Dec 11, 2023
Dec 11, 2023
(An Afghan Winter Continued)
Over the next few days, Yusuf and I grew to know and understand each other. Part of the reason for this was the sheer amount of time that we spent in each other’s company. He’d come over to my guest house to pick me up in the morning, and we’d be together during the course of the workshop even if I was on the podium and he in the audience, supplementing occasionally the efforts of the interpreter. It was embarrassing for me to have the services of such a qualified, talented and, yes, articulate man – for Yusuf had all these qualities, even if he was a fairly conservative fellow – but I came to accept it as one of life’s occasional bonuses.
After the workshop was over, in the afternoon, Yusuf and I would usually sit together in a small, cosy café in the InterContinental, order some snacks and tea, and talk about this and that. And as the days passed, I was gradually beginning to understand the chaos that was Afghanistan.
Yusuf was unmarried, like me. Nevertheless, he possessed, should I say, a paternalistic outlook towards his niece. Two episodes created this impression in my mind, although as regards the second episode I wasn’t sure if that was the only way of construing it.
* * *
‘If you aren’t in a hurry, Anzan jan,’ Yusuf said, after the workshop was over that day, ‘before I drop you home, could we pass by the UN dispensary on the Jalalabad road? I need to pick up some medicine for my niece.’
‘No hurry. What’s wrong with her?’
‘A skin infection,’ Yusuf said. ‘The doctor has prescribed an ointment for Sajida that’s not available with chemists in Kabul. But a friend who works with the UN clinic on the Jalalabad road says that they have it in stock.’
Yusuf’s car took a turn from the Macrion roundabout and was then on the main Jalalabad road speeding towards the UN Headquarters. A fair amount of traffic, including big, overloaded trucks from Pakistan, but the wide road kept it running smoothly. There were patches on the road where the snow had been cleared, which revealed a thick, black crust, suggesting many layers of tarmac, and it looked as though it would last for years.
‘This road was like a miniature model of Afghanistan until recently,’ Yusuf laughed. ‘Up and down. Up and down. All your body parts would be exercised. Vehicles would rattle and shake.’
We approached a huge blue, grey and white complex of buildings on one side of the road. Armed security guards stood outside a wide sandbagged entrance. Two flags fluttered in the winter breeze: a black, red and green Afghan flag, and next to it, at an equal level, a blue UN flag. Yusuf slowed down and stopped not far from the main entrance.
‘Just give me a few minutes,’ he said as he stepped out of the car. He strode across to the main security gate, appeared to confer with the guards for a few minutes, and then came back with a small brown packet.
‘My friend who works at the UN clinic inside said he’d leave the medicine with the security guards,’ Yusuf said as he climbed back into the car, started the engine and turned the vehicle back towards the main city.
He drove carefully. Thick snow on our side of the road still needed to be cleared. Huge trucks carrying goods from Pakistan, their exteriors painted with crude but colourful designs, further impeded our progress.
‘Is it a rash?’ I asked.
‘Red patches all over her body.’ Yusuf’s voice took on the tone of an anxious father. He passed over the packet of medicines to me.
‘Antibiotics.’ I turned the silver strip over to read the fine print. ‘Pretty strong stuff.’
‘What should I do?’ Yusuf’s forehead was streaked in thought. ‘Sajida has already taken too much medicine. The poor girl just seems to have one misfortune after the other.’
Back in Dharamsala, my mother always tried natural Tibetan medicine on me whenever I fell sick as a child. If that didn’t work, she resorted to indigenous Indian medicine: Ayurveda. But sometimes, when that too failed, she’d try out Western allopathic medicine. ‘Best avoided,’ she’d say, ‘but sometimes unavoidable.’ I grew up with this philosophy engrained in my head.
My fingers groped inside the inner pocket of my jacket and closed in on a small vial of yellow powder. Giloi was magic medicine from the Himalayas, a plant whose leaves were dried and crushed into powder. I usually kept some with me while travelling to keep my stomach in order, but it was said to work on skin infections as well. Possibly fated to cure Sajida.
