I still remember that night when my friend N came to my hostel room at the university to see me. She had just returned from her home and had kindly brought back a few priceless presents for me from a place that I had never visited. It is not usually a place that we remember to keep on any bucket list. She had returned from Afghanistan.
As happy as I was to see her after a long time, N announced in her soft sing-song voice that she had brought some Herati saffron for me, some badaam (almonds) and kishmish (raisins). All these she pronounced in a very typical Afghan accent. She took out a beautiful, tiny transparent bottle filled with dark strands of saffron, and fitted with a round, royal looking cap. A golden border beneath the cap, the bottle bore some letters in a script that I could not read.
I was overjoyed. I thanked N profusely for remembering me and for her generosity. I was filled with an almost child-like excitement to hold, what seemed to me, to be something precious and exotic. Now, as news flows in of the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, my mind keeps going back to that night, recalling my friend N, her shining beautiful eyes and her sing-song voice describing for me a place that fascinated me, but that I wasn’t so sure I would ever get to see.
For all those of us who have spent any amount of time at South Asian University, New Delhi, it has been our second home. Established by the eight SAARC countries, including Afghanistan, SAU paved the way for us to experience an ensemble of peoples and unique cultures. It is also where we made memorable friendships with the Afghan students who came to pursue their Masters and PhDs.
At present, when almost every national and international daily carries reports of the Talibani occupation of Afghanistan, accompanied by disturbing visuals of Kabul airport, my mind wanders back to a Sunday dinner, sometime last year in May, when my friend R and I sat opposite each other with our plates stuffed with the Sunday-special chicken biriyani prepared by the mess staff amidst a lockdown with limited supply of resources.
I asked R about Afghanistan and Kabul, and the everyday life of the people there during the pandemic. Most of our Afghan peers had chosen not to go home during the first wave of the pandemic because they decided not to put their families at risk post-travel, as many of them lacked enough space at home to observe a strict quarantine. They had stayed back at the hostel, same as R. He told me that he enjoyed being in India because he had the liberty to not follow many of the restrictions that he otherwise had to abide by back home, since he wasn’t very religious himself, while everyone in his family was devout.
My understanding of Afghanistan is not of a place that has been torn apart repeatedly by diplomatic discussions and political correctness surrounding the ceaseless occupations of the country one after another by forces that have superficially claimed to be either pro-people or pro-human Rights. My recollection of Afghanistan, especially Kabul and Herat, is stitched together from the stories that I heard from my Afghan friends at the university. My imagination of its culture and heritage is coloured by that beautiful dance I had seen the Afghan men perform during the International Mother Language Day celebrations. It is tinted by the amazing scent of the Kabuli Uzbeki (an Afghani pulao made with meat, caramelised carrots and raisins) that I so loved eating at the food stall put up by the Afghan students during the food festival at the university. And why to forget the countless number of trips that I made to Lajpat Nagar in Delhi, simply to gorge on this delicacy coupled with Mantu (Afghani meat dumplings topped with a thick lentil and yogurt sauce).
As the scent of Herati saffron and that delectable Kabuli Uzbeki wafts through my mind once again, I wonder about R and his whereabouts. I have heard from some friends that he is fine. But I have not been able to get in touch with him personally. Meanwhile, I console myself with the thought that N said that she is okay ‘for now’ and that I told her ‘be safe’. But such consolations might be short-lived. N loves to write poetry and she is very vocal. It defines her. I wonder if she will continue to write poetry as the country looks once again, towards life under the Taliban regime.
The Taliban has banned co-education in Herat province. Snippets from Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns that paints a profound picture of life in Afghanistan under the brutal first regime of the Taliban, play in my mind. They provoke my worries. Still, I prevent my fictive fears from marring the facts thus far at hand. I cannot decide however, which is more comforting. I want my Afghan friends to know that they are being remembered in prayers and the warmest of thoughts during this critical time.
Anakshi Pal is a doctoral student at the Department of Sociology, South Asian University (A University Established by SAARC Nations), New Delhi.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty