The kite runner, p.31
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       The Kite Runner, p.31

           Khaled Hosseini

  In Afghanistan, the ending was all that mattered. When Hassan and I came home after watching a Hindi film at Cinema Zainab, what Ali, Rahim Khan, Baba, or the myriad of Baba's friends--second and third cousins milling in and out of the house--wanted to know was this: Did the Girl in the film find happiness? Did the bacheh film, the Guy in the film, become kamyab and fulfill his dreams, or was he nah-kam, doomed to wallow in failure?

  Was there happiness at the end, they wanted to know.

  If someone were to ask me today whether the story of Hassan, Sohrab, and me ends with happiness, I wouldn't know what to say.

  Does anybody's?

  After all, life is not a Hindi movie. Zendagi migzara, Afghans like to say: Life goes on, unmindful of beginning, end, kamyab, nah-kam, crisis or catharsis, moving forward like a slow, dusty caravan of kochis.

  I wouldn't know how to answer that question. Despite the matter of last Sunday's tiny miracle.

  WE ARRIVED HOME about seven months ago, on a warm day in August 2001. Soraya picked us up at the airport. I had never been away from Soraya for so long, and when she locked her arms around my neck, when I smelled apples in her hair, I realized how much I had missed her. "You're still the morning sun to my yelda," I whispered.


  "Never mind." I kissed her ear.

  After, she knelt to eye level with Sohrab. She took his hand and smiled at him. "Salaam, Sohrab jan, I'm your Khala Soraya. We've all been waiting for you."

  Looking at her smiling at Sohrab, her eyes tearing over a little, I had a glimpse of the mother she might have been, had her own womb not betrayed her.

  Sohrab shifted on his feet and looked away.

  SORAYA HAD TURNED THE STUDY upstairs into a bedroom for Sohrab. She led him in and he sat on the edge of the bed. The sheets showed brightly colored kites flying in indigo blue skies. She had made inscriptions on the wall by the closet, feet and inches to measure a child's growing height. At the foot of the bed, I saw a wicker basket stuffed with books, a locomotive, a watercolor set.

  Sohrab was wearing the plain white T-shirt and new denims I had bought him in Islamabad just before we'd left--the shirt hung loosely over his bony, slumping shoulders. The color still hadn't seeped back into his face, save for the halo of dark circles around his eyes. He was looking at us now in the impassive way he looked at the plates of boiled rice the hospital orderly placed before him.

  Soraya asked if he liked his room and I noticed that she was trying to avoid looking at his wrists and that her eyes kept swaying back to those jagged pink lines. Sohrab lowered his head. Hid his hands under his thighs and said nothing. Then he simply lay his head on the pillow. Less than five minutes later, Soraya and I watching from the doorway, he was snoring.

  We went to bed, and Soraya fell asleep with her head on my chest. In the darkness of our room, I lay awake, an insomniac once more. Awake. And alone with demons of my own.

  Sometime in the middle of the night, I slid out of bed and went to Sohrab's room. I stood over him, looking down, and saw something protruding from under his pillow. I picked it up. Saw it was Rahim Khan's Polaroid, the one I had given to Sohrab the night we had sat by the Shah Faisal Mosque. The one of Hassan and Sohrab standing side by side, squinting in the light of the sun, and smiling like the world was a good and just place. I wondered how long Sohrab had lain in bed staring at the photo, turning it in his hands.

  I looked at the photo. Your father was a man torn between two halves, Rahim Khan had said in his letter. I had been the entitled half, the society-approved, legitimate half, the unwitting embodiment of Baba's guilt. I looked at Hassan, showing those two missing front teeth, sunlight slanting on his face. Baba's other half. The unentitled, unprivileged half. The half who had inherited what had been pure and noble in Baba. The half that, maybe, in the most secret recesses of his heart, Baba had thought of as his true son.

  I slipped the picture back where I had found it. Then I realized something: That last thought had brought no sting with it. Closing Sohrab's door, I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.

  THE GENERAL AND KHALA JAMILA came over for dinner the following night. Khala Jamila, her hair cut short and a darker shade of red than usual, handed Soraya the plate of almond-topped maghout she had brought for dessert. She saw Sohrab and beamed. "Mashallah! Soraya jan told us how khoshteep you were, but you are even more handsome in person, Sohrab jan." She handed him a blue turtleneck sweater. "I knitted this for you," she said. "For next winter. Inshallah, it will fit you."

