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

3 Steps to Darkness by Deepta Roy Chakraverti

With book fair being one of my favorite hauntings in the city, I was quite happy to know that Deepta’s new book would be available there. It has been almost three years since her last book Cursed at Kedarnath was released.  Even though I missed her book signing at the Book Fair I made it a point to not miss picking up the book and added it to my book haul from Book Fair 2020.  Incidentally, the name of the book ‘3 Steps . . . . . ‘ became quite relevant because it t was only in my third attempt in visiting the stall,  that the book was finally in my hands.

3 Steps to Darkness is a portal to ancient practices that coexist with modernity through reality or the undead.  Three short stories talking of witches, fairies and dolls which are often resorted to, to satisfy one’s own desires, make up the contents of the book. What is interesting to note is that the three objects of power are synonymous with women, making the readers interpret the power of women in light or darkness.

Armed with strong characters and even stronger desires, 3 Steps to Darkness makes it for a fine read to understand the darkness within ourselves more than outside. Power, desire, jealousy, unfulfilled wishes, denial, lust, greed and more are all within and once we succumb to any of them, it is only a matter of time till evil engulfs us.

The author takes the reader through a back and forth journey, separated by decades or centuries through her writing. The detailed description of the places and people would remind you of reading a Ruskin Bond, only with a different form of depth to it. While reading you would never feel the distance between today and the era gone by. The narrative flow gives power to your imagination and creativity to visualize it in front of you.

With three different stories, of three eras and locations; it was very hard to choose my favorite.  Thus, giving you a gist of all three.

Witches Never Forget

Set in Vienna today and in the 16th Century, it tells the story of Elsa and Anna; and how innocent women were subjected to witch-hunts by powerful oppressors. I have often wondered how women being hunted as a practitioner of dark arts have always been more than men. Or is it the patriarchal way of eliminating those they thought were weak? It is also interesting how those the mass looks up to and idolizes often mislead them for the benefit of strengthening their own position in society. The unimaginable torture, forget the term human rights, often lead to the formation of vengeful spirits who keep alive in their memories the injustice done to them and tell their stories in whispers, to those who can listen.

The Curse of Fairy Hill

I remember visiting Mussoorie with my parents for a vacation almost a decade ago. Even then I had felt that the cold winds and scenic beauty had much more than what met the eye! Set during the Raj, The Curse of Fairy Hill tells the story of an illustrious King and the Queen. The Queen overlooks the matters of the Kingdom winning the hearts of the people; after the King suffered an accident. The only wish she ever had was to have a loving and loyal husband; and to fulfill her desire, she wished at the Pari Tibba or the Fairy Hill. But it is often seen that what is granted to us is what we might need rather than want. And when a tweak in wish-fulfillment is met with denial of the same a boon might turn into a curse.

Darling Child

Like all married couples, Arun and Lila wanted a child. But to their utter dismay,  all natural and medical procedures betrayed them.  During a trip to Bangkok they met an old woman and found their Darling Child – Sunaina. But what happens when Lila gets pregnant and delivers a second child? This story highlights very contemporary situations and how a dark art is often fused in as a solution; only, is it a solution?  The family pressure of bearing a child; becoming blind in the desire of children so as to go to any lengths; the effect the arrival of a new child has on the elder one; the sadness of losing children – are all depicted in the story. But it is also intertwined with how dark arts has a feeling of its own and manifests its power by manipulating feelings and situations.

If you are into spine chilling stories then 3 Steps to Darkness is definitely the book to look forward to. You may not find ghosts and draculas here but who said subtlety cannot leave you frozen and speechless!

No. of Pages: 106

Publisher: Crossed Arrows, Doshor Publication

Available on: Amazon

Finding Chika by Mitch Albom

Very rarely are times when you read a book and really do not know how to put your feelings on paper, and Finding Chika is one such book. Years after reading Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom‘s Finding Chika rendered me speechless and in tears.  This review is my tribute to young Chika, who, though a young girl was a fierce fighter – and a fighter with gigantic hope and smiles. That is how she should be remembered and celebrated for those who would come to know her story through the book.

Born in Haiti and having survived the devastating earthquake, Chika was brought to the Have Faith Haiti Mission & Orphanage run by Albom and his wife Janine. Friendly and enthusiastic as was her nature, there was never a dull moment with her around. But the diagnosis of a terminal disease compelled her to relocate to America for treatment, and this is where the journey of a family began.

Just as hope is said to be the brightest star in dark times; Chika became the brightest star that ended the dark days of many people’s lives. She was the happiness that Mitch and Janine lacked in their lives, for she gave them the gift of parenthood. She was the hope; strength and resolution that made Mitch and Janine become doting parents and shoulder the responsibility of a child they loved dearly. Chika was a daughter, a friend, a family through relations; but in reality, she was the personification of hope, strength, resolution, dreams, happiness, and care. She was also the face of a young patient diagnosed with the fatal DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma) or brain tumor in layman’s words; a patient full of life and energy to live each day as if there is no tomorrow.

While reading Finding Chika it felt as if Albom was having a conversation with Chika and listing down all the lessons that she taught him. She was fiercely attached and protective of Mitch and Janine which evoked the same feeling in them. The couple tried their very best in terms of giving hope, staying by her side day and night, getting in touch with the best doctors in the field and even traveling across continents for their little one.

Body Contentment:

For Chika, it was a journey of transformation- psychological and physical. But she was adaptive to both. Like every young girl, she fancied make-up and accessories and tried to blend them onto her appearances. She was happy with the way she looked! This is a lesson taught to the world where society often resorts to body shaming tactics. Many individuals, as a result, grow excessively conscious of the way they look which takes a toll on their mental and physical health. What we need to learn is to accept our identity and be content with it.

Spending Quality Time with people:

Chika found happiness in smaller things- beautiful dresses, hairclips, a visit to Disneyland, talking to people, spending time with people, visiting her friends, etc. Today, most people spend their time in the digital space without acknowledging the physical presence of the person beside. Today, people Whatsapp each other despite being in the same room! But Chika believed in spending time with her loved ones- endless stories, laughter and a little bit of being naughty- were the perfect features of Being Chika.

Redefining strength:

Children are often gullible and vulnerable, but Chika was not. She was the epitome of strength keeping in mind the terminal disease she was diagnosed with and the medicines, treatments and its side effects that she had to deal with at such a young age. She was tough and through her little way of coexisting with her disease, made it known to everyone that toughness is not always heroic sometimes it is silence with a smile.

Right to Choose:

With Chika being born to Haitian parents and later taken in by Mitch and Janine, her pure love for the latter made it very clear that children often choose whom to love. This goes beyond the biological norms of society. Some relations are born out of love, respect, and care and not out of one’s womb.

The Feeling of completeness

Just as a woman holds the family together with care, Chika held the couple together and turned their happy married life into happy parenthood. She completed the duo and made them a family. She made them more responsible for the needs of a child and taught them to keep the concerns of the child before their commitments.

Defining Legacy:

‘What we carry defines who we are

And the effort we make is our legacy’.

The last life lesson that Chika exemplified would always remain with the readers. It is how she carried herself and the effort she gave internally to show it. She created her own legacy through fighting hardships with smiles and spreading joy in the lives of all she knew.

Immortalized through the pages of the book Chika’s journey truly exemplified how she fought against time along with Mitch and Janine . . . . for one more day . . . .