Dec 04, 2023
Dec 04, 2023
(An Afghan Winter Continued)
The mechanical gates to the guest house spread opened, and Yusuf carefully steered the Toyota through a soft layer of freshly fallen snow that concealed a slippery under-surface below. Out on the main street, he took the familiar route towards the InterContinental, driving slowly. It would be our last day inside the blue and white edifice, because the workshop was coming to an end. My performance at the seminar wasn’t only going to consist of a closing-day speech, however, for I wished to provide at the outset an overview and summary of all that had been discussed.
Voicing my thoughts, Yusuf said, ‘It’s our last day at the InterContinental.’
‘We should continue to meet – and be in touch.’
‘Of course,’ Yusuf agreed.
We both lapsed into silence.
It took us longer than usual to reach the InterContinental. We had more time but less to say to each other today, with both of us lost in our own thoughts.
The Toyota crossed the security barrier, and Yusuf put his foot down on the accelerator as we approached the hilly incline that led up to the hotel. It seemed as if he now wanted to say something, but was hesitating.
‘I hear you went to Kandahar yesterday,’ he said at length.
‘Are you planning to stay much longer in Afghanistan?’
I shook my head.
Yusuf parked the car. As we walked towards the foyer that stood outside the grand gates of the hotel, he put his arm around me in a gesture of affection.
‘I have to tell you something, Anzan jan,’ he said
‘Be very careful,’ he said. ‘From now onwards you are not safe.’
‘Tashakor,’ I said, pressing his hand. ‘Thank you for your concern.’
My throat felt a bit parched, but I was nearly at the end of my lecture. Some concluding remarks about how much I had enjoyed it – and in fact that was true.
I was about to mime a request for a glass of water to a red-uniformed waiter standing in the corner, when I noticed that, unseen and previously unnoticed, some thoughtful person had placed a glass of pomegranate juice on the table. I took a large swallow.
All of a sudden, I felt the room spin around. When I looked at the audience I saw them shaking, much like a cinema reel that was sometimes in focus, sometimes out of focus. I thought I would collapse any minute. It was the drink. I stumbled out of the room into the corridor with a view to go to the washroom. A few metres away, I saw a vision approach me.
She strode purposefully towards me. Beautiful as always despite the sunburnt snub-nose, she was dressed in a colourful blue and green shalwar kameez. Her head was demurely covered with a maroon scarf, but her movements across the mosaic-tiled floor were those of a woman who hadn't grown up in this country. Too confident.
Unsmiling, almost stern.
My destiny drummed its heels closer. For I had no doubt that she was my future. If I had one.
I was so shocked that for a moment I thought I had died and it was an angel I beheld.
Then I saw him.
At some distance behind her stood the familiar silhouette of a man I knew.
Even in my narcotised state of numbness, in which I didn’t know anymore whether I would live or die, where to be absolutely accurate I was seconds away from completing this cycle of my life, with the domed ceiling of the passageway careening before my eyes like a sinking ship, I shut my eyes and reopened them twice to see if the images would vanish.
It was her past that stood in the shadows.
The drug dragon was settling into me, flexing its muscles and enervating mine, taking over all my bodily functions, and hurtling me and what remained of my mind into oblivion.
An overwhelming sadness washed over me at the knowledge that I would soon be gone. A satisfaction tainted with bitterness bubbled up as I realised that at the very moment that death drew me into her arms, my future was reaching out to shake hands with her past.
And with this last thought, I slipped into unconsciousness.
The bluish-white light of the room gradually penetrated my flickering eyelids. My eyes seemed to be glued together, but when I tried to move my arm to prise them apart, I sensed some discomfort. I used my other hand to rub them open, and saw I was in bed with an intravenous drip attached to my left arm. It was obviously a room inside a hospital.
The door of the room opened and a blonde nurse in her mid-thirties entered.
‘Ah, you are awake,’ she said, in what I thought was a German accent.
Memories came flooding back. The spiked juice, the dizziness and then the blackout. What had happened after that? I couldn’t remember how I had landed up in hospital. What hospital was this? Was it the German hospital, well known in Kabul for providing excellent medical facilities and treatment for most common ailments? All these thoughts flashed through my mind, while the nurse made some adjustments to the drip.
