Thursday, April 11, 2013

Haven't I taught you anything?

"Ahesta boro, Mah-e-man, ahesta boro.

Go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.

Boot heels clicked on asphalt. Someone flung open the tarpaulin hanging over the back of the truck, and three faces peered in. One was Karim, the other two were soldiers, one Afghan, the other a grinning Russian, face like a bulldog's, cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. Behind them, a bone-colored moon hung in the sky. Karim and the Afghan soldier had a brief exchange in Pashtu. I caught a little of it--something about Toor and his bad luck. The Russian soldier thrust his face into the rear of the truck. He was humming the wedding song and drumming his finger on the edge of the tailgate. Even in the dim light of the moon, I saw the glazed look in his eyes as they skipped from passenger to passenger. Despite the cold, sweat streamed from his brow. His eyes settled on the young woman wearing the black shawl. He spoke in Russian to Karim without taking his eyes off her. Karim gave a curt reply in Russian, which the soldier returned with an even curter retort. The Afghan soldier said some thing too, in a low, reasoning voice. But the Russian soldier shouted something that made the other two flinch. I could feel Baba tightening up next to me. Karim cleared his throat, dropped his head. Said the soldier wanted a half hour with the lady in the back of the truck.

The young woman pulled the shawl down over her face. Burst into tears. The toddler sitting in her husband's lap started crying too. The husband's face had become as pale as the moon hovering above. He told Karim to ask "Mister Soldier Sahib" to show a little mercy, maybe he had a sister or a mother, maybe he had a wife too. The Russian listened to Karim and barked a series of words.

"It's his price for letting us pass," Karim said. He couldn't bring himself to look the husband in the eye.

"But we've paid a fair price already. He's getting paid good money," the husband said.

Karim and the Russian soldier spoke. "He says... he says every price has a tax."

That was when Baba stood up. It was my turn to clamp a hand on his thigh, but Baba pried it loose, snatched his leg away. When he stood, he eclipsed the moonlight. "I want you to ask this man something," Baba said. He said it to Karim, but looked directly at the Russian officer. "Ask him where his shame is."

They spoke. "He says this is war. There is no shame in war."

"Tell him he's wrong. War doesn't negate decency. It demands it, even more than in times of peace."

Do you have to always be the hero? I thought, my heart fluttering. Can't you just let it go for once? But I knew he couldn't--it wasn't in his nature. The problem was, his nature was going to get us all killed.

The Russian soldier said something to Karim, a smile creasing his lips. "Agha sahib," Karim said, "these Roussi are not like us. They understand nothing about respect, honor."

"What did he say?"

"He says he'll enjoy putting a bullet in you almost as much as..." Karim trailed off, but nodded his head toward the young woman who had caught the guard's eye. The soldier flicked his unfinished cigarette and unholstered his handgun. So this is where Baba dies, I thought. This is how it's going to happen. In my head, I said a prayer I had learned in school.

"Tell him I'll take a thousand of his bullets before I let this indecency take place," Baba said. My mind flashed to that winter day six years ago. Me, peering around the corner in the alley. Kamal and Wali holding Hassan down. Assef's buttock muscles clenching and unclenching, his hips thrusting back and forth. Some hero I had been, fretting about the kite. Sometimes, I too wondered if I was really Baba's son.

The bulldog-faced Russian raised his gun.

"Baba, sit down please," I said, tugging at his sleeve. "I think he really means to shoot you."

Baba slapped my hand away. "Haven't I taught you anything?" he snapped. He turned to the grinning soldier. "Tell him he'd better kill me good with that first shot. Because if I don't go down, I'm tearing him to pieces, goddamn his father!"

The Russian soldier's grin never faltered when he heard the translation. He clicked the safety on the gun. Pointed the barrel to Baba's chest. Heart pounding in my throat, I buried my face in my hands.

The gun roared.

It's done, then. I'm eighteen and alone. I have no one left in the world. Baba's dead and now I have to bury him. Where do I bury him? Where do I go after that?

But the whirlwind of half thoughts spinning in my head came to a halt when I cracked my eyelids, found Baba still standing. I saw a second Russian officer with the others. It was from the muzzle of his upturned gun that smoke swirled. The soldier who had meant to shoot Baba had already holstered his weapon. He was shuffling his feet. I had never felt more like crying and laughing at the same time.

The second Russian officer, gray-haired and heavyset, spoke to us in broken Farsi. He apologized for his comrade's behavior. "Russia sends them here to fight," he said. "But they are just boys, and when they come here, they find the pleasure of drug." He gave the younger officer the rueful look of a father exasperated with his misbehaving son. "This one is attached to drug now. I try to stop him..." He waved us off.

Moments later, we were pulling away. I heard a laugh and then the first soldier's voice, slurry and off-key, singing the old wedding song.WE RODE IN SILENCE for about fifteen minutes before the young woman's husband suddenly stood and did something I'd seen many others do before him: He kissed Baba's hand.TOOR'S BAD LUCK. Hadn't I overheard that in a snippet of conversation back at Mahipar?"
 - taken from Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, the passage is my favourite.

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