‘Herbal medicine is useful for skin infections.’ I took out the vial and showed it to Yusuf. ‘Want to try it out?’ I paused. ‘No side effects.’
‘Neki aur puch puch,’ Yusuf responded with an Urdu expression. ‘Asking permission to do me a favour?’
I placed the vial inside the glove compartment.
Yusuf said: ‘I’m going to try that before anything else.’
As the car passed by the European-style Darul Aman Palace – we were taking the scenic route back to my guest house – the winter sun’s rays warmed my face through the glass windows. This was the saving grace of Afghanistan’s freezing winters: unlike in other parts of the world with sub-zero temperatures, here the sun continued to peep out in the afternoons and throw its benevolent gaze on the troubled land.
* * *
The second incident.
We were returning from a meeting with a Finance Ministry bureaucrat for a feature –Yusuf had helped set up the interview – when at the turn towards Mohammadia Street, he slowed down.
‘I need do some shopping for Sajida,’ Yusuf said. ‘Won’t take long.’
‘Sure. What kind of stuff?’ I was thinking text books and writing pads.
I thought girls everywhere liked to buy their own clothes, so I was surprised. But perhaps this was a standard, generic item.
‘A burkha?’ Younger girls sometimes wore white burkhas here but switched to the common blue as they grew older or got married.
‘No, no,’ he said. ‘I don’t support the wearing of burkha at all. When I marry I don’t want my wife to wear one.’
‘And if she’d insist on wearing one?’
Yusuf said: ‘You are right, there are women like that. I will make an assessment before I agree to marry someone like that. Last week I turned down a marriage proposal only for this reason.’
‘How did you get to know?’
‘I met this girl for about five minutes. She comes from a prominent family of landowners near Kandahar. I asked her if she had any questions. She said she was very religious.’
‘So I asked her what she meant. And she asked if I had a television in the house. And I said yes. She said she was against the watching of television.’
‘Yes.’ He grinned. ‘And then I asked if there was anything else? And she asked if I didn’t think my beard was too short. I said, no, I didn’t think so. She didn’t look pleased with my answer.’
I said: ‘You’ve had a narrow escape, my friend. It was a good job that she wasn’t so conservative that she wouldn’t even talk to a man before marriage.’
‘She wouldn’t have spoken to me,’ he laughed, ‘if I hadn’t insisted.’
We had reached the market. In front of us stood several large shops selling tyres and auto parts. A few lanes penetrated the deceptive façade; the bazaar for women’s clothing lay concealed behind. Yusuf parked the car in the space between a vegetable vendor and a fruit stall.
As we walked through one of the lanes, Yusuf elaborated: ‘The Prophet only spoke of modesty. That the woman should dress modestly. There is no mention anywhere in the Holy Quran of the burkha.’
We stopped in front of a shop displaying blue burkhas and scarves.
Yusuf pointed to a pale blue scarf. ‘Now that’s sober but also elegant. I favour the hijab for Muslim women in general.’
‘So is it scarves we are looking for?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Underwear.’
‘How old is your niece?’ I was thinking brassieres now, and was intrigued that this task hadn’t been delegated to a lady in the house.
‘Twelve,’ he said, ‘going on thirteen, still very young – I need only three or four, you know, below the waist. ’
‘Panties, you mean.’ We stopped outside one of the shops.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said. ‘She’s run out.’
We entered one of the shops selling women’s clothing. A narrow entrance barely three time a man’s width but the establishment stretched long inside.
Yusuf said: ‘Let’s leave this place.’
‘I don’t like it.’
Yusuf was the one making purchases, not me, even if I doubted his expertise in female lingerie. I followed him outside.
We entered a second shop and then a third one. Yusuf’s reaction was similar in both places. Clearly, he was seeing something that I wasn’t. Something that helped him to make up his mind with split-second decisiveness.
My irritation at our frequent, unexplained exits was tempered with curiosity and an awareness that frustration was building up in my companion.