‘Is this the German hospital?’ I said, surprised to find that my voice was very weak.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You were in quite a terrible condition yesterday evening when you were brought here.’ She paused. ‘I have to tell you that it was the lady’s first-aid treatment that saved your life.’ She looked sympathetic but also a bit curious. ‘Are you in the military?’
I shook my head.
‘Well, you’re obviously on someone’s hit list.’ She smiled quickly, with a nurse’s reassuring manner. ‘I’ll be back in a little while with the doctor. We’ll do some tests on you and then maybe you can eat a little.’
She went to the door and quickly popped back in.
‘There’s someone waiting for you outside. Do you feel comfortable about seeing a visitor?’ She looked at me.
I nodded, too weak to talk.
I now remembered how, in the final moments before falling unconscious, I’d had a vision of someone walking towards me. Then I’d dreamed that I was under a snow-fed waterfall, somewhere in the Himalayas near Dharamsala, my home town, with icy liquid pouring all over me. Our dreaming selves sometime use real incidents and this fantasy had, I realised, surfaced during the precise period while my head was being held under the tap and I was regaining consciousness.
The door opened. Yusuf entered.
He didn’t stay long, and he didn’t say much. He had come only to see that Anzan jan was doing well.
There were lots of questions buzzing around in my mind. Yusuf’s gaunt, troubled face showed genuine concern and relief. I knew that the bearded Pashtun had a big question he was hesitating to ask – and which he finally left without asking. Would I tell the authorities what I now knew about the explosion that had killed Michael? But, I thought, as I adjusted the pillow behind my head after Yusuf had left, I myself didn’t yet know the answer to that question.
Chapter 26 of “An Afghan Winter”
We stood beside the frozen waters of the lake. I always knew that I would make the journey to the Bamiyan Buddhas before I left Afghanistan but didn’t ever imagine that she would be with me.
‘I don’t have a shred of doubt,’ I said, ‘that if you hadn’t been there at that very moment, it would have been the end for me. It was like the entry of … an angel. I’m still amazed at how you knew what had to be done.’
‘Basic nursing skills form part of every airhostess’s training. As soon as I saw you, I knew there was something wrong. I didn’t know what to think. And then you collapsed on to the floor. I ran to you. The Afghans at your workshop were gathered around, one of them holding the glass in which you were served pomegranate juice. I smelled it and it didn’t seem right. All these bearded Afghans, but somehow they accepted I knew what needed to be done. The first thing is to induce vomiting – and by a stroke of luck I was carrying something in my bag for this – but you never try to make a person throw up unless he is conscious. I explained that we had to wake you up. Your friend Yusuf literally carried you to the bathroom …’
‘And you put my head under the tap?’
‘No time for such niceties. We propped you up against the wall in the bathroom and turned on the shower. First the hot shower and then the cold. You were sopping wet. TWO MINUTES. You kept us waiting for TWO MINUTES – can you imagine what I was going through? – then you finally opened your eyes and said: “Where am I?”’
‘Did I?’ I didn’t recall any of this.
‘Yes, you did. And then I poured green slimy stuff down your throat – its called ipecac syrup – and you puked all over the floor and your clothes. So we showered you some more to get you cleaned. Someone brought a clean shirt from somewhere. And Mr Khan, Dad, had called for an ambulance, which was waiting outside, because we didn’t want to take any risks and still needed to get your stomach pumped. You were blabbering a bit before you passed out again. Heroin, wasn’t it?’
‘Enough to have killed a camel. That’s what the Afghan police said, when they came over to the German hospital to take my statement.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Good to be here – and good to be alive.’
We held each other close.
The lake glistened like an immense sapphire mountain somehow flattened to a two-dimensional version. And there were the other mountains just behind us.
Such sharp-edged purity. Such brilliance.
I could have stood and watched the seamless blue endlessly. But there were many things to see and do and there wasn’t that much time, so I returned to earth with a twinge of regret.
We started to trudge through the snow towards the looming pink cliffs, the hollowed-out space within indicating the place where one of the Buddhas had stood.
