Upstairs was my bedroom, Baba's room, and his study, also known as "the smoking room," which perpetually smelled of tobacco and cinnamon. Baba and his friends reclined on black leather chairs there after Ali had served dinner. They stuffed their pipes – except Baba always called it "fattening the pipe" – and discussed their favorite three topics: politics, business, soccer. Sometimes I asked Baba if I could sit with them, but Baba would stand in the doorway. "Go on, now," he'd say. "This is grown-ups' time. Why don't you go read one of those books of yours?" He'd close the door, leave me to wonder why it was always grown-ups' time with him. I'd sit by the door, knees drawn to my chest. Sometimes I sat there for an hour, sometimes two, listening to their laughter, their chatter. (2.6)
This is a little heartbreaking. In his devotion to his father, Amir sits by the door of Baba's study for hours. It's easy to see just how central unrequited affection becomes in The Kite Runner. Amir's affection for Baba, which isn't returned, in some ways drives him to betray Hassan. Jealously, as much as cowardice, may motivate Amir to leave Hassan in the alleyway. Here's another example of unrequited affection: Would Sanaubar have slept with Baba if she really loved Ali? What about Amir and Hassan – if Amir stayed as loyal to Hassan as Hassan stayed to him, would the novel change? (Sufficed to say, if Amir didn't betray Hassan, the novel wouldn't be half as interesting.)
Lore has it my father once wrestled a black bear in Baluchistan with his bare hands. If the story had been about anyone else, it would have been dismissed as laaf, that Afghan tendency to exaggerate – sadly, almost a national affliction; if someone bragged that his son was a doctor, chances were the kid had once passed a biology test in high school. But no one ever doubted the veracity of any story about Baba. And if they did, well, Baba did have those three parallel scars coursing a jagged path down his back. I have imagined Baba's wrestling match countless times, even dreamed about it. And in those dreams, I can never tell Baba from the bear. (3.1)
When Shmoop writes its own novel we're going to begin it with the following sentence: "Lore has it my father once wrestled a black bear in Baluchistan with his bare hands." How amazing is that sentence? It's pretty amazing. Amir even goes on to argue this tale is not typical Afghan storytelling and exaggeration. Jeez Louise, Baba sounds like a stud. Imagine if you heard a story about how your father wrestled with a bear when you were a kid. You'd probably alternately fear and adore the guy, just like Amir. But things aren't all rosy in this bear-wrestling world of ours. Amir begins to dream of his father and the bear; and in the dreams he can't tell which figure is his father and which is the bear. Sounds to me like somebody's father is getting a little scary. We mean, a bear is the closest thing to a monster in the wild, besides maybe a rhino or a mutant gorilla.
I read it to him in the living room by the marble fireplace. No playful straying from the words this time; this was about me! Hassan was the perfect audience in many ways, totally immersed in the tale, his face shifting with the changing tones in the story. When I read the last sentence, he made a muted clapping sound with his hands.
"Mashallah, Amir agha. Bravo!" He was beaming.
"You liked it?" I said, getting my second taste – and how sweet it was – of a positive review.
"Some day, Inshallah, you will be a great writer," Hassan said. "And people all over the world will read your stories."
"You exaggerate, Hassan," I said, loving him for it.
"No. You will be great and famous," he insisted. (4.52-57)
If we were to ask you (we're asking you) who admires whom in The Kite Runner, how would you respond? Your first answer would surely be: Amir admires Baba. Most of the events in the novel happen because Amir never gets the love he needs from Baba. Amir's jealousy of Hassan drives him to do some pretty terrible things. But don't forget the other story of devotion and admiration in The Kite Runner: Hassan's unflagging admiration for Amir.
