Tamim Ansary, Afghan-American since childhood, and author of the very fine Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World through Islamic Eyes  [reviewed here,] released a a novel called The Widow’s Husband the same year. Set in 1841 Afghanistan in the small village of Char Bagh and in Kabul, during the last weeks of the 4 year British occupation, the stories of several actual and fictional characters are woven into an intriguing, if not completely satisfying, tale.
Char Bagh is a small, almost forgotten place, some 6 days away from Kabul by foot and mule back. Ibrahim, a young man, 37 years old, has been elected malik of the village, out of respect for his deceased older brother, and ahead of others who are older and more experienced. Word comes by way of his brother’s widow, Khadija, that her native village, up-river and bigger, is expanding and will soon jeopardize the water supply, and thus, the life of Char Bagh. One of the elders who feels Ibrahim is too young to be malik advocates showing knives, to assert Char Bagh’s determination to hold onto their traditional rights. Ibrahim insists on respect and quiet diplomacy.
Into the dispute comes a wandering holy man, a malang who devotes himself to mystical readings of the great Sufi poet, Rumi, fasting and meditation. After being impressed with his silences, his ability to withstand weather and hunger in his devotion to God, the villagers build him a shelter. When they want to do more for him, he insists on their digging what seems to be a cave but which turns out to be a tunnel to their own water supply, proving once and for all his connection to God.
On the British side is a Lieutenant, who as the saying goes, is advancing to his highest level of incompetency. Rupert Oxley, filled with a desire to prove himself to his father and older brother, is dispatched to India where a drunken remark regarding “Auckland’s Folly” –referring to opinion in England about the Governor General’s maneuverings in Afghanistan– in the presence of the great man himself gets him cashiered from Auckland’s staff and sent to Afghanistan itself.
With the belligerent Lord Palmerston as Queen Victoria’s Foreign Secretary and fears that Russia, under Nicholas I, is pushing south towards the jewel of the Empire, India, the British are trying at every turn to keep the Bear at Bay. Intrigues are conducted with the Persians, who with Russian advisers, have their eyes on the Afghan city of Herat; alliances are hammered out with the fierce, independent and non-Muslim Sikhs of the Punjab; exploratory meetings are carried out with brothers and half-brothers of rival Afghan clans to determine who might best prevent Russian intrusions, and serve British interests.
Prior to Oxley’s arrival, Auckland has marched a large army, including many regiments of Indian Sepoys, into Kabul, with Shah Shuja his choice for King of Afghanistan at the head, chosen over his far more popular rival, Dost Muhammad, who himself was interested in British support but had been deemed “unsuitable.’ Auckland thinks once Shah Shuja is in place all will be well –despite on the ground reports coming from his own officers that ordinary Afghans do not seem very happy with the return of their once before king.
The king is installed. All but one British regiment and 7 Sepoy regiments are returned to India. The natives, as the saying goes, continue to be restless. There are 8 too many British regiments in the country. A vain and arrogant king has been imposed on them. And in a country, not yet a nation, where every man is armed and tied in feudal and kinship relations to and against others — every tribe and family with a beef against the British, and against other tribes and families who have made separate deals, with Islam providing the fervor to wage jihad against the infidel, resistance and rebellion run as fast as the mountain water.
As the ambushes and robberies increase, the unpopular Shah Shuja, saying he knows what the Afghans respect, hangs people publicly, cuts off noses, hands and feet, which does not lessen the fury at him. None of this is fiction.
Shortly after Oxley’s arrival in Kabul, he is sent to Char Bagh where British Intelligence has heard of the malang – a possible secret agent, most likely from Russia! How else can the unrest be explained? Within days, a local girl, already known to be somewhat ‘shameless’, is accosted by the two officers while doing the family wash in the river.
The malang, is not only a holy man. He is a man of ferocious strength. With a walking staff he administers a beating to the two officers who, finally escaping, report a near riot to their superiors in Kabul. Within days the malang is arrested by an armed squad of soldiers and carried off
Ibrahim and a fierce compatriot and his young son, head for Kabul, to plead for the malang’s freedom, hoping Shah Shuja will respect the holy man and release him.
So they enter into the rebellion now ripping like fire through the twisting streets of Kabul. As the book closes, out of any more bad decisions, not knowing how soon more troops might arrive, the British set out with some 4,500 soldiers, 3800 of them Indian Sepoys, and 12,000 wives, children and camp followers, into the high passes in full winter, towards Jalalabad, trying to escape what they fear will be their death if they stay put. They are hounded, shot at by snipers, hacked to death for seven days. One is kept alive to be sent to British forces in Jalalabad, as testimony.
Ansary does a fine job of inserting his created characters into the actual events and people of the time: Auckland, Macnaughton, Mohan Lal, Shah Shuja all make appearances. References to the taking of the Ghazni fortress and raids of the Ghilzais are true to the facts. What may be more interesting for many readers are the details of home-life and decision making in the village, the tension between the Ibrahim’s own wife and his deceased brother’s wife to whom he is both obligated, –to the point of taking her as a second wife– and is strongly attracted. The words of comfort and warning and simple religiosity are both new to our ears, and authentic.
The terrible shame, and cost to the family, after the rape of the daughter –for which she is blamed, beaten and exiled with the animals– may be shocking but rings true to evidence we can read even today, much less 150 years ago.
The love interests of Oxley, and his inept pursuit of them with a fellow officer’s wife, is less rich, even unnecessary perhaps, except to have two love relations unfolding at the same time. And Oxley’s own character flaws prevent him being used to fill us in on the more details of British thinking, tribal tensions, or even the particulars of the rising in Kabul. We know that people are angry at the British, but little is said of how the simmer is brought to a boil — the preaching of the Imams, the jockeying for positions of strength-through-ferocity of clans and sub-clans who often didn’t look alike and didn’t understand each others language — the Kohistanis, Barakzais, Ghilzais, Sadozais and Kizzilbashis. Nor do we learn anything about the Sepoys or the thousands of “camp followers” who came to Kabul with the Army, and who died along with the British, on their way out.
Perhaps it’s asking too much in a novel that concerns itself mostly with the personal relations inside the larger events but in fact some of the real people were very involved in understanding and reacting to the events. The diaries of Lady Florentina Sale, wife of one of the officers, and who was held captive along with 105 others for 9 months following the fall of Kabul, are detailed, prescient and reflective. Such a device might have been used to good effect in enlarging the scope of the novel.
Even with such a quibble, The Widow’s Husband, added a good deal of knowledge I hadn’t had and propelled me into several other books about those 4 years of what is referred to as The First Afghan War. Diana Preston’s recent The Dark Defile: Britain’s Catastrophic Invasion of Afghanistan, 1838-1842, is an excellent companion to Ansary’s novel. She links some of the errors cited at the time, to not only Britain’s second war in Afghanistan, but the one initiated by the United States, supported by the British, in 2001 and still running its terrible course as we close these books.