Lavanya said, ‘Just four days ago, I was in Florida wishing we could be together. I missed you. And then you sent that email.’
‘How did you feel?’
‘Anzan,’ she said, holding my arm, ‘you don’t know how many sleepless nights I’ve spent thinking about my father. You see, Ma told me about him when she was on her death bed. She couldn’t say much, just that she loved him, and that after Bahadur’s death at the hands of the Maoists they had drawn incredibly close. He was so supportive. They loved each other and they shared intimate moments. But it was absolutely impossible for them to tell the world at large.’
‘Your mother’s husband – what kind of a person was he?’
‘A drunk, a loser. Sometimes he’d hit Ma for no reason at all. Most of the time he was just plastered out of his mind. Ma said it was Mr Khan who set up the shop, organised everything and got it to start making a profit. Her husband never did a day’s work. He just reaped the profits and drank them up. Sad to say, but true. She was the one to help out in the shop, and that’s how Khan and she grew close together. Ma never loved Bahadur.’
It would have been much more difficult for Lavanya to handle the truth, I mused, if she had lived with the man she had imagined for many years to be her father, but he died before she was born.
‘Ma was faithful to her husband till his last days. It was only when he died – and incidentally, it sounds rude to say this about a dead man, but he couldn’t you know ever do it because of the drinking – they had no sex life worth speaking of. And when he died it was natural for Ma to get close with Khan.’ Lavanya let out a long sigh. ‘But then Khan couldn’t stay any longer in the house as a tenant. It would have, you know, set tongues wagging in provincial Kathmandu. It wasn’t even possible for them to manage the shop together. So he gave up the shop for her to manage on her own, and just left Nepal. He was going back to Afghanistan. Afterwards Ma regretted so much that she’d let him go.’
‘Did you know that Khan loved your mother so much?’
‘I knew Ma thought he loved her – but did he really?’ Her eyes grew moist. ‘I wasn’t sure till I got your email. When I saw my father’s picture – the one you took with your Nokia and scanned to me – it was like my laptop had punched me. I never expected you to discover him. Never. I thought it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Millions of refugees. He could have been wandering about in a dozen different countries. But I saw the map of Nepal on his forehead and I knew it was him. This is my dad. I cried, Anzan. How I cried. And when I read your email about how Yusuf told you about Mr Khan – that he had loved an Indian woman and never married – I knew that Indian woman was really Nepali and it was my mother. I came to see you, it’s true – but really, it was him I came to see.’
‘No problem.’ I smiled sweetly, with the barest bitter under-taste of jealousy.
‘I couldn’t wait to see him any longer.’ She exhaled.
The self-aware part of my brain pointed out to me just how unreasonable were my nascent feelings of jealousy.
I said, ‘But how did you come? What about visas?’
‘In the time you’ve been gone my company started flights to Kabul. I just had to sweet-talk my line manager to send me here in place of one of the other girls.’ Lavanya giggled. ‘It wasn’t at all difficult, because Kabul is not the most popular route.’
I shook my head. Amazed wasn’t the word.
‘They took us to the InterCon to stay the night.’ Lavanya stumbled in the snow and held my arm again. ‘The flight was delayed, and we got in quite late. Next morning I thought I’d catch you in the guest house. When I reached it, they told me you’d just left for the InterCon, so I turned the cab around, and guess what?’ She paused. ‘At the roundabout I saw the sign board. Khan Book Shop. And I thought, let’s give Dad a surprise.’
I shook my head again. With what emotion I don’t really know.
Lavanya stopped walking, lowered her face like a truant school girl, and with a big grin plastered across her face mimicked her entry into the shop.
‘I entered. I stood there. I smiled. He knew. He knew at once. Can you believe it? He knew I was his daughter. He came up and hugged me. “Dukhtar,” he said, “Dukhtar”.’
‘You mean he just knew you were his daughter. He knew your mother was carrying …’
‘No, silly. I called him from Florida, as soon as I got your email.’
‘How did you know where to call?’
‘Googled “Khan Book Shop, Kabul”, found the address and phone number. Just dialled.’
‘And? His reaction?’
