The Widow’s Husband, by Tamim Ansary

The Malik, the Malang, and the Farengi
Afghanistan, graveyard of empires. I’ve visited it from time to time in the company of Rudyard Kipling, M.M. Kaye, Joseph Kessel, and James Michener, but this was the first time I have visited it in the company of an Afghan novelist, Tamim Ansary, who has an insider’s knowledge of the customs, religion and mindset of the Afghan people.
The year is 1839. The British, whom the Afghans call Engrayzee, are attempting to extend the tentacles of their raj into the country of Afghanistan. They have engineered the overthrow of the Afghan King, Mohammad Dost, and have replaced him with their puppet, Shah Shuja. Thousands of Engrayzee soldiers are now stationed in Afghanistan, and they have brought their wives and children.
In the remote village of Char Bagh, the young Malik, or headman, Ibrahim,has more mundane concerns. He has recently been proclaimed headman after the death of the former headman, his much older brother. His hair and beard show no trace of gray and his face is unlined. He wonders if he can maintain his authority and protect his position from usurpation by his wealthy middle-aged neighbor Ghulam Dastagir. His widowed sister-in-law, Kadija, has warned him that the Malik of a neighboring village, Sorkhab, three hours journey up the river, intends to expand its cultivation, which will deprive Char Bagh of river water for its own fields when the dry season arrives. Some of his advisers, including Ghulam Dastagir, are advising him to start a fight with Sorkhab, but Ibrahim is reluctant to do this, hoping to resolve the problem without bloodshed. At the same time, he does not want to appear weak.
What to do about Kadija? Ibrahim is strongly attracted to his brother’s widow, and is within his rights to take her as a second wife, but he does not want to offend his wife, Soraya, or his mother-in-law.
Around this time a stranger comes to their village and takes up a perch above it in a place called Baba’s Nose. Ibrahim visits him and finds that he is a wise and learned holy man, a malang, whose presence can bring great blessings and fortune to their village. Led by Ibrahim the villagers welcome him, and provide him with food and housing. Ibrahim, the only literate person in the village, becomes his acolyte and scribe and the malang’s fame spreads. Soon pilgrims begin coming to the village and the villagers build a guest house for them. To ensure the malang’s continued tenure among them, Ibraham persuades Kadija to marry the holy man.
This happy situation comes to an end when two of the Engrayzee soldiers come to the village and take up residence in the pilgrims’ guest house. Lieutenant Rupert Oxley is a man who has difficulty controlling both his tongue and his lust, and both have gotten him in trouble in the past. When he despoils one on the village girls, the Malang marches to the guesthouse and administers a severe beating to both Engrayzee, who flee back to the nearest fort. The British authorities are convinced that the malang is in the pay of the Russians and is organizing the villagers for rebellion and they come and arrest the Malang and take him away. Malik Ibrahim feels honor-bound to rescue the malang and he and Gulham Dastagir and Dastagir’s twelve-year-old son Karim set off for Kabul on a quixotic mission.
Tamim Ansary does a superb job of putting a human face on the tragic history of the 19th century British involvement in Afghanistan. In a complete reversal of the usual paradigm of when a European power sought to colonize a non-European nation, the Afghans rose in wholesale revolt in 1842 and completely annihilated the English presence. Of some 17,000 English men, women and children who were living in Afghanistan and attempted to flee, only one man made it to safety. Afghanistan is a shining example of George Santayana’s maxim that those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

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