Monday, 13 September 2021 | Ashish Kaul
“Ye bohot mehenga – This is very expensive,” I said, throwing up my arms as the amused, rather horrified dry fruit seller, with dust smeared all over his clothes, on a handcart stared at me. He asked if I was from India after gathering himself from my economic onslaught. Yes, I acknowledged. “Hindustani mehmaan ke liye sab free hai, Aap sab le jao,” he responded in the most meaningful way with a distinct glimmer in his eyes. I knew he meant every word of his generous offer. Human beings are unique and so is love – it cuts across mortal boundaries like nothing else. Khalid Yusuf (name changed) was a friend for life. He left his cart unattended that day in Kabul to escort me deep inside the spice markets of Kabul, proudly introducing me as his new found friend from India. A decade and a half later, I am on a journey back in time looking for my own Kabuliwala – I hope he is alive.
“Are you sure this is happening? Yes – I want to go!” was my first reaction when I was asked to visit Afghanistan as no one else wanted to. I could see vivid pictures of the war and the glitter of Scud and Patriot missiles flash before my eyes. Having dealt with the terror in my hometown in Kashmir it was easier to brush aside the horrors of war and terrorism. The sense of excitement of visiting Kabul to formalise our presence in Kabul was enough to forget the ordeal of flying with our national carrier and a pre-dusk flight via Delhi. Deep inside, besides the professional hazard of the assignment, for me there was a far greater personal emotional connect to Kabul. I had grown up hearing the tales of valour, courage and honour of Afghans alongside the tales of Ram and other Indian legends. I would like to believe that the tale of ‘Kabuliwala’ immortalised by the legendary Balraj Sahani, is still one of the most endearing tales popular among Indians. All through the 50s and 60s Indian film Industry heavily borrowed from Afghanistan. A quintessential “Tum Kya Karti” Pathan used to be a permanent feature. I had always wanted to be in the land where courage, honour and valour are not merely words but a code of daily existence – something that may appear a stark contrast to the millennials glued to TV news.
A land of incredible and raw beauty is what Afghanistan is. Certainly not like Kashmir which is rich with pristine beauty but with a beauty of third kind I was to experience very soon. The flight from Delhi to Kabul was fun filled, as expected, with the entourage of the late Jagjit Singh, the famous Ghazal singer from India. The flight attendants were generous with the beer cans, hospitality, smiles and for a while I thought it couldn’t be the “Indian” but some private airline. Was it the Afghan effect or the charm of late Jagjeet Singh or a reflection of a surging India? I wondered. I did SMS my friend Jitendra Bhargava who was at the helm of national careers in our organisation back then but he didn’t respond. Perhaps he thought I was pulling his leg; he wasn’t used to such messages from my kind. Anxiety gripped all of us as the flight prepared to land while negotiating snow clad mountains, in the middle of nowhere, in central Asian deserts. First welcome came from mother nature with a chilling 4 degree centigrade rattling us all but I was quick to acclimatise. I was used to much harsher temperatures. We were quickly escorted out of the plane to the exit and there it was, our first brush with humanity and peace in a strife torn country. Camera crews, children and many people greeting us with flowers and adulation. Jagjit Singh was clearly the hero of the moment; he was quite surprised. Next two days Jagjit Singh was loved, mobbed and photographed a billion times more than he ever remembered- men, women and children wanted to touch and feel him and had it not been for the fear of being called kafir ; he was the god who had descended in Kabul to take all their worries away with his magical voice! We left for the Kabul Sarena hotel in a caravan fully manned by about 16 commandos, ready to kill anyone attempting to come anywhere near us. It took a while to sink in that we were state guests.
An incredible civilization beneath barren streets, houses in ruins and dust present a grim reminder of an era gone by. It was something similar to what I had seen in Kashmir; two heavens destroyed by hatred and terrorism. I switched on the TV as I unpacked and to get ready for a state dinner in the night. I was pleasantly surprised to see local news channels along with many music channels with contemporary music. “Taliban had finally gone”, the TV seemed to talk to me. The dinner was attended by almost every important dignitary of the Afghan government along with a few prominent Afghan nationals. However, I remember that night for a different reason. I got to shake hands with my high school alumnus who had made it big – as the President of Afghanistan – Hamid Karzai. Kabul was indeed a part of my life. They all sang praises for the people of India and Indian entertainment industry. While all made merry, Jagjit Singh continued being clicked and clicked. As a typical Mumbaikar, too much of formality started making me restless and I went to the lobby and thought of taking a stroll outside the hotel. I was politely told that I can’t do that, not that it is not safe but they didn’t want to take chances. Taking the armed escort with me was not the kind of stroll I was ever used to. I realised I was going to be a prisoner in a hotel in Kabul during the long nights ahead of me. I had two options as a prisoner, one to be in the restaurant or second one, to be in the party. I created a third one and went into the hotel room and literally waited for the dawn. Over the next few days, we were to have state interactions and also with key opinion makers of a seemingly settled society post the war. The business was launched but I was getting restless now and I had to get out and bingo! Where there is a will there is a way; I found one – how I did that was a secret until now. I went around to the back of the hotel where a section of the boundary wall that had fallen to a missile was being rebuilt. They were busy rebuilding and I just slipped out.
The streets of Kabul were almost like the streets in any remote village in Northern India. Roads did resemble the ones in Mumbai and it was quite comforting to walk on familiar terrain. I kept meandering in the streets and bazaars of Kabul and I was home. Music from Hindi films and posters of Hindi film stars were the most common sight. It was for the first time that I realised the power of Indian entertainment.
(The writer is a media veteran and bestselling author. Views expressed are personal. To be continued…)