  Sohrab took the sweater from her.

  "Hello, young man," was all the general said, leaning with both hands on his cane, looking at Sohrab the way one might study a bizarre decorative item at someone's house.

  I answered, and answered again, Khala Jamila's questions about my injuries--I'd asked Soraya to tell them I had been mugged--reassuring her that I had no permanent damage, that the wires would come out in a few weeks so I'd be able to eat her cooking again, that, yes, I would try rubbing rhubarb juice and sugar on my scars to make them fade faster.

  The general and I sat in the living room and sipped wine while Soraya and her mother set the table. I told him about Kabul and the Taliban. He listened and nodded, his cane on his lap, and tsk'ed when I told him of the man I had spotted selling his artificial leg. I made no mention of the executions at Ghazi Stadium and Assef. He asked about Rahim Khan, whom he said he had met in Kabul a few times, and shook his head solemnly when I told him of Rahim Khan's illness. But as we spoke, I caught his eyes drifting again and again to Sohrab sleeping on the couch. As if we were skirting around the edge of what he really wanted to know.

  The skirting finally came to an end over dinner when the general put down his fork and said, "So, Amir jan, you're going to tell us why you have brought back this boy with you?"

  "Iqbal jan! What sort of question is that?" Khala Jamila said.

  "While you're busy knitting sweaters, my dear, I have to deal with the community's perception of our family. People will ask. They will want to know why there is a Hazara boy living with our daughter. What do I tell them?"

  Soraya dropped her spoon. Turned on her father. "You can tell them--"

  "It's okay, Soraya," I said, taking her hand. "It's okay. General Sahib is quite right. People will ask."

  "Amir--" she began.

  "It's all right." I turned to the general. "You see, General Sahib, my father slept with his servant's wife. She bore him a son named Hassan. Hassan is dead now. That boy sleeping on the couch is Hassan's son. He's my nephew. That's what you tell people when they ask."

  They were all staring at me.

  "And one more thing, General Sahib," I said. "You will never again refer to him as 'Hazara boy' in my presence. He has a name and it's Sohrab."

  No one said anything for the remainder of the meal.

  IT WOULD BE ERRONEOUS to say Sohrab was quiet. Quiet is peace. Tranquillity. Quiet is turning down the VOLUME knob on life.

  Silence is pushing the OFF button. Shutting it down. All of it.

  Sohrab's silence wasn't the self-imposed silence of those with convictions, of protesters who seek to speak their cause by not speaking at all. It was the silence of one who has taken cover in a dark place, curled up all the edges and tucked them under.

  He didn't so much live with us as occupy space. And precious little of it. Sometimes, at the market, or in the park, I'd notice how other people hardly seemed to even see him, like he wasn't there at all. I'd look up from a book and realize Sohrab had entered the room, had sat across from me, and I hadn't noticed. He walked like he was afraid to leave behind footprints. He moved as if not to stir the air around him. Mostly, he slept.

  Sohrab's silence was hard on Soraya too. Over that long-distance line to Pakistan, Soraya had told me about the things she was planning for Sohrab. Swimming classes. Soccer. Bowling le
ague. Now she'd walk past Sohrab's room and catch a glimpse of books sitting unopened in the wicker basket, the growth chart unmarked, the jigsaw puzzle unassembled, each item a reminder of a life that could have been. A reminder of a dream that was wilting even as it was budding. But she hadn't been alone. I'd had my own dreams for Sohrab.

  While Sohrab was silent, the world was not. One Tuesday morning last September, the Twin Towers came crumbling down and, overnight, the world changed. The American flag suddenly appeared everywhere, on the antennae of yellow cabs weaving around traffic, on the lapels of pedestrians walking the sidewalks in a steady stream, even on the grimy caps of San Francisco's panhandlers sitting beneath the awnings of small art galleries and open-fronted shops. One day I passed Edith, the homeless woman who plays the accordion every day on the corner of Sutter and Stockton, and spotted an American flag sticker on the accordion case at her feet.