‘Why are you going away, sir?’ A young attendant in a blue waistcoat came running behind us as we withdrew from the next shop. ‘Are you looking for something special? We have a great many things in our warehouse that are not displayed here?’
‘And there are some things you display here that were better kept in your warehouse.’ Yusuf glared at the fellow.
The man’s brow creased but he remained quiet.
‘Do you know why we are leaving?’ Yusuf barked in Dari.
‘No.’ The man spread out his palms in a gesture of helplessness.
‘We are leaving,’ Yusuf said, ‘because my friend and I refuse to buy anything from such an immoral establishment.’ The shopkeeper and I followed Yusuf’s gaze directed at a pink mannequin dressed in bra and panties standing at a corner of the shop.
‘Oh, sir,’ the man protested, ‘this is only to show …’ His voice trailed off as he saw Yusuf’s reddening face.
‘Tell me something –’ Yusuf put his hands on his waist and tilted his bearded chin. ‘How would you feel if your own sister came to shop in such a place?’
At this uncalled-for reference to a close member of his family, the salesman, who was plaintive and placating till now, quickly drew himself up in readiness for conflict. Hearing raised voices, two other young lads working in the shop came out to see what was happening. The whole episode was threatening to escalate into a full-blown fight.
‘Let’s just move on.’ Finally showing some of my own impatience, I pushed Yusuf forward, and with my face turned towards the staring shopkeeper mouthed apologies.
After some initial resistance from Yusuf, who wished to return and continue the argument, we moved off along the street. Another few shops down the street we found one that didn’t display any underdressed models. The tired-looking shopkeeper took the size number from Yusuf with a minimum display of enthusiasm, and rapidly pulled out some dull grey underpants. In less than two minutes we were done.
‘If ever I bring my mother or niece here,’ Yusuf said, as we made our way back to where our car was parked, ‘I am going to ask them to wait outside. Just to make sure everything is decent inside before I allow them to enter.’
* * *
‘Come to my house for lunch on Friday.’
We were watching a ‘Mr Kabul’ contest on the small-screen television inside the InterContinental’s coffee shop; Kabul had more than its share of body-building centres. There was still half an hour left before the workshop’s afternoon session resumed.
‘Any special occasion?’ I said.
‘The first – good news about Sajida.’ Yusuf smiled happily. ‘That medicine you gave me. It worked like magic. Not even a pimple on her face now.’
I was pleased.
‘We are brothers now,’ he said, clasping my hand in both of his. ‘If ever there is an occasion for me to do something for you, please do give me the opportunity.’
‘What’s the second reason?’
‘I’ll tell you about it when you come.’
Clearly, Yusuf held a special affection for his niece. I was curious to meet her.
Stoned on Spinach
Chapter 18 of An Afghan Winter
Yusuf’s flat was on the second floor in a place known as Macrion. A large neighbourhood, its four-storey blocks were built during the time of the Russian occupation. Originally designed to be representative of working-class housing, it was ironically enough now considered a fairly upmarket area within Kabul.
I hailed a yellow cab from outside the guest house to reach the apartment a little after noon, ten minutes past the appointed time – mixing Afghan expectations of lateness with my own over-punctual habits.
Yusuf opened the door within seconds of my having pressed the bell, as if he was just behind the door.
‘Welcome, Anzan jan, welcome,’ he boomed; clearly he had expected me to be punctual.
He ushered me into a sparsely furnished living room with jute matting spread on the carpeted floor. The bars of two electric heaters burned orange. A carved wooden three-seater sofa stood against the wall; it was my guess that matching chairs had been removed and kept elsewhere to allow space for the dastar khan, the jute matting on which we would sit and have our meal. A large television stood in the corner of the room.
‘Please make yourself comfortable.’
As I sat down on the sofa, and he plumped a couple of cushions behind my back. I felt as though I was being accorded a Pasha’s welcome.
Yusuf’s mother entered, accompanied by a young girl, whom I guessed to be Sajida.
