The author’s second book and also the second book of his that I am reading – that would be nothing out of the ordinary except that I read the third book first and I’m yet to read The Kite Runner, which often gets compared to this book. I think this has given me a different perspective – to summarise that quickly, I found ‘And the mountains echoed’ a better book and I can easily see the author’s growth both in terms of overall plot as well as narrative style.
This novel is primarily centred around 3 characters (four, if one has to stretch) and using a now-familiar narrative style, we are introduced to their different worlds quite seamlessly. Mariam, an illegitimate child, is forced out of her relatively peaceful life in Herat after the death of her mother. It’s difficult to understand what affected her more deeply – the change in perspective about her father, or her being married off to her father’s acquaintance and sent to Kabul. Mariam’s marital life quickly deteriorates, as does the ‘character’ of her husband Rasheed, and one cannot but feel for the isolation and helplessness of this woman who is abused physically and mentally without respite by a husband who preaches one set of moral standards while hiding stash of porn in his drawers.
Laila is born a generation later, in Kabul, to parents who are more open about the role of women in society. She also has a rather complicated relationship with her neighbour and friend Tariq, with whom she goes to movies. But through a series of events, her life too follows a downward trajectory and she is ‘forced’ to marry Rasheed.
Mariam and Laila are study in contrast in terms of origins, outlook towards life, and spirit. Though they begin as adversaries, they slowly become united thanks to their common their sufferings and a proxy ‘mother-daughter’ relationship develops.
The excellently paced narrative exists between the 1960s and early 2000s and I felt that it is as much a side commentary on the changes in Afghanistan geo politics as it is a story of how ordinary people’s lives get affected (or remain unaffected) through these shifts. It’s quite reinforced by the epilogue as well. The author is able to give a vivid portrayal of the various rulers (especially the Taliban) and the societal/domestic lives that move in parallel. (the ‘Titanic’ obsession and burying TVs in the backyard!) I found the quality of prose outstanding, especially when the author is able to make the reader feel for the characters and their ‘lot in life’, the brutality of physical oppression that is inflicted on them without being totally explicit.
While I rate his later book higher, I also think that the author has done a fantastic job of bringing out the ‘every burqa hides a story’ theme. To get a male reader in India, cocooned in a society that has not experienced such sustained horrors on the psyche, to empathise with the typical Afghan woman’s life is no mean feat!