India diaries

A Thousand Splendid Women

This blog is dedicated to those amazing enduring women who are being brutalized and tortured, humiliated and taken advantage of, every single day all over the world. Yet, these women find a way to survive, to live and perhaps live long enough to tell their stories. In India, the country where I’m from, we often hear young girls getting raped or treated badly by men. In Afghanistan and other countries, women have suffered though a male dominated hypocritical society where major crimes committed by men get unnoticed whereas women have been known to get tortured for committing even minor offences, often in response to self defence or for survival. United States is no different. There are strong biases against women holding public offices and important positions. My head hangs in shame knowing my own country India is one such place. To those women, I beg your forgiveness. I hope enlightened men come together and continue to speak out more against these prejudices and violence. To media, I beseech you to bring these facts forward and report these incidences of outright brutality against women, domestic or public. Please write more about anti-women prejudices and behaviours. Raising awareness is one way to fight this.

This blog contains spoilers for the book “A Thousand Splendid Suns”.

After returning from a trip to Pemberton, I thought I’d send this note to my host with whom I was staying,

Hi Sara, I meant to ask but forgot. I saw in your bookshelf khaled hoseinini’s two books “kite runner” and “And the Mountains Echoed”. I really loved “kite runner”. What do you think of “And the Mountains Echoed”? I haven’t read it yet.

Sara responded back soon,

That’s funny you asked, I actually haven’t read it yet, but plan to soon. Have you read a thousand splendid suns also by Khaled? It’s probably one of my favourite books I’ve ever read. It’s pretty graphic at times, and totally heart breaking but his writing is so beautiful and poetic. I would suggest that if you haven’t already.

So I took a note and added this book to my list of books to read one day. I read many books and at any given time, I have at least 10 in my reading list to get to. Today I just finished reading this book …

Maryam, a name I’ll remember for many many years to come in connection to this great saga – a tale of two amazing women in this book. The other woman being Laila. Maryam from Herat, a little girl born out of the unfortunate affair between a wealthy businessman and one of his maids. A harami as she was being called because she was illegitimate, unwanted, her existence being a disgrace to her own father. Thrown out of his home, she and her mother were forced to find living outside the city. Every week Jalil would pay Maryam a visit and young Maryam would look forward to spending time with her dad. Maryam’s mom Nana warned her that his love was fake, that he was only ashamed of her existence, that there would be nothing in this world for Maryam after she’s gone.

Rich man telling rich lies. He never took you to any tree. And don’t let him charm you. He betrayed us, your beloved father. He cast us out. He cast us out of his big fancy house like we were nothing to him. He did it happily”
“Look at me, Mariam.”
Reluctantly, Mariam did.
Nana said, “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”

“Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman”, Nana said. Yet this little girl was fond of her dad. She hated her mom for her warnings and decided that whatever she was telling her were all lies. So after begging her dad to to take her to a movie, when her dad finally agreed, she was elated. She waited for him to show up at the designated spot the next day and when he failed to come, little 15 year old Maryam started taking a walk towards Herat, the city she had up until that point, never seen in all her life. Life changed completely for her from that point onwards, changed for the worse. Nana was right all along. She was not welcome in Jalil’s life in Herat. Nana, unable to come to terms with the fact that first Jalil and now her little daughter Maryam had betrayed her (and perhaps anticipating what could and might have happened to Maryam when she did not return back at night), took her own life.

A tale of brutality and endurance began for Maryam from that point onwards.

Laila had an ordinary but liberal upbringing in a more or less affluent family. Her mom and dad sent her brothers to fight the soviets and when the two brothers perished in jihad, she became the noor of her parent’s existence. Her parents encouraged education and emphasized learning. They sent her to school to study and often schooled her themselves and helped her with homework. Meanwhile, Laila became increasingly romantically involved with a young man named Tariq who was also her childhood friend. They grew up together. After the soviets departed, things became chaotic in Kabul, the infighting and violence left one of her close friends dead. Tariq’s family decided to leave Kabul and the day before their departure, he and Laila shared their first intimate moment of sexual experience. Laila’s mom still wanted to hold on and see things through, so that her son’s sacrifices were not spent in vain. However, when Laila herself narrowly escaped death one day, her parents finally decided to leave Kabul for Pakistan. Unfortunately for Laila, before she could leave the city, a missile blast left her home in shatters, both her parents dead and she herself narrowly escaped death. As fate would have it, the man who eventually became Maryam’s husband in Kabul, Rasheed, would save Laila and bring her home. When Laila realized she was pregnant with Tariq’s child, she agreed to marry Rasheed, a man many times older than both Maryam and Laila.

Thus the fate of these two amazing women became intertwined together and a new chapter of enduring brutality, brutality coming from Rasheed’s daily violence and the violence from Talibs outdoors began.

My heart broke in tears as I read through the amazing saga of these two women. The two women became friends and through their inhumane suffering, brought them closer and closer together. Maryam acting as a guardian, a friend, a mentor and even like a mother to Laila’s daughter Aziza.

Women have suffered through many generations in history. Our past is laden with colourful descriptions of these inhumane behaviour in various cultures. In India for example, at one point, women were burnt alive along with their ailing aging husbands so there would be no heirs. Women have suffered so much in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. They were beaten mercilessly if seen alone on the street or violating their laws. Their punishment even for minor crimes were severe. At home, Rasheed’s anger toward Maryam had no limits because she could not bear any children of her own. Rasheed lost his first wife in childbirth and his first son drowned in the pool. All he wanted was to use a girl as a tool to have another son. He had no use for Maryam who was increasingly becoming the target for all his anger.