  Soon after the attacks, America bombed Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance moved in, and the Taliban scurried like rats into the caves. Suddenly, people were standing in grocery store lines and talking about the cities of my childhood, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif. When I was very little, Baba took Hassan and me to Kunduz. I don't remember much about the trip, except sitting in the shade of an acacia tree with Baba and Hassan, taking turns sipping fresh watermelon juice from a clay pot and seeing who could spit the seeds farther. Now Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and people sipping lattes at Starbucks were talking about the battle for Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in the north. That December, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras gathered in Bonn and, under the watchful eye of the UN, began the process that might someday end over twenty years of unhappiness in their watan. Hamid Karzai's caracul hat and green chapan became famous.

  Sohrab sleepwalked through it all.

  Soraya and I became involved in Afghan projects, as much out of a sense of civil duty as the need for something--anything--to fill the silence upstairs, the silence that sucked everything in like a black hole. I had never been the active type before, but when a man named Kabir, a former Afghan ambassador to Sofia, called and asked if I wanted to help him with a hospital project, I said yes. The small hospital had stood near the Afghan-Pakistani border and had a small surgical unit that treated Afghan refugees with land mine injuries. But it had closed down due to a lack of funds. I became the project manager, Soraya my co-manager. I spent most of my days in the study, e-mailing people around the world, applying for grants, organizing fund-raising events. And telling myself that bringing Sohrab here had been the right thing to do.

  The year ended with Soraya and me on the couch, blanket spread over our legs, watching Dick Clark on TV. People cheered and kissed when the silver ball dropped, and confetti whitened the screen. In our house, the new year began much the same way the last one had ended.

  In silence.

  THEN, FOUR DAYS AGO, on a cool rainy day in March 2002, a small, wondrous thing happened.

  I took Soraya, Khala Jamila, and Sohrab to a gathering of Afghans at Lake Elizabeth Park in Fremont. The general had finally been summoned to Afghanistan the month before for a ministry position, and had flown there two weeks earlier--he had left behind his gray suit and pocket watch. The plan was for Khala Jamila to join him in a few months once he had settled. She missed him terribly--and worried about his health there--and we had insisted she stay with us for a while.

  The previous Thursday, the first day of spring, had been the Afghan New Year's Day--the Sawl-e-Nau--and Afghans in the Bay Area had planned celebrations throughout the East Bay and the peninsula. Kabir, Soraya, and I had an additional reason to rejoice: Our little hospital in Rawalpindi had opened the week before, not the surgical unit, just the pediatric clinic. But it was a good start, we all agreed.

  It had been sunny for days, but Sunday morning, as I swung my legs out of bed, I heard raindrops pelting the window. Afghan luck, I thought. Snickered. I prayed morning namaz while Soraya slept--I didn't have to consult the prayer pamphlet I had obtained from the mosque anymore; the verses came naturally now, effortlessly.

  We arrived around noon and found a handful of people taking cover under a large rectangular plastic sheet mounted on six poles spiked to the ground. Someone was already frying bolani; steam rose from teacups and a pot of cauliflower aush. A scratchy old Ahmad Zahir song was blaring from a cassette player. I smiled a little as the four of us rushed across the soggy grass field, Soraya and I in the lead, Khala Jamila in the middle, Sohrab behind us, the hood of his yellow raincoat bouncing on his back.

  "What's so funny?" Soraya said, holding a folded newspaper over her head.

  "You can take Afghans out of Paghman, but you can't take Paghman out of Afghans," I said.

  We stooped under the makeshift tent. Soraya and Khala Jamila drifted toward an overweight woman frying spinach bolani. Sohrab stayed under the canopy for a moment, then stepped back out into the rain, hands stuffed in the pockets of his raincoat, his hair--now brown and straight like Hassan's--plastered against his scalp. He stopped near a coffee-colored puddle and stared at it. No one seemed to notice. No one called him back in. With time, the queries about our adopted--and decidedly eccentric--little boy had mercifully ceased, and, considering how tactless Afghan queries can be sometimes, that was a considerable relief. People stopped asking why he never spoke. Why he didn't play with the other kids. And best of all, they stopped suffocating us with their exaggerated empathy, their slow head shaking, their tsk-tsks, their "Oh gung bichara." Oh, poor little mute one. The novelty had worn off. Like dull wallpaper, Sohrab had blended into the background.

