Even before we pick up a book, we have some fair idea of how it is going to affect us. Though I knew Snow by Orhan Pamuk was a story about the religious and political conflict in a remote town in Turkey, I hadn’t expected the book to lead me into such intense inner turmoil and emotional conflict.
It took more than an entire month to read Snow. After a long time, it was this novel that made me sit and take down notes and jot down my thoughts and feelings after every single page. For the first time, a book made me question my own convictions and motives. Snow affected me.
I’m not very good at writing reviews for a book. A book either works for you or it doesn’t. How does one go about breaking it down into the components that actually worked for them? If it’s a bad book, I might be able to tell you why it is bad but when it comes to those that are good, I can only scratch my head, fluster a bit and splutter some nonsense that exhibits my ignorance.
Then, there are books like Snow, for which I wouldn’t even try to muster up the courage or audacity to write a review. Instead, let me just share some excerpts from the book and my thoughts regarding the same.
“The only people who worry about needless suffering are atheists who’ve never suffered a thing,” says Kadife, an important character in the book. “Because, after all, it takes only the tiniest discomfort for atheists to decide that they can’t bear life without faith anymore, and the next thing you know they’ve returned to the fold.”
My thoughts: Does that mean all those who believe in God accept needless suffering as a part and parcel of existence? Does that mean religion, like stoicism, is just a philosophy that teaches us how to cope with suffering? Also, does that mean all those who remain atheist in the world have never suffered? What about those who turn atheist after they are unable to bear any more suffering? Are they ‘saved’?
In Snow, Kadife also says: “I’m not going to discuss my faith with an atheist, or even a secularist.”
Do secularism and atheism go hand-in-hand? Can I not believe in my God and believe that he is equal to the other gods? If I believe in God, does that mean I must also believe in the superiority of my God over others? Also, if I believe in the equality of all gods, then does that mean that I’m not a faithful believer?
Another passage in the book: “There are two kinds of Communists: the arrogant ones, who enter the fray hoping to make men out of the people and bring progress to the nation; and the innocent ones, who get involved because they believe in equality and justice. The arrogant ones are obsessed with power; they presume to think for everyone; only bad can come of them. But the innocents? The only harm they do is to themselves. But that’s all they ever wanted in the first place. They feel so guilty about the suffering of the poor, and are so keen to share it, that they make their lives miserable on purpose.”
My first thought on reading this extended to all those communists that I know personally and how they make their entire lives miserable because they see the suffering of the other half of the world and want to share it. I know those who refuse to cut a cake on their birthdays because there are many who have never tasted cake in their lives. I wondered out aloud if this is what the author meant in the passage. My husband overheard me. He was shocked that I had such a narrow idea of the suffering of communists. That’s when I realized the communists that the author was referring to were the ones that I read about in Neil Mukerjee’s ‘The Lives of Others’ — those poor misguided youngsters who want to do something, anything to uplift the lives of the unfortunate ones and end up losing their lives in the bargain.
The Head Scarf Girls
Just as I was struggling with the questions surrounding secularism, atheism and communism, Pamuk introduced me to the headscarf girls. We associate Muslim women with oppression and backwardness. We feel that they are suppressed and are prey to male privilege and patriarchy. One of the main reasons for this is the purdah or headscarf that these women wear. Since it is something different from what we are used to, we consider it as a mark of suppression. However, this could just be something that they are accustomed to, right from childhood. Could it be that we have no right to ask them to take it off, just like how those men have no right to ask them to don one?
This is the situation that the college students of Kars face. The State orders them that they will not be allowed into the college if they wear their headscarf. However, these girls have been wearing one since childhood. Let us imagine that the Indian government orders all women would be allowed in college only if they wear a bikini and let us imagine that you’ve never worn one and would feel exposed and scandalised if you are forced to wear one. This is exactly what these girls feel when asked to remove their headscarf. This is an extreme example but these girls have grown up in such conservative environments that the comparison is justified.
Orhan Pamuk asks succinctly: “Is God greater than the State or is the State greater than God?”
As Pamuk says, “When a girl has accepted the headscarf as the word of God and the symbol of faith, it’s very difficult for her to take it off.” The only way out is suicide but the girls face a challenge in that too—a devout Muslim would never commit suicide. Still, the girls continue killing themselves one after the other. As one of the characters in the story explains, the reason why the girls commit suicide is the same reason why a rape victim commits suicide: it is a statement to herself and the world that she has control over her body.
Pamuk tells us about Teslime: ‘Teslime held her ground and refused to take off her headscarf. She was about to be expelled from school in her third year of study, just on the verge of graduating. Her father is threatened that his grocery store would be shut and he will be thrown out of Kars if his daughter does not go to school scarfless. The father threatens to throw the daughter out of the house. Despite all this pressure, she doesn’t agree to go scarfless. So, her marriage is fixed to a 45-year-old policeman who is a widower. The widower starts trying to woo her with flowers and she is scared about the impending danger of marriage. Still, she is unable to remove the headscarf.’
Teslime does the only thing that she can do to show the world that neither the Left nor the Right has a say over her body: she commits suicide. When I read about Teslime, I couldn’t stop the tears flowing down my cheeks. Why is it that a man needs to show his piety or his progressiveness through women? Damn you… Just leave us alone, I screamed silently.
A Simple Beautiful Love Story
Amidst all the chaos and confusion in Snow is the beautiful love story of Ka, the poet, and Ipek, the beautiful, estranged wife of Muhtar. You can’t help it but feel the tug in your heart when Ka pleads, “What can I do to make you love me?”
Ipek replies, “Be yourself.”
Loaded with love in his heart, Ka churns out poetry one after the other. One of the characters asks Ka: “How do you write poems? Isn’t it by concentrating?”
“I have no idea how poems get written,” Ka says. “A good poem always seems to come from outside, from far away.”
That is just how Snow feels. The story is from a land so far away but the characters and the incidents feel so close to home. Pamuk makes his point forcefully. Neither the Right nor the Left should ‘redeem’ or ‘save’ the poor and oppressed if they cannot do it through peaceful means and humanity.
Snow is a highly recommended read.