(Graphic content warning)

Downstairs, the beating began. To Laila, the sounds she heard were those of a methodical, familiar proceeding. There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten, the thump, thump of something solid repeatedly striking flesh, something, someone, hitting a wall with a thud, cloth ripping. Now and then, Laila heard running footsteps, a wordless chase, furniture turning over, glass shattering, then the thumping once more.
Laila took Aziza in her arms. A warmth spread down the front of her dress when Aziza’s bladder let go.
Downstairs, the running and chasing finally stopped.
There was a sound now like a wooden club repeatedly slapping a side of beef.
Laila rocked Aziza until the sounds stopped, and, when she heard the screen door creak open and slam shut, she lowered Aziza to the ground and peeked out the window. She saw Rasheed leading Mariam across the yard by the nape of her neck. Mariam was barefoot and doubled over. There was blood on his hands, blood on Mariam’s face, her hair, down her neck and back. Her shirt had been ripped down the front.”

Such naked description of domestic violence gives one perspectives. Life can always be worse, much worse.

When Maryam was little, she wanted to study. To go to school just like Jalil’s other kids. So she told Mullah Faizullah, his friend and her Quran teacher who was fond of little Maryam, to send her to school. When Mullah Faizullah told her wish to Nana, Nana said,

Look at me.”
Mariam did.
“Only one skill. And it’s this: tahamul. Endure.”
“Endure what, Nana?”
“Oh, don’t you fret about that,” Nana said. “There won’t be any shortage of things.”

And so Maryam endured, she endured alright. She endured all those bearings and an evil vile husband. She endured the infighting, the Talibans, you name it. The list went on …

Except the love Aziza showered her with, Laila’s compassion and friendship, Maryam had nothing. Her dad betrayed her when he forced her to marry Rasheed, a man several years older then her, extremely conservative, who would torture her every single day when he realized she would be be able to bear his children. Maryam never forgave her dad, not even when Jalil was close to dying and went to visit Maryam. Maryam never met him and even tore off the letter he wrote to her without even reading. She would never know that Jalil, once a wealthy man, had lost all his wealth to the Soviets, along with losing both his kids to the infighting. He had also lost his wife. He had no one, no one other than Maryam around his dying breath. Such a turn of fate! In his dying breath, Jalil regretted his actions towards his own daughter, the fact that he abandoned her and sent her away to Kabul, in order to protect his own reputation and image. All the question of reputation mattered little when death was near him. All he wanted was to give Maryam whatever little he was left with along with an opportunity to ask for her forgiveness. This was something Jalil would never get a chance of.

Maryam’s tale of suffering and enduring came to and end when she was publicly executed by the Talibans for killing Rasheed. When Rasheed went after Laila almost killing her, Maryam was not able to bear it in silence any longer. She could not let Rasheed destroy Laila as well, him having destroyed her own life already. Maryam sacrificed her own life to save Laila. A life which was battered with suffering came to an end. It was, like as the book says, a legitimate end to an illegitimate beginning.

Mariam wished for so much in those final moments. Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last. No. It was not so bad, Mariam thought, that she should die this way. Not so bad. This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate beginnings.”

Before she hands herself to the Talibans, Maryam says goodbye to Laila. There’s no regret, no sadness in leaving this earth for Maryam. She’s gotten everything she ever wanted to get from Laila and Aziza. She has to penance for the crime she committed, taking away Zalmai’s father from him. She has to pay the price for it.

“It is fair,” Mariam said. “I’ve killed our husband. I’ve deprived your son of his father. It isn’t right that I run. I can’t. Even if they never catch us, I’ll never . . .” Her lips trembled. “I’ll never escape your son’s grief. How do I look at him? How do I ever bring myself to look at him, Laila jo?”
Mariam twiddled a strand of Laila’s hair, untangled a stubborn curl.
“For me, it ends here. There’s nothing more I want.
Everything I’d ever wished for as a little girl you’ve already given me. You and your children have made me so very happy. It’s all right, Laila jo. This is all right. Don’t be sad.”

“LATER THAT MORNING, Mariam packed Zalmai a small lunch of bread and dried figs. For Aziza too she packed some figs, and a few cookies shaped like animals. She put it all in a paper bag and gave it to Laila.
“Kiss Aziza for me,” she said. “Tell her she is the noor of my eyes and the sultan of my heart. Will you do that for me?”
Laila nodded, her lips pursed together.”

What a brave character with such a clean soul! The book leaves us with aches in our hearts and tears in our eyes and numerous unanswered questions. So many people like Maryam gave up their lives to save someone they cared about from the brutalities during that period of the Afghan history. So many families ruined, perished. So many stories similar to this one not told because there were no one left to tell these stories. It leaves us with humility and gratefulness for the life we have. It fills us with respect for others.

The book also makes us question our society’s standards, it’s hypocrisy and it’s standards determining what’s right and what’s wrong. Why should there be one set of rules for one group of people and another set of rules for another group? Why should the education and other privileges be limited to only men and not to women? Similar hypocrisy and prejudices exists in other levels as well. The book makes us question our society’s law enforcement rules and the judicial system. Behind one truth there’s often always another greater truth. How often are we able to find or even keen on finding this greater truth? How often are we so keen to entrust judgement and ruling on to others that we fail to see the larger picture? What’s right and wrong, good and evil, what’s God’s will and what’s not are all grey questions. It’s all subjective.

To all those thousand splendid women like Maryam, I bow to you!

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