Mariam, the protagonist of Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is advised by her mother that there is no point in putting her trust in man, even if the man is her own father. “[L]ike a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.” But Mariam is a little girl and she loves her father until that love leads to the suicide of her mother and Mariam’s subsequent realisation that her father’s love for her has severe limits.
Mariam is an illegitimate child born of a servant. Her father has three legitimate wives who hail from rich families. The legitimate wives make sure that the illegitimate one is thrown out of the family. They accuse Mariam’s mother of having seduced their husband. Mariam’s father is quite helpless in the manoeuvres carried out by his wives. Even a man in the Islamic tradition which gives no more importance to a woman than a piece of furniture can be rendered helpless when surrounded by three women in the enclosed little space of the family.
At the age of 15, Mariam is married to Rasheed, a man who is old enough to be her father. That’s yet another manipulation performed by the cunning women. Religious restrictions can limit one’s freedom but not vices. The contriving women know that Rasheed will take Mariam far away to Kabul, his place, from Herat, their place.
Mariam’s inability to produce offspring, though she conceives as many as seven times, makes her worthless to Rasheed. In his old age, Rasheed marries Laila who is young enough to be his granddaughter. Laila has a reason to accept him as husband, however. She had a romantic affair with Tariq who had to leave Kabul along with his family when the war raged between Afghanistan and USSR. The emotional farewell ended in their making love and Laila became pregnant. Soon the war kills Laila’s parents. Rasheed leaps at the opportunity to make the young and pretty Laila his wife in the hope of begetting a son. Laila sees her own opportunity in the marriage; she will cut her finger that night to produce the required blood drops for the nuptial bed sheet.
Laila gives birth to a daughter whose physical features make Rasheed suspicious about her paternity. However, Laila gives him a son soon and he is happy.
A few years later, Tariq returns. Laila realises that the story about his death as had been told to her by one of Rasheed’s friends was a trick to make her accept Rasheed’s marriage proposal. Tariq’s return takes the plot to a gruesome climax which gives a tragic legitimacy to Mariam who lived all her life as a ‘harami.’
Hosseini once said that while his first novel, Kite Runner, was about a father-son relationship, this second one was about mother-daughter relationships. Splendid Suns remains much inferior to Kite Runner and reads more like a Hollywood thriller. But we get a lot of insights into how women are treated in Islamic Afghanistan. The communist Afghanistan turns out to be much better than the Taliban one.
The title of the novel is taken from a poem, ‘Kabul’, by the 17th-century Iranian poet Saib Tabrizi. The “thousand splendid suns that hide behind her wall” refer to the women of Afghanistan hiding behind their bizarre attire. The novel is about some of those women, how their religion and its men have enslaved them totally.
Even a name-game in that country involves only male names. Laila, however, knows that she will name her daughter after Mariam. Mariam is one of those thousand splendid suns hidden behind walls. So is Laila.
The novel sold millions of copies. It is an excellent thriller. It is a heartbreaking critique of the way Islam treats women in that country (and implicitly elsewhere). It leaves the reader with a painful longing: for a less religious and more humane world.