There is a part of Nemat Sadat’s The Carpet Weaver which talks about Rabia Balkhi, an Afghan poet-princess who was executed for writing odes to her beloved, a castle servant. What the book’s protagonist, Kanishka, says about Rabia’s story comes close to capturing the essence of Sadat’s work — “How courageous she was to defiantly love whom she pleased, defend her art and live her existence fully until its tragic end.”
The book is set in the 1970s and ’80s in Afghanistan, a particularly tumultuous period for the restive country. The very first page of the book sets the tone by describing a birthday party for Kanishka, in which one of his uncles uses the word kuni — a derogatory word for a gay man — and calls them “immoral, impure, unpardonable and wretched”. Kanishka is already aware of his sexual orientation by then, and his fear of it being exposed is a constant theme throughout the book, even as he falls in love with his friend Maihan, who returns his affections. The relationship and the accompanying moments of happiness and troubles is a thread that runs the course of the book — the protagonist’s feelings for Maihan a rare constant even as his world faces constant upheaval.
First, there is the Maoist father (Baba), a well-regarded carpet seller who secretly meets his fellows in Kabul’s hamams. When he takes Kanishka to one such meeting, the covert politics pales for the protagonist when compared to what he has heard of the city’s baths — that they are often a refuge for “men seeking the company of men”. And just as his father used coded phrases to access the meeting, he finds that there are other signals at play in the premises as well. Under the regime of Daoud Khan, the group discusses politics and the spreading of Maoism, even as winds of uncertainty swept through Afghanistan’s repressive society. The group is soon cut off from Beijing’s support, even as Daoud’s death and a Soviet invasion looms on the horizon.
But these larger forces are largely muted as the first-person narration keeps the reader focused on the twists and turns of Kanishka’s life — from a thorough dressing-down when he plays dress-up with Maihan and their friend Faiz to an attack by schoolmates who discover the couple together. Kanishka’s father is arrested by the secret police even as an army coup leads to a bloody, Soviet-led regime change. Keeping the personal narrative at the forefront is a tricky exercise that Sadat carries out successfully, for the most part. But there are times when the muted nature in which larger events are introduced fail to deliver the proper impact. One such example is when Kanishka, offered a chance by Maihan to spy for the CIA in exchange for a green card and passage to the US, refuses saying it would be a betrayal of Afghanistan and his father’s cause. This comes as a bit of a surprise, as there was no previous inkling that he felt so strongly about politics. His encounters with his father’s group and cause were described from an entirely personal angle — his love for his father, his trepidation for his family’s safety and so on.
To suddenly discover in him a political will strong enough to deny the opportunity for safety at that moment was a little jarring. Perhaps, the one consistent element of beauty and hope throughout the book is art, be it poetry or carpet-weaving. While Kanishka’s initial love for his father’s profession was suppressed strictly by the man himself, it is this that turns out to be his salvation when the family makes its way to a tyrannical refugee camp in Pakistan. The time at the camp is one of the darkest in Kanishka’s story, but it is also where he rediscovers his passion for carpet-weaving — and through it, a path to survival — in a space where refugees were forced to make them night and day.
Sadat’s greatest strength is his eye for complexity and detail — be is a birthday party, a tender moment or a turmoil-filled interior monlogoue. The period set in Afghanistan is, perhaps, the standout portion of the book, if only because of the way the writer speaks of a bygone era, with all its intolerance and complexities. The spell is broken from time to time, when Sadat bows to the necessity of having to provide historical context by delivering information dumps that take away from otherwise sharp writing.
The novel’s dedication to portraying the fragility of life is evident in its complexities. Most happy moments are bittersweet, no emotion is fully evident, no motive is completely understandable, no space is truly safe and no memory is completely untainted. Perhaps, that is what makes its ending, and everything that leads up to it, so relatable. The story might be set in the 1980s, but it lives and breathes in today’s world.