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The Kite Runner: Page 9
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This time, though, it
seemed he was telling the truth.
Baba never missed Hassan's birthday. For a while, he used to ask Hassan
what he wanted, but he gave up doing that because Hassan was always too
modest to actually suggest a present. So every winter Baba picked something out
himself. He bought him a Japanese toy truck one year, an electric locomotive and
train track set another year. The previous year, Baba had surprised Hassan with
a leather cowboy hat just like the one Clint Eastwood wore in _The Good, the
Bad, and the Ugly_-which had unseated _The Magnificent Seven_ as our favorite
Western. That whole winter, Hassan and I took turns wearing the hat, and belted
out the film's famous music as we climbed mounds of snow and shot each other
We took off our gloves and removed our snow-laden boots at the front
door. When we stepped into the foyer, we found Baba sitting by the wood-
burning cast-iron stove with a short, balding Indian man dressed in a brown suit
and red tie.
"Hassan," Baba said, smiling coyly, "meet your birthday present."
Hassan and I traded blank looks. There was no gift-wrapped box in sight.
No bag. No toy. Just Ali standing behind us, and Baba with this slight Indian
fellow who looked a little like a mathematics teacher.
The Indian man in the brown suit smiled and offered Hassan his hand. "I
am Dr. Kumar," he said. "It's a pleasure to meet you." He spoke Farsi with a thick,
rolling Hindi accent.
"_Salaam alaykum_," Hassan said uncertainly. He gave a polite tip of the
head, but his eyes sought his father behind him. Ali moved closer and set his
hand on Hassan's shoulder.
Baba met Hassan's wary-and puzzled-eyes. "I have summoned Dr.
Kumar from New Delhi. Dr. Kumar is a plastic surgeon."
"Do you know what that is?" the Indian man-Dr. Kumar-said.
Hassan shook his head. He looked to me for help but I shrugged. All I
knew was that you went to a surgeon to fix you when you had appendicitis. I
knew this because one of my classmates had died of it the year before and the
teacher had told us they had waited too long to take him to a surgeon. We both
looked to Ah, but of course with him you could never tell. His face was impassive
as ever, though something sober had melted into his eyes.
"Well," Dr. Kumar said, "my job is to fix things on people's bodies.
Sometimes their faces."
"Oh," Hassan said. He looked from Dr. Kumar to Baba to Ali. His hand
touched his upper lip. "Oh," he said again.
"It's an unusual present, I know," Baba said. "And probably not what you
had in mind, but this present will last you forever."
"Oh," Hassan said. He licked his lips. Cleared his throat. "Agha sahib, will
it... will it--"
"Nothing doing," Dr. Kumar intervened, smiling kindly. "It will not hurt
you one bit. In fact, I will give you a medicine and you will not remember a
"Oh," Hassan said. He smiled back with relief. A little relief anyway. "I
wasn't scared, Agha sahib, I just..." Hassan might have been fooled, but I wasn't. I
knew that when doctors said it wouldn't hurt, that's when you knew you were in
trouble. With dread, I remembered my circumcision the year prior. The doctor
had given me the same line, reassured me it wouldn't hurt one bit. But when the
numbing medicine wore off later that night, it felt like someone had pressed a
red hot coal to my loins. Why Baba waited until I was ten to have me circumcised
was beyond me and one of the things I will never forgive him for.
I wished I too had some kind of scar that would beget Baba's sympathy. It
wasn't fair. Hassan hadn't done anything to earn Baba's affections; he'd just been
born with that stupid harelip.
The surgery went well. We were all a little shocked when they first
removed the bandages, but kept our smiles on just as Dr. Kumar had instructed
us. It wasn't easy, because Hassan's upper lip was a grotesque mesh of swollen,
raw tissue. I expected Hassan to cry with horror when the nurse handed him the
mirror. Ah held his hand as Hassan took a long, thoughtful look into it. He
muttered something I didn't understand. I put my ear to his mouth. He
whispered it again.
