A voice in your head reads to you when you read a book. Ever tried to talk to that voice? Ever asked why it said what it did? For instance, have you ever wanted to talk to Scout and ask her what was the first thing Jem said when he woke up next morning in the book To Kill a Mockingbird? Ever wanted to ask Pi what “really” happened on that ship in Life of Pi? Or ever wanted to ask Holden Caulfield what he grew up to be in The Catcher in the Rye? Did he stay a non-conformist? Honestly, I’ve always wondered what happened to Caulfield when he grew up. There are narrators in books and then there is third person narration. For the purposes of this post, I won’t go there for my interests lie elsewhere.
Recently, I happened to read a book narrated by all the characters in it. One rainy evening I walked into Kitab Khana to be greeted by the book of a woman whose TED talk I loved immensely. Elif Shafak, a Turkish writer, spoke on TED and I was mesmerized. That rainy evening I confined myself to the book shop, sat on their cushioned chair and delved into the world of two twins whose lives began in a village near the river Euphrates. In the age of publicized threat to women and their integrity, I read a book titled Honour where the premise is the murder of a woman. Unconventionally, this book is not only about the woman or her travails as we commonly associate with such stories. In Honour, the woman is not always sacrificing herself and the man is not always imposing. Honour is a short book about the big life; and the complexities in it. It starts with a prologue in present day and darts back to the 1970s to a village near the river Euphrates where Naze has just given birth to twin girls Pembe and Jamila. The book’s blurb says that the book is about Pembe and Adam Toprak’s family and the about love, loss, and betrayal of families. However, I must also add this book belongs as much to Jamila as it does to Pembe. While Pembe gets married and moves to England with her husband, Jamila stays back in the village and builds herself a society-accepted ‘honorable’ life. Pembe has three children Iskender, Esma and Yunus. The story of the murder of a woman by one of her own is told by each of these characters – Iskender, Esma, Yunus, Pembe, Jamila, Adam and some other tertiary characters. There’s no ‘one’ voice. It keeps shifting. And you’ve got to keep up.
I have loved the book for more than one reason, and these reasons are not empirical. Don’t ask me to dissect Honour. I cannot. Just like you can’t dissect life. You’ve got to live it, and that’s that. When you’ve lived it and you look back you see how all of it adds up. Honour is like life in many ways. It has everyone’s point of view. It has the unexplained thoughts of a young Esma and the rationalizations of an adult Esma. It has the naivety of a young Yunus and the maturity of an older Yunus. It has the aggression of a young Iskender and then the realization of an older one. Honour charts the lives and minds of people who could be you and me. To add to this, the Turkish culture and folklore is sprinkled in this beautiful story. Also, we have science and rationality. And when you look back after you’re done reading you see why each of those words were written. Why every single incident in the book was necessary. Elif Shafak is not on a creative trip writing about the moon, man’s moods, stars and sherbets. She has thought this story down to every single detail. Every chapter has a name and the reason for the nomenclature of each chapter becomes obvious as soon as you’re done reading it. I found myself reading a chapter and going back to see its name to see why it was named so. It’s incredible.
And then of course, there’s the honour killing and everyone’s take on it. The honour killing is not the central premise of the book, thankfully. The book is about people and how they react to what they don’t understand or can’t understand. More importantly, I think it’s about differences and our inability to accept them. It’s about our being trying to ask us, “How is that person different from what my idea of him should be?” In fact, since it’s about a woman, the book seems to subtly question, “How dare a woman does not behave the way the society expects her to?” And that’s the fundamental concern of this country today. I find it difficult to wrap around my head how women get blamed and shamed for the failings of men. However, that’s not what Shafak addresses in her book. She is not a flag-bearer for the freedom of women from her oppressors. She has just set a story in times when women are considered to be the bearers of honour while men don’t have to uphold a society at all. The story is honest because it makes no concessions about the treatment of women and the hypocrisy of men. It also doesn’t forget the weaknesses of men and the strength of women. Overall, it doesn’t, for even one line, forget that we’re human after all.
I have to make a mention of the colours Shafak has used in the book. Her description of colours is striking. She doesn’t write lavender, fuchsia and turquoise. She writes cobalt-blue, honey-gold, and primrose-pink. Her usage of words to describe a range of an artist’s palette is commendable. Enthralling, even. I never knew I’d be so excited to read about colours in a book full of intricately woven lives. That they lend to the storytelling is like picking up pennies during your walk at midnight.
There is so much one can say about society, honour and family. Most of them failing to uphold their meanings. There is fallacy. Yes, of course. There is hypocrisy. There is rage, misunderstanding and oppression. That’s definitely the end of the spectrum this world is at. We’re a long way from Utopia, and even from heaven. How can one imagine heaven when fraught with such a conundrum of situations we don’t understand or rectify or absolve. Honour, as a book, knows this and that’s why it’s honest. The end of Honour will make you blame God. Certainly, it will. I knew these characters were not real, but after I turned the last page, I clutched the book to myself and hoped it would not have happened and now that it did they would find it in themselves the courage to overcome it. And that’s why I wish I could talk to Scout and ask her what happened when Jem woke up? Did Atticus go back and hold his head high? Or did they meet Boo Radley often after that? And that’s why To Kill a Mockingbird is my favouritest book in the world. Because, although we’re here in this world and claim to get to the moon and back, but frankly, and crudely, we don’t know shit!
Since time immemorial the natives of Mesopotamia had called diamonds ‘The Tears of Gods.’ They believed they were made of the dust that fell from the stars above or from splinters that broke off from lightning bolts on stormy nights. Jamila had even heard some say that they were the crystallized drops of sweat shed every spring when Mother Earth and Father Sky made love. Wild imagination! People let their thoughts run amok when they came across things over which they had little control, as if by inventing stories they could make sense of all that was painfully confusing, including their brief stay in this world. – Honour, Elif Shafak