The art of storytelling is the conduit through which the collective history of a nation is passed on to future generations. It is even more vital in societies that have been rendered voiceless, since it is the only evidence that those people exist and their stories still matter.
99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai is an important book in that regard. Having grown up in the United States, Kochai visited his family in Afghanistan when he was 12 years old. There he met the hostile family guard dog, Budabash, who he was convinced hated him. Budabash escaped and Kochai and his cousins went on a trail to look for him. This event had a lasting impact on him and eventually became the inspiration for his debut novel.
Budabash’s irrational hostility towards the family guest — Kochai — compelled the author to muse on his status as an outsider invading the privacy of his apparent family. This is evident in the story where Marwand, our young protagonist, regularly finds himself to be a misfit while taking a trip from the US to his ancestral village in Afghanistan in 2005.
A coming-of-age story about a boy looking for a dog that bit his finger off in his ancestral Afghan village marks an endearing as well as an undeniably important debut
While there are quite a few novels now that are based in Afghanistan, I wager that not many would be an endearing coming-of-age story about a boy looking for a dog that bit his finger off. Prevailing cultural norms are displayed when, after Budabash viciously bites Marwand’s finger off, the host family is embarrassed and in their desire to make amends, they offer him “a juicebox, a slice of watermelon and Budabash’s life.” Marwand ends up declining all three. This is just one of the many reasons that make this novel unique and undeniably important in today’s world.
Marwand explores the unknown, rugged world he finds himself in with a childish wonderment. Initially, he lists all the weird things he sees in a day. His variegated observations include spotting a cobra pelted to death by six kids, two American helicopters, a drone, 1,226 white lilies and One True God — all in a day’s time. The writing adeptly illustrates everyday life in a war-ravaged country.
Marwand is instructed by his father to follow a strict schedule of lessons while in Logar — at least one page of writing and one chapter of reading every day. This is because the last time he and his two brothers went to Logar, their Pashto got so good that they ended up flunking their English test back in the States. This illustrates the tightrope which bilingual children must walk to hold on to their history, yet also keep up with their present. How tough it is to row two boats at the same time is depicted with effortless accessibility through the ordinary trials faced by the young protagonist.
The hunt for the family dog subsequently evolves into a vibrant tapestry of stories about family and Afghan history. These tales, interwoven in the narrative, at once curl around and hem each other in. While the tales are mostly light-hearted and adventurous, one of the great mysteries of the plot is the fate of Watak, Marwand’s uncle. No one talks much about what happened to him except for the fact that he was executed during the Soviet war by the Russians. The cousins discuss it amongst themselves as a closely guarded family secret and gossip about how everyone only knows bits and pieces, but never the whole thing.
See, Rahmutallah had it in his head that all the boys should finish their schooling, enter the university and raise the family’s name. No more farmers like him and his father, no more lackeys like Ruhollah and Abdul-Abdul. He wanted doctors, engineers, lawyers. The holy trinity of all Afghan ambition. Once upon a time, Gul explained, Rahmutallah Maamaa had his own dreams of being called Doctor Sahib, of opening up a clinic in Naw’e Kaleh, of being the first graduate in the family. But then came the war, the jihad, the flight, and while Rahmutallah’s vision of stethoscopes and inoculations burned up with almost everything else in the country, he wasn’t going to sit back and let the same thing happen with his son and his little brothers, who were also, in a way, though none of them admitted it, like his kids. — Excerpt from the book
The mystery is finally revealed in the unexpected denouement where Marwand is finally told exactly what happened to Watak in a passage written in untranslated Pashto. This was an emotional decision taken by Kochai since this was a precious story of his family, the essence of which he felt could not possibly be captured in English. It also signifies the importance of native language in telling stories that are close to one’s heart and which might get lost in translation. Kochai describes going to Logar as a formative experience for him. Fortunately, reading his book proves to be a similar experience for the reader.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications
99 Nights in Logar
By Jamil Jan Kochai
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 7th, 2019