"_Tashakor_." Thank you.
Then his lips twisted, and, that time, I knew just what he was doing. He
was smiling. Just as he had, emerging from his mother's womb.
The swelling subsided, and the wound healed with time. Soon, it was just
a pink jagged line running up from his lip. By the following winter, it was only a
faint scar. Which was ironic. Because that was the winter that Hassan stopped
Here is what I do on the first day of snowfall every year: I step out of the
house early in the morning, still in my pajamas, hugging my arms against the
chill. I find the driveway, my father's car, the walls, the trees, the rooftops, and
the hills buried under a foot of snow. I smile. The sky is seamless and blue, the
snow so white my eyes burn. I shovel a handful of the fresh snow into my mouth,
listen to the muffled stillness broken only by the cawing of crows. I walk down
the front steps, barefoot, and call for Hassan to come out and see.
Winter was every kid's favorite season in Kabul, at least those whose
fathers could afford to buy a good iron stove. The reason was simple: They shut
down school for the icy season. Winter to me was the end of long division and
naming the capital of Bulgaria, and the start of three months of playing cards by
the stove with Hassan, free Russian movies on Tuesday mornings at Cinema
Park, sweet turnip _qurma_ over rice for lunch after a morning of building
And kites, of course. Flying kites. And running them.
For a few unfortunate kids, winter did not spell the end of the school year.
There were the so-called voluntary winter courses. No kid I knew ever
volunteered to go to these classes; parents, of course, did the volunteering for
them. Fortunately for me, Baba was not one of them. I remember one kid,
Ahmad, who lived across the street from us. His father was some kind of doctor, I
think. Ahmad had epilepsy and always wore a wool vest and thick black-rimmed
glasses-he was one of Assef's regular victims. Every morning, I watched from my
bedroom window as their Hazara servant shoveled snow from the driveway,
cleared the way for the black Opel. I made a point of watching Ahmad and his
father get into the car, Ahmad in his wool vest and winter coat, his schoolbag
filled with books and pencils. I waited until they pulled away, turned the corner,
then I slipped back into bed in my flannel pajamas. I pulled the blanket to my
chin and watched the snowcapped hills in the north through the window.
Watched them until 1 drifted back to sleep.
I loved wintertime in Kabul. I loved it for the soft pattering of snow
against my window at night, for the way fresh snow crunched under my black
rubber boots, for the warmth of the cast-iron stove as the wind screeched
through the yards, the streets. But mostly because, as the trees froze and ice
sheathed the roads, the chill between Baba and me thawed a little. And the
reason for that was the kites. Baba and I lived in the same house, but in different
spheres of existence. Kites were the one paper thin slice of intersection between
EVERY WINTER, districts in Kabul held a kite-fighting tournament. And if you
were a boy living in Kabul, the day of the tournament was undeniably the
highlight of the cold season. I never slept the night before the tournament.
from side to side, make shadow animals on the wall, even sit on the balcony in
the dark, a blanket wrapped around me. I felt like a soldier trying to sleep in the
trenches the night before a major battle. And that wasn't so far off. In Kabul,
fighting kites was a little like going to war.
As with any war, you had to ready yourself for battle. For a while, Hassan
and I used to build our own kites. We saved our weekly allowances in the fall,
dropped the money in a little porcelain horse Baba had brought one time from
Herat. When the winds of winter began to blow and snow fell in chunks, we
undid the snap under the horse's belly. We went to the bazaar and bought
bamboo, glue, string, and paper. We spent hours every day shaving bamboo for
the center and cross spars, cutting the thin tissue paper which made for easy
dipping and recovery And then, of course, we had to make our own string, or tar.
If the kite was the gun, then _tar_, the glass-coated cutting line, was the bullet in
the chamber. We'd go out in the yard and feed up to five hundred feet of string
through a mixture of ground glass and glue. We'd then hang the line between the
trees, leave it to dry.
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