  I shook hands with Kabir, a small, silver-haired man. He introduced me to a dozen men, one of them a retired teacher, another an engineer, a former architect, a surgeon who was now running a hot dog stand in Hayward. They all said they'd known Baba in Kabul, and they spoke about him respectfully. In one way or another, he had touched all their lives. The men said I was lucky to have had such a great man for a father.

  We chatted about the difficult and maybe thankless job Karzai had in front of him, about the upcoming Loya jirga, and the king's imminent return to his homeland after twenty-eights years of exile. I remembered the night in 1973, the night Zahir Shah's cousin overthrew him; I remembered gunfire and the sky lighting up silver--Ali had taken me and Hassan in his arms, told us not to be afraid, that they were just shooting ducks.

  Then someone told a Mullah Nasruddin joke and we were all laughing. "You know, your father was a funny man too," Kabir said.

  "He was, wasn't he?" I said, smiling, remembering how, soon after we arrived in the U.S., Baba started grumbling about American flies. He'd sit at the kitchen table with his flyswatter, watch the flies darting from wall to wall, buzzing here, buzzing there, harried and rushed. "In this country, even flies are pressed for time," he'd groan. How I had laughed. I smiled at the memory now.

  By three o'clock, the rain had stopped and the sky was a curdled gray burdened with lumps of clouds. A cool breeze blew through the park. More families turned up. Afghans greeted each other, hugged, kissed, exchanged food. Someone lighted coal in a barbecue and soon the smell of garlic and morgh kabob flooded my senses. There was music, some new singer I didn't know, and the giggling of children. I saw Sohrab, still in his yellow raincoat, leaning against a garbage pail, staring across the park at the empty batting cage.

  A little while later, as I was chatting with the former surgeon, who told me he and Baba had been classmates in eighth grade, Soraya pulled on my sleeve. "Amir, look!"

  She was pointing to the sky. A half-dozen kites were flying high, speckles of bright yellow, red, and green against the gray sky.

  "Check it out," Soraya said, and this time she was pointing to a guy selling kites from a stand nearby.

  "Hold this," I said. I gave my cup of tea to Soraya. I excused myself and walked over to the kite stand, my shoes squishing on the wet grass. I pointed to a yellow seh-parcha. "Sawl-e-nau mubabrak," the kite seller said, taking the twenty and
handing me the kite and a wooden spool of glass tar. I thanked him and wished him a Happy New Year too. I tested the string the way Hassan and I used to, by holding it between my thumb and forefinger and pulling it. It reddened with blood and the kite seller smiled. I smiled back.

  I took the kite to where Sohrab was standing, still leaning against the garbage pail, arms crossed on his chest. He was looking up at the sky.

  "Do you like the seh-parcha?" I said, holding up the kite by the ends of the cross bars. His eyes shifted from the sky to me, to the kite, then back. A few rivulets of rain trickled from his hair, down his face.

  "I read once that, in Malaysia, they use kites to catch fish," I said. "I'll bet you didn't know that. They tie a fishing line to it and fly it beyond the shallow waters, so it doesn't cast a shadow and scare the fish. And in ancient China, generals used to fly kites over battlefields to send messages to their men. It's true. I'm not slipping you a trick." I showed him my bloody thumb. "Nothing wrong with the tar either."

  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Soraya watching us from the tent. Hands tensely dug in her armpits. Unlike me, she'd gradually abandoned her attempts at engaging him. The unanswered questions, the blank stares, the silence, it was all too painful. She had shifted to "Holding Pattern," waiting for a green light from Sohrab. Waiting.

  I wet my index finger and held it up. "I remember the way your father checked the wind was to kick up dust with his sandal, see which way the wind blew it. He knew a lot of little tricks like that," I said. Lowered my finger. "West, I think."

  Sohrab wiped a raindrop from his earlobe and shifted on his feet. Said nothing. I thought of Soraya asking me a few months ago what his voice sounded like. I'd told her I didn't remember anymore.

  "Did I ever tell you your father was the best kite runner in Wazir Akbar Khan? Maybe all of Kabul?" I said, knotting the loose end of the spool tar to the string loop tied to the center spar. "How jealous he made the neighborhood kids. He'd run kites and never look up at the sky, and people used to say he was chasing the kite's shadow. But they didn't know him like I did. Your father wasn't chasing any shadows. He just . . . knew."

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