Sunday, August 1, 2010

Abu Kassem's Slippers

I've been slowly making my way through Cutting for Stone during this busy summer. One section in particular left me awestruck. "Our slippers" is a term that has made its way into our family vernacular.

It was a tale well known to children all over Africa: Abu Kassem, a miserly Baghdad merchant, had held onto his battered, much repaired pair of slippers even though they were objects of derision. At last, even he couldn't stomach the sight of them. But his every attempt to get rid of his slippers ended in disaster: . . . when he dropped them in the canal, the slippers choked off the main drain and caused flooding, and off Abu Kassem went to jail...

"One night when Tawfiq finished, another prisoner, a quiet dignified old man, said, 'Abu Kassem might as well build a special room for his slippers. Why try to lose them? He'll never escape.' The old man laughed, and he seemed happy when he said that. That night the old man died in his sleep.

"The next night, out of respect for the old man, we lay in silence. No story. I could hear men crying in the dark. This was always the low point for me. Ah, boys...I'd pretend you both were against me, just like this, and I would imagine Hema's face before me.

"The following night, we couldn't wait to talk about Abu Kassem. We all saw it the same way. The old man was right. The slippers in the story mean that everything you see and do and touch, very seed you sow, or don't sow, becomes part of your destiny...I met Hema in the septic ward at Government General Hospital in India, in Madras, and that brought me to this continent. Because of that, I got the biggest gift of my life--to be a father to you two. Because of that, I operated on General Mebratu, who became my friend. Because he was my friend, I went to prison. Because I was a doctor, I helped to save him, and they let me out. Because I saved him, they could hang him...You see what I'm saying?"

I didn't, but he spoke with such passion I wasn't about to stop him.

"I never knew my father, and so I thought he was irrelevant to me. My sister felt his absence so strongly that it made her sour, and so no matter what she has, or will ever have, it won't be enough." He sighed. "I made up for his absence by hoarding knowledge, skills, seeking praise. What I finally understood in Kerchele is that neither my sister nor I realized that my father's absence is our slippers. In order to start to get rid of your slippers, you have to admit they are yours, and if you do, then they will get rid of themselves."

All these years and I hadn't known this about Ghosh, about his father dying when he was young. He was like us, fatherless, but at least we had him. Perhaps he'd been worse off than we were.

Ghosh sighed. "I hope one day you see this as clearly as I did in Kerchele. The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don't. If you keep saying your slippers aren't yours, then you'll die searching, you'll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only your actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny."

--Abraham Verghese


Christine said...

I loved this book so much. I always have a top five book list in my mind and I know that this book would have soared to this short list despite the fact that I am adopting from Ethiopia.

I know it, this book is masterful. I think the medical references drew me in at least as much as the Ethiopian references. It's perfect for a nurse adopting from Ethiopia, made for me.

Above all, the book is beautiful and lovingly written and that is what makes it gripping. (I listened to it on CD the first time and I am purposely letting it fade from memory and then will read it in a real book, so much to look forward to.)

jen said...

I'm also reading this book right now. Slowly, I'm reading this book.

Claudia said...

I really enjoyed this book, but found myself rolling my eyes a bit at the end and saying "really? REALLY?" a bit as it veered from gripping human story to almost greek myth. (Not my observation - Ithink that was the guy from the NYT, but I agreed with him, so does that make ME smart??) But it had passages of WONDER, and this was one of them. Thanks for reminding me of it - I had totally forgotten.

Would be interested to know what you think of the ending when you get there. I didn't think it was bad, but I thought it would have been more satisfying if it was less dramatic. Feel free to totally disagree.

Erin Sager said...

beautiful, sounds like your enjoying the book

Kerry said...

Oh Lori,
If you have the self-control to work your way slowly through this book you will do great with two children! I could NOT put it down. Which means I locked the bedroom door leaving my husband to cope with our two littles while I read and read and read.
Enjoy every word of it.