shares with his family. A portrait of dominance over women, relationship, and poor; and of temptations over ethics, this book is a good read.

No. of Pages: 276

Publisher: Virago Press, Hachette UK

Availability: Amazon/ Flipkart

Rating: 3.5/5