By Indrani Mookerjee and Mehwish Queresh
“It’s too complicated” said one of the members. And so began the CHAI Book Club meeting last Sunday, at the Howard County Library. The book we were discussing was “And The Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini. There were five participants at that particular meeting and we had a lively discussion about the plot, the style and the different symbols used in the book. We talked about the initial parable as it related to immigrants who left their homelands for better opportunities in the West. The complex cast of characters spanning three continents and several generations, the experience of growing up in Afghanistan, the treatment of women and the deep family ties that endured through space, time and devastation, were some of the points that were raised and discussed.
Some of us grew up in South Asia and others of us were of Indian or Pakistani origin but had grown up in the US. We examined the plot from these different lens,based on where each one of us grew up. We also had an animated discussion about stereotypes, heterogeneity of the societies we all came from and like the characters in the book, how we had acculturated into the American milieu.
The book, while fictional, paralled the author’s own journey from Afghanistan to France and finally California. One of the participants had grown up in Peshawar and said that it was difficult for her to read parts of the book that described the characters who as children had faced extreme deprivation while growing up in Afghanistan. She described the physical appearance of the little kids that begged and the derogatory words that were used against Afghan refugees. The participant explained she felt hopeful at times thinking that maybe she could somehow make all their pains go away. The participants of the group felt touched by her story and her openness to show her vulnerability.
Other members of the Book Club added on by talking about how the conditions of Afghanistan today are disheartening. We discussed how disappointing it is to see how the war has devastated the people of Afghanistan and the availability of basic social services (water, school, jobs, shelter, etc) is nowhere in sight. Participants discussed how the parts of the region are now unsafe and there is a dramatic rise in suicide bombings and other forms of public attacks. One statement that had an impact to the group from the book was “A thousand tragedies per square mile”.
However, book club members noted that living in a county that is mostly impoverished does not mean you also experienced the deprivation. One of the book club members explained how she came from a modernized part of her country and had a different experience growing up and coming to the States. The members pointed out that this was interesting because the author grew up in an impoverished country; however he came from a middle class, semi-westernized family. This part of the discussion led to a conclusion that you may come from a privileged family; however, you could live right next door to poverty and be completely unaware of the inequities in society.
Although there was some dissent about the style and development of the myriads of characters, we all agreed that the book not only told a powerful story but exposed Western readers to the people and culture of Central and South Asia. Oh, and we also agreed that soda and yummy snacks (thank you to the host, Mehwish) made the whole experience even more enjoyable.