Both Yusuf and I were roughly the same age, in our early thirties. I realised my error in expecting his mother to be in the same age group as my own. This was a region where large families predominated and he probably had an elder brother who was close to my father’s age. From her heavily lined face, shrunken body and slight stoop, I judged the mother to be in her eighties.
Sajida, too, was different from what I’d expected. Small sized, she was inordinately shy for someone almost in her teens. She stood hiding behind her grandmother, clutching the octogenarian’s arm. There was something more disturbing. Her glassy stare suggested that her vision – and even her mind – was ever so slightly out of focus. And for a child of her age, she looked sad, terribly sad.
Yusuf patted the space next to him on the sofa. Eyes downcast, she walked across with a slow, measured tread to join him there.
‘Asalam-o-alakum,’ I greeted the old lady
‘Tashakor,’ she responded. ‘Thank you. Az kujo hasten? Where are you from?’
‘India,’ I said.
She clearly didn’t understand.
‘India,’ Yusuf repeated. ‘Hindoostan.’
‘Ah, Hindoostan.’ She laughed softly, exposing a gummy mouth and missing teeth. ‘Take care of your friend.’ A pre-emptive admonishment meant for Yusuf’s ears.
There was genuine warmth here, even if it had been a brief interaction. I was embarrassed to have her cook for us grown men at her age, but knew better than to intervene in their domestic arrangements.
Yusuf’s mother left us then to go to the kitchen to finish her preparations. Despite her apparent frailty, there was energy in her movements that belied her age. It was her granddaughter who walked like an old woman.
‘Sajida. Anzan.’ Yusuf introduced us. I stretched out my hand to shake hers, but she shrank back.
‘Go on,’ Yusuf cajoled her. ‘Take his hand. It’s okay. He’s your uncle’s friend.’
And persuaded, she moved her hand forward, held mine for a few seconds and gave me the barest glimpse of a smile, which quickly disappeared like an apparition.
Yusuf said: ‘Do you want to help your grandmother, Sajida?’
She stood up self-consciously, and with the slow but jumpy motions of a robot left the room and went towards the kitchen.
Yusuf stood up and closed the door, blocking our view of the kitchen.
‘A bit of privacy.’ He smiled and sat down.
‘Would you like to watch the news?’ Yusuf offered. ‘No, of course not,’ he corrected himself. ‘You probably see enough of it in your guest house.’
‘The difference being here,’ I said, ‘is that more often than not the main headline in the national news is the same as that in the international news.’
Yusuf said: ‘I remember standing on the balcony and watching television sets being hurled from some of the apartments to fall broken on the ground outside.’
‘The time when the Taliban were in power?’
‘Yes. The Taliban would search the houses for television sets and destroy any that were found.’
‘Radio was permitted, but no music.’
There was a knock on the door.
Yusuf stood up and went to fetch our meal.
‘No,’ he said, pressing me down as I tried to rise to help. ‘You are my guest. You can get up only when it’s time to eat.’
The food had been arranged in bowls and plates. There was Indian-style yellow dhal embellished with tomatoes and garlic, mantos stuffed with chicken – a culinary preparation common to Afghans and Tibetans, although they prepared it differently back home in Dharamsala – and spinach with a peppering of potatoes and peanuts that looked curiously different. And there was the foot-long Afghan bread neatly sliced into manageable portions.
Yusuf said: ‘I’m sure you are very tired of hotel and guest house food by now, Anzan bhai.’
‘I am indeed.’ I took a plate and started to help myself to the food. ‘So what’s the second bit of news?’
‘The second news?’
‘You said that there were two reasons for this lunch.’
‘I have got engaged.’ Yusuf began to transfer food onto his plate now.
‘Is the girl from Kabul – or somewhere in the South?’
‘From the North, actually. She’s Tajik.’
‘Have you met her?’
‘Only once,’ he said. ‘But we had a long chat.’
‘If you don’t mind my asking, how come you want to marry a Tajik?’
