Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Khaled Hosseini's Lesson: ... "cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color" (from And the Mountains Echoed)

In his third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, Saboor, Hosseini’s protagonist for the inciting incident of the novel, tells his children a bedtime story in which an impoverished, desperate father, Baba Ayub, must sacrifice one of his five children to an all-powerful div. Like Sophie of Sophie’s Choice, Baba Ayub must choose which child will be the sacrificial child. 

Qais, the name chosen for the charmed and much loved three-year-old, is the name that the father withdraws from a bag of names so at dawn, Baba locks Qais outside where the father must listen to the child’s terrified shrieks and his small fists pounding on the door to his home, his known universe.  After Qais’ cries have faded, Baba Ayub cannot endure the memory of the last sounds from his child or familiarity with his own cowardice for he teaches himself to believe that he sacrificed Qais to save himself.  Baba becomes incapable of living and loving the family that remains until one day, with all the weight of a father’s duty upon him, Baba Ayub begins a quest to rescue Qais, kill the div, and return his child to the father who loves him beyond measure. Even though the life that Baba Ayub can offer is one of penury, he must try even if he dies in the attempt. He has nothing to lose, nothing for which to live.

When Baba Ayub finds Qais and threatens the div’s life, the div reveals the true fate of all the children it’s claimed over many years. The children thrive in a lush garden. They grow in play, not want and work. They face a future in which they may choose to stay or go for the div has benevolently granted them free will while teaching them perfect empathy.

"from the Garden," a photo by Al Griffin

The div also reveals that Baba Ayub’s choice was courageous, not cowardly. Had Baba not chosen one, the div would have killed all his children. Indeed, many other fathers refused to choose, unable to contemplate a life burdened by their consciences. This revelation is a balm to Baba Ayub’s open wound, but the div complicates Baba’s healing by requiring that Baba choose between taking his son and denying Qais readmission or leaving his son and never returning to see him.

Baba Ayub chooses not to let Qais know he is near and not to take him back to a life of labor and deprivation. The father displays perfect empathy, acting in a way some might describe as cruel to achieve a benevolent end. The father sacrifices his own selfish desires to allow the younger life to flourish. For such selflessness, the div provides Baba Ayub with an elixir of forgetfulness. Just as Qais no longer remembers the family from which he was taken, Baba Ayub will forget the child, the agony of having to choose, the cries and tiny fists begging for entry, and the arduous journey undertaken to bring Qais home again. The father will know peace of mind and heart.

Readers are left with the div’s wisdom, acquired over the many, many years of a long life, and it is this: cruelty and benevolence are but shades of the same color (Hosseini).  Baba Ayub is cruel in order to be benevolent for his other children, and ironically, Baba’s cruelty results in unimagined benevolence for Qais. The div grants Qais a blessed life on fertile soil to promote empathy and service and goodness in him without plaguing him with desperation and regret, without memories of the family he lost, of being severed from his family. The div also graces Baba Ayub with forgetfulness so that his original act of cruelty becomes lost to him. He can sleep peacefully with no memory of that fifth, charmed child.

The div also gives the children a carefree life, one in which the darker motives in the human heart need not emerge. They have no opportunity to learn about envy or injustice or unbearable losses, and because they do not, they will, according to the div, live their adult lives trying to make all others as content and happy as they are.

Would that our own children could grow in such an ideal garden, one wherein some do not envy others, where none are bullied, where fair play and equal opportunity are daily occurrences, and where all children win by competing with their own personal bests rather than defeat and failures. We could insure that such a garden come to pass. We could insure that children never go hungry, that their sicknesses will not burden them, that their talents and passions are never denied, that they are safe from guns and gunmen, ignorance and fear.

We can believe that providing a strong social net for them is our highest calling and in such belief, we will forget our own sacrifice to bring about such a garden. We will sleep peacefully because we have striven to make all others content and happy as is their due for no other reason than that they live.