‘I said, “This is Lavanya, Sunanda’s daughter, speaking.” “Sunanda’s daughter,” he repeated. I could make out that it wasn’t that he’d forgotten Ma, but he was really confused because Ma didn’t have children. So he paused and said: “Are you calling from Kathmandu? You are Sunanda’s daughter.” I guessed he was now wondering if Ma had remarried.’
‘How did you know he was thinking all this?’
‘Father–daughter telepathy,’ she laughed. ‘“Yes,” I said, “I am her daughter.” “But … but … but …” He was lost for words. The poor man couldn’t say anything. He couldn’t believe Ma would have married again, but he didn’t know how to say it. And I said, as bravely as I could, “I am Sunanda’s daughter, but I am also your daughter. And Ma is no longer alive …”’
‘And then he began to cry. We both began to cry …’
Lavanya started to sob uncontrollably, recalling the emotional intensity of that occasion. I hugged and kissed her. I was nearly crying myself.
‘So then,’ she said, in between sobs, ‘I brought him with me to the InterCon for the three of us to spend the day together. Don’t forget, I was due to fly back the same evening. Dad said he’d wait in the lobby for me to explain everything to you. And then I saw you staggering, I so wanted to see the expression on your face when you saw I was here. Not how I found you eventually.’ She gave a sob. ‘Nearly dead.’ She leaned against me.
The lines flowing down the ridged cliffs reminded me of the creases in a Tibetan monk’s habit. From a distance the cliffs appeared pink but were magically transmuted into red now; the movement of the sun across the sky affected the colour.
There was an accumulation of soft snow near the mountain. We walked slowly, holding each other for stability, till we reached the staircase etched into the mountainside. This particular cliff acted as a gigantic raincoat, protecting the steps from snow. As we climbed up, we stopped to wander around the still surviving rooms, carved into the mountain and once part of the Buddha itself, where pilgrims had stayed. Also, along this stairway to heaven stood small deserted halls with embellished interiors, and now faded but once magnificent paintings.
We went up as far as we could, and when we could go no further I held her close to me and we watched and watched. The highest towers of Dubai produced no comparable sense of awe.
Lavanya was a bright spirit, but sometimes I sensed a brooding cloud dimming the light of her spirit. Today, her face threw off happiness like a passing comet.
My mind emptied out. All tension dissipated.
It all seemed like a perfect union of the elements: the blue of the water, the red of the cliff and the white of the snow and overhead clouds. This was a Buddhafield that no Taliban could destroy.
Decision on Disclosure
Chapter 27 of “An Afghan Winter”
Perched on the stairs, I studied the gaps in the mountain where one of the tallest Buddhas had once stood. It was an impressive sight, even after the demolition, with some of the niches over sixty metres high. I tried to imagine how it must have been all those centuries ago, when Buddhism flourished in these parts.
Lavanya said, ‘So does Wendell know who was responsible for the explosion that killed Michael?’
‘But you know?’
I was silent.
‘Tell me. After all this, I need to know.’
‘It was Yusuf,’ I sighed. ‘His sister and her family were killed in an American blunder. I imagine that every time Yusuf saw his niece – one of the few survivors – his heart burned with the thought of avenging her mother’s death. Since he couldn’t take on the entire American military – in any case, he hates the Taliban just like his family did – he decided to punish the man responsible.’
‘How did he know it was Michael?’
‘Through some source Yusuf found out that Amin was a man who could provide him with the information. Once he had the name, the next step was to find Michael. He discovered – I don’t know how – that Michael was staying at the Aram. This fitted in with his plans. It was easier for him to get Michael there than inside a military base.
‘Are you going to tell Wendell?’
‘I honestly don’t know.’
‘When did you first suspect Yusuf?’
‘When I overheard him shouting at Amin on the phone. The same day Richard told me of the massacre at Sadia, and he mentioned it was close to Ghilzai, a big town. Everything became clear to me. I’d been a fool not to realise this earlier. But I still needed confirmation that I was right in my thinking.’
‘Is that why you went to meet Amin?’
‘It was the main reason for my visit. To get confirmation that he sold Michael’s name to Yusuf. But I needed to have a different reason to give Amin. So I invented an excuse that I was doing a story about why wrong intelligence was fed to the Americans