Yusuf was silent for a while, and then he said, ‘There are many reasons.’
‘Didn’t your mother want you to marry a Pashtun girl?’
‘The truth of the matter,’ said Yusuf, ‘is that many male Pashtuns prefer to marry Tajik women. This is true, even in the royal families. Do you know that Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, couldn’t even speak Pashto, our language?’
‘Wasn’t he a Pashtun?’
‘He certainly was. In the last hundred years of Afghanistan’s history, all the kings and rulers – with hardly any exceptions – have been Pashtuns.’
‘And this king couldn’t even speak Pashto, his mother tongue?’
‘Zahir Shah’s mother’s tongue was not Pashto. She was Tajik. The Pashtun male is so hard that often he wants a softer person as his companion. Tajik women are more feminine and submissive.’
‘Better looking too?’
Yusuf shook his head. ‘If you’re looking for beauty, the blue-eyed ladies from Nuristan surpass all others.’ He spooned the vegetable dish onto my plate. ‘This is special spinach. You won’t find it anywhere else in the world.’
‘What’s special? And why won’t I find it elsewhere?’
‘Eat, and you’ll find out.’
‘So you prefer softness of nature to sharpness of feature?’ I brought the subject back to his engagement. ‘Couldn’t you have both?’
‘Times change, and with it our priorities,’ Yusuf said. ‘At one time I was engaged to a very beautiful Pashtun woman.’ He paused, as if dredging up something painful from the past. ‘It was in the Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar. We’d arrived only a couple of years previously and my family knew this family very well. They had just one daughter, a very pretty one. We sent in our proposal, they accepted, and I became officially engaged to her.’
‘Isn’t that generally the end of the matter?’
‘In most cases, yes,’ Yusuf agreed, ‘but the girl’s father had an elder brother settled in the US, and he helped his brother and his family to move there. Once they reached America, they decided to break off the engagement.’
‘Is it that simple to break off an engagement?’ I asked.
‘Not at all,’ Yusuf said. ‘It’s a shameful matter.’
‘For whom? The family breaking off the engagement?
‘Of course. Our community would scorn the family. But this family had moved overseas, so they didn’t really care. Had it been a boy who had been engaged to a girl left behind in Pakistan, the family might have viewed the matter differently. But here they would have to sponsor me, pay for my education in the US, and so on and forth.’
‘That must have been a bad period.’
‘Honestly speaking, I was completely devastated. And I’ve never been able to forget her. I don’t blame her, because I know that she wouldn’t have been able to exercise any choice over the matter. Her father broke off the engagement. It had nothing to do with her. We both liked each other very much, and I am one hundred per cent certain she would have wanted to marry me.’
He tried to sound normal, but I sensed bitterness and anger.
Yusuf bit into a munto and said: ‘This girl, my former fiancée, is quite simply the most beautiful woman in the world.’
‘“Was” you mean. By now she’s probably married, has half a dozen kids and has lost some of those looks. Or at least she’s no longer as beautiful.’ I was trying to console him here.
I was remembering another ‘most beautiful girl’. Zeenat. How many women in this land fitted a description of ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’?
‘What’s her name?’ I said.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘If I meet someone so stunning I’ll ask her if she knows you.’
‘Forget it,’ he said ‘It’s all in the past now, and I guess I should forget about it, otherwise I’ll end up like Mr Khan.’
‘The owner of the Khan Book Shop.’
‘What’s his story?’
‘He’s now in his mid-sixties and has never married. It is rumoured that during the days when he was a refugee in India he fell in love with a widow. But he couldn’t marry her. Different religions, maybe. And he could never think of marrying anyone else. He still pines away for her.’
I felt light-headed.
‘Do you feel different somehow?’ Yusuf was staring at me, a peculiar smile playing on his face.
‘Matter of fact, I do. Why?’