Baba smoked his pipe and talked. I pretended to listen. But I couldn't listen, not really, because Baba's casual little comment had planted a seed in my head: the resolution that I would win that winter's tournament. I was going to win. There was no other viable option. I was going to win, and I was going to run that last kite. Then I'd bring it home and show it to Baba. Show him once and for all that his son was worthy. Then maybe my life as a ghost in this house would finally be over. I let myself dream: I imagined conversation and laughter over dinner instead of silence broken only by the clinking of silverware and the occasional grunt. I envisioned us taking a Friday drive in Baba's car to Paghman, stopping on the way at Ghargha Lake for some fried trout and potatoes. We'd go to the zoo to see Marjan the lion, and maybe Baba wouldn't yawn and steal looks at his wristwatch all the time. Maybe Baba would even read one of my stories. I'd write him a hundred if I thought he'd read one. Maybe he'd call me Amir jan like Rahim Khan did. (6.45)
We're getting a little choked up. Seriously, it's tough to hear how much Amir craves his father's attention. Amir wants the following, in no particular order: to not be a ghost in his house; to be worthy in his father's eyes; to talk to his father at dinner; to go on outings with his father; to have his father's attention on these outings; to hear his father express affection for him. However, we wonder if Baba's to blame. Baba must spend a great deal of his energy trying to both show and hide his love for his other son Hassan. It's a case of colossal confusion, miscommunication, and silence.
It happened just the way I'd imagined. I opened the door to the smoky study and stepped in. Baba and Rahim Khan were drinking tea and listening to the news crackling on the radio. Their heads turned. Then a smile played on my father's lips. He opened his arms. I put the kite down and walked into his thick hairy arms. I buried my face in the warmth of his chest and wept. Baba held me close to him, rocking me back and forth. In his arms, I forgot what I'd done. And that was good. (7.148)
Amir finally wins his father's admiration but we're pretty sure this actually isn't the way he imagined it would happen. Sure, this passage has all the trappings of a good father-son hug. "I'm so proud of you, son!" the father might even say. But you should dig a little deeper. Just under the surface there's a further connection between Baba and Amir. On one level, Baba celebrates Amir's athleticism and courage in the kite tournament. The boy is finally acting like a man. But on another level, Amir has just committed a hefty betrayal on the same level as Baba's infidelity with Sanaubar. The two are now bound by guilt and sin and that's not healthy.
"We won! We won!" was all I could say. This wasn't happening. In a moment, I'd blink and rouse from this beautiful dream, get out of bed, march down to the kitchen to eat breakfast with no one to talk to but Hassan. Get dressed. Wait for Baba. Give up. Back to my old life. Then I saw Baba on our roof. He was standing on the edge, pumping both of his fists. Hollering and clapping. And that right there was the single greatest moment of my twelve years of life, seeing Baba on that roof, proud of me at last. (7.50)
Although we're happy for Amir, Shmoop's Department of Child Psychology firmly believes it's not a good thing if the child has to win his father's affection. Amir wins the kite tournament and returns to Baba's study with the infamous blue kite. He does gain his father's affection – for a little while. Amir's newfound closeness with Baba will last only a brief time. The sacrifices Amir makes (or has Hassan makes) will haunt him for much of his life.
That summer of 1983, I graduated from high school at the age of twenty, by far the oldest senior tossing his mortarboard on the football field that day. I remember losing Baba in the swarm of families, flashing cameras, and blue gowns. I found him near the twenty-yard line, hands shoved in his pockets, camera dangling on his chest. He disappeared and reappeared behind the people moving between us: squealing blue-clad girls hugging, crying, boys high-fiving their fathers, each other. Baba's beard was graying, his hair thinning at the temples, and hadn't he been taller in Kabul? He was wearing his brown suit – his only suit, the same one he wore to Afghan weddings and funerals – and the red tie I had bought for his fiftieth birthday that year. Then he saw me and waved. Smiled. He motioned for me to wear my mortarboard, and took a picture of me with the school's clock tower in the background. I smiled for him – in a way, this was his day more than mine. He walked to me, curled his arm around my neck, and gave my brow a single kiss. "I am moftakhir, Amir," he said. Proud. His eyes gleamed when he said that and I liked being on the receiving end of that look. (11.31)
Does the immigration to America reverse Baba and Amir's roles? Certainly, Amir has an easier time adapting to their new country. And Baba's once-imposing stature diminishes as he works long hours at a low-paying job. The last time we saw Baba proud of Amir, Amir had just won the kite tournament. Baba's admiration for Amir, in that case, lasted only a short time. We suspect, however, that things change permanently at this point. Baba waits around to take a picture of Amir, lost in the crowd. Even more significant is the fact that Amir "liked being on the receiving end of that look." This isn't the longing Amir once had for his father's admiration.
Just one month after we arrived in the U.S., Baba found a job off Washington Boulevard as an assistant at a gas station owned by an Afghan acquaintance – he'd started looking for work the same week we arrived. Six days a week, Baba pulled twelve-hour shifts pumping gas, running the register, changing oil, and washing windshields. I'd bring him lunch sometimes and find him looking for a pack of cigarettes on the shelves, a customer waiting on the other side of the oil-stained counter, Baba's face drawn and pale under the bright fluorescent lights. The electronic bell over the door would ding-dong when I walked in, and Baba would look over his shoulder, wave, and smile, his eyes watering from fatigue. (11.28)
This Baba certainly isn't the bear-wrestling, pipe-smoking legend of the first third of the novel. Baba works long hours at a gas station, serving customers, tied to the scourge of all retail salespersons: the electronic bell. Do you think Amir still admires Baba – or has Baba's stature significantly diminished in Amir's eyes? We admire Baba's work ethic and determination. But we also think the magic aura surrounding Baba has disappeared. He seems normal now. He's no longer the all-powerful father driving a Ford Mustang from Bullitt. In fact, now he's working at a filling station pumping gas into other people's cars.
"Hey, man, this guy needs help!" the Filipino man said with alarm. I turned around and found Baba on the ground. His arms and legs were jerking.
"Komak!" I cried. "Somebody help!" I ran to Baba. He was frothing at the mouth, the foamy spittle soaking his beard. His upturned eyes showed nothing but white.
People were rushing to us. I heard someone say seizure. Some one else yelling, "Call 911!" I heard running footsteps. The sky darkened as a crowd gathered around us.
Baba's spittle turned red. He was biting his tongue. I kneeled beside him and grabbed his arms and said I'm here Baba, I'm here, you'll be all right, I'm right here. As if I could soothe the convulsions out of him. Talk them into leaving my Baba alone. I felt a wetness on my knees. Saw Baba's bladder had let go. Shhh, Baba jan, I'm here. Your son is right here. (12.135-138)
We included this quote to show you just how different the Baba of Fremont, California is from the Baba of Kabul, Afghanistan. We feel for Baba when his bladder fails him. This would be unimaginable for the bear-fighter from Afghanistan; the Baba from Kabul wouldn't tolerate his son's tears, much less any weakness displayed by himself. (Not that getting a fatal illness somehow suggests weakness in a person – but the Baba of Kabul, Afghanistan would see it that way.)
As words from the Koran reverberated through the room, I thought of the old story of Baba wrestling a black bear in Baluchistan. Baba had wrestled bears his whole life. Losing his young wife. Raising a son by himself. Leaving his beloved homeland, his watan. Poverty. Indignity. In the end, a bear had come that he couldn't best. But even then, he had lost on his own terms. (13.51)
Somehow, during Amir's childhood, and while they lived in Afghanistan, death and illness never seemed like threats to someone like Baba. The wild forces of nature (a.k.a. a bear) couldn't contend with Baba – so why should a disease pose any threat? But once these things do happen to Baba, he starts to seem very human. It's possible, though, that because Baba ages and has trouble adapting to life in America, Amir is able to reconcile with his past. This man who towered over Amir reveals a more human side, which might help Amir accept his own failings.