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The Carpet Weaver: On coming of age in Kabul

catherine rhea roy | Updated on November 08, 2019 Published on November 08, 2019

Outgoing: Afghani women in western clothes wait outside Kabul airport in this image from a more liberal time in the country’s chequered history   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Nemat Sadat’s debut novel ‘The Carpet Weaver’ about forbidden love set in an Afghanistan that was once a popular stopover for hedonists on the hippie trail, long before its war-torn descent into strife

As we turn the first few pages of The Carpet Weaver by Nemat Sadat, its protagonist, Kanishka Nurzada, has just turned 16 years old. The author uses the opening scene of the birthday party to unpack the era, the themes and the characters that populate the tight 300-page coming-of-age novel. We are given a glimpse of Kanishka, his wilful but kind Baba and doting Maadar, his two friends Maihaan and Faiz, darling sister Benafsha, formidable uncle Zaki, and a cluster of characters that come together and find their rightful place in the book.

Journalist and debutant author Sadat, who was born in Kabul, describes for us the charged days of 1970s Afghanistan, when Kabul was a popular stopover for hedonists on the hippie trail, not the country we know today ridden with strife and chequered by violence. The novel straddles this crucial time in Afghan history, the last days of the reign of the reasonably secular President Daoud, leading up to the Saur Revolution and the formation of a new government backed by the Soviet Union. Sadat deliberately and lovingly elaborates the details of Afghan life, the festivals, the markets, society and family gatherings, especially the food, which he delves into with Enid Blytonesque flair — aushak dumplings, sweet bichak pastries, chopan kebabs, sholezard rice, and nergis meatballs stuffed with quail eggs.

Kanishka is painted as an awkward, bony boy, who is sure as hell about his sinful attraction to other young men, and questions, rather articulately, the impositions made in the name of Afghaniyat (the cross-border manifestation of sanskaar). His conflict, however, lies in the fear and humiliation of being found out and branded a kuni or homosexual, combined with a pervasive sense of duty to his family. Although they are reasonably well-off, Kanishka’s family does not know the affluence that his friends can afford. So, while he went to the posh school in the day, life after school is spent at his Baba’s shop Marco Polo Rugs — a place where he nurtures his love for art and craft, and his admiration for his father.

Maihan Melatyar is the golden Achilles to Kanishka’s plain Patroclus, the Shams to his Rumi, “partners in a life of poetry”. The narrative of their love is communicated with simplicity, through light touches that can conduct electric charges and looks that can undress. From the throes of adolescent yearning in Kabul and the trials of Kanishka’s escape through Pakistan and, finally, freedom in California, Maihan and the promise of their epic is the centripetal force that keeps Kanishka going. The other solace that Kanishka explores during his time in a prison camp in Pakistan is carpet weaving, the craft with its silken threads and deep hues runs in his veins. It keeps him warm through the cold nights at the camp, and when he is staring into dull hopelessness the yarn keeps his fingers busy and his mind sharp.

In his characterisation of Kanishka, the author creates a sensitive boy, at times too wise for his years. He creates relationships that are real and relatable, like the one he shares with his father. Sadat effortlessly captures the dichotomy of Kanishka’s eagerness to please Baba and his resolve to be true to himself, a trait he inherited from his father. The intimate moments between Kanishka and his sister Benafsha are especially heart-warming, her silent, strong presence near him like a soothing balm. Even the fraught relationship he shares with Tor Gul, the despot leader at the prison camp, is conveyed believably without hysterics or hyperbole.

Sadat’s first attempt at fiction ebbs and flows like the natural movement of water. He carries his story like a precious object, yet he is unafraid to agitate his characters and their plotlines. And when all is said and done, the story in itself is neither rebellious nor tedious — Sadat walks a pleasing and palatable middle path. The book is told in three parts, the first two set in Kabul and Pakistan, and the third in America. At times, it seems that the author took his time with the first two sections, whereas the last few chapters set in America lack a similar ease. The narrative is disjointed and bumpy, and although all our concerns and need for closure are adequately addressed, it feels rushed and without leaving us the time or space to savour it.

The Carpet Weaver; Nemat Sadat; Fiction; Penguin; ₹599

 

The Carpet Weaver is a story of a young boy and his tale of love and redemption; however, it is also a vibrant and vivid account of Afghanistan and a slice of time that gleamed iridescent like mother-of-pearl. Like whispered incantations at a sacred ritual, Sadat uses couplets and poetry, and transfers into the pages of this book his memories of a country before it was compromised by the ravages of war. In his novel, Sadat wins our heart by telling a story of forbidden gay love, a story that is ever so important and relevant, with a steady and skilled hand.

Catherine Rhea Roy is a writer based in Delhi

Published on November 08, 2019
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