‘That spinach you won’t get to eat anywhere else.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s poppy,’ he said. ‘Poppy spinach. In their growing phase, sometimes the plants are too close together, and farmers remove the baby plants so that there’s room for the others to grow properly. That’s then cooked as a kind of spinach. It gives you a high, but the effect soon passes.’ He laughed.
I’d heard you could easily become intoxicated, just wandering through fields of the tall, sturdy plant with the red, pink and purple flowers.
In my college days, I had sometimes smoked cannabis. My home town was close to Manali, a trekkers’ paradise in the Himalayas, also home to many cannabis plantations. I hadn’t felt so stoned since.
I began to laugh, and continued to laugh. A not uncommon occurrence with opium users. They’d often go into bouts of laughter and wouldn’t be able to stop. Sometimes, on the other hand they’d start crying on and on.
Yusuf looked at me and grinned. And then he too began laughing.
After the bout of laughter, tears were to come.
* * *
Yusuf insisted he would drop me off, despite my protestations.
We got caught up in a traffic situation at the third roundabout. Some military vehicles appeared from one of the side roads, and our smooth ride was interrupted. A deluge of vehicles began to build up. After the military jeeps had passed it was the turn of some brown tanks to emerge. Manned by helmeted soldiers putting out their hands in a gesture for us to keep at a distance, the machines rolled down the road, a potent reminder that, despite the rush hour traffic, life was not normal.
‘When I see these tanks,’ Yusuf said, ‘I remember when the Russians were here. At that time the tanks also rolled down.’
‘What do you remember about that time?’
‘Only bad things,’ Yusuf said. ‘I hate the Russians. I was only four and a half years old when my father died. He was killed by the Khad, Afghan intelligence who worked with the KGB. He was tortured to death.’
‘Was he supporting the Mujahideen?’
‘Not really,’ Yusuf said. ‘That was the irony. There was a land dispute in our village. My father had a big argument with a neighbouring farmer. This man’s son worked with the government so he got my father picked up on suspicion. Can you imagine? There was no basis. Nothing.’
Traffic started to move. Yusuf restarted the car.
I said: ‘I guess this turned everyone in your family against the communists.’
‘It did,’ Yusuf said, ‘Both my brothers died fighting the Russians in the Battle of Jalalabad. It was one of the most terrible battles ever fought, and it lasted for more than six months. That’s when Osama Bin Laden came to prominence for the first time.’
‘Did he take part in the battle himself?’
‘Yes,’ Yusuf said. ‘He was commanding one of the foreign Mujahideen groups. In a way, he was responsible for the death of my brothers.’
‘Really? What happened?’
‘It was a dispute over military strategy. You see, Bin Laden was a religious fanatic even in those days. That’s all he knew. He didn’t really know anything about fighting. My brother told us he couldn’t even get up onto a horse quickly enough. You’ve seen him, haven’t you? As delicate as a virgin.’ He sniggered, lowered the window and spat.
It wasn’t like Yusuf to show his uncouth side to me, but clearly there were very strong emotions running here.
‘So why did they make him a commander.’
‘A rich man like him had to be a commander. And he had the support of the Americans in those days. Everyone knows that.’
‘Okay, so what was the argument?’
‘Shahzad, my elder brother, was leading the combat against the Russians on a certain front, but he couldn’t have handled them on his own. Bin Laden and his men were supposed to act as reinforcements.’
‘Okay.’ I was listening very attentively. This wasn’t any tall tale being told to me.
‘Actually, my brother’s preference was that they join his own soldiers in a joint offensive. But Bin Laden didn’t want that, because he couldn’t handle the command himself and he could accept my brother commanding his men. So my brother accepted Laden’s suggestion that they would be reinforcements.’
‘Why did he agree – against his own better judgement?’
‘You have to understand that the foreign Mujahideen were our guests in a sense. They had come to help us in our war against the Russians. So we had to let them do things as they wished.’
I nodded. This made sense.
‘Anyhow, my brother asked Laden if he was sure they would reinforce his group, and he said yes, they’d just be a mile down the road behind a hill.’
‘So when the fighting began, as my brother expected, things turned difficult, so he sent Mushtaq, my other brother, to go and give the signal to Laden and his men. Things were getting really difficult so Mushtaq raced off to meet Bin Laden.’ He braked, just yards away from a man who’d begun herding his sheep across the road.
‘And they weren’t ready to go. The chicken-hearted bastards. They weren’t ready to go.’ His voice grew louder. ‘If they weren’t going to help they should have said so right in the beginning. Shahzad would have asked one of the other Afghan groups to help.’
‘How did you come to know this?’
‘Seeing the situation, Mushtaq then went to another group that was already in the fight elsewhere to ask if they could help with some men. But it was too late. My elder brother and his men had all been slaughtered.’
‘Mushtaq had been badly hurt when he left the scene of the battle. That is the only reason he agreed to leave and go to Laden. He was bleeding profusely from the chest, and collapsed in the middle of talks with this Afghan group. So he was rushed off to the civil hospital in Peshawar, where all of us went to see him. My mother, my sister Razia and myself. I was ten years old at the time, but I remember everything that was said in the hospital room where Mushtaq spent six hours before he died.’
‘So do you consider Bin Laden personally responsible for your brothers’ deaths?’
‘Yes, I do,’ Yusuf said. ‘Had it not been for his assurance …’ We were at the Wazir Akbar roundabout now, and my guest house was only a few kilometres away.
The revolving tyres of vehicles had melted away the snow in the centre of the road, but slush had gathered at the edges. All around there was pure white snow masking Kabul’s open garbage heaps.
Yusuf said: ‘My brothers were dead against the Russians. They blamed the Russians – as well as the Khad – for the death of my father, but they weren’t religious fanatics. Whereas Bin Laden commanded mostly a group of mad Arabs.’
‘How do your family feel about the Taliban? And you personally?’
‘I hate them,’ he said, ‘and so do my family.’
‘So is your sister the only one left in your family among your siblings?’
‘Are you very close to your sister?’
‘Razia and I were very close.’ His countenance took on a strange expression – a mixture of sadness and bitterness, or so I imagined. ‘She brought me up like her own son. She wasn’t only a sister, but like a second mother to me. My mother decided to stay in Kabul so that I wouldn’t be alone. My sister lived with her husband in a village in the South, not far from Kandahar and next to Taliban strongholds.’
‘Do some people support the Taliban?’
‘Not in my sister’s village,’ he said. ‘The people living there were totally opposed to the Taliban. If you ever visited this area, you’d have seen girls going to school, music being played – a lot of progressive things. Razia’s husband, Aseem, was totally opposed to the Taliban. He hated them – and so did Razia.’
‘Why do you speak of them in the past tense? What happened?’
All of a sudden Yusuf’s face crumpled, and for a terrible moment I thought he was going to cry. With a big effort, the Pashtun pulled himself together.
‘My sister died a few months ago,’ he said quietly, his voice nearly breaking. ‘Sajida was lucky to have survived. Her body was found after two days in the wreckage. She was such a lively, happy girl and now – you’ve seen her. This is the reason I want to get married. My mother is too old to take care of Sajida, and she also needs help in the house. She’s fit, but I feel guilty if she has to go somewhere on her own to do shopping.’
‘What happened?’ I was aghast. He’d been smiling and joking with me, carrying this big burden in his heart. I felt his pain.
‘The Americans attacked the village,’ Yusuf said, his voice heavy with sorrow. ‘Collateral damage.’ He pursed his lips. ‘Let’s not talk about it.’
The car was now running alongside the Shahr-e Naw park, where people could be seen strolling about. Someone in the guard house must have seen the vehicle approach for the metal gates opened without any need to sound the horn.
I shook hands with Yusuf silently.
‘Tashakor,’ I said, thanking him for the meal. Yusuf didn’t say anything.
I could see that he was too overwhelmed with grief to speak.
I stepped out into the wet snow in the courtyard.
Continued to "Richard's Reasons"
More by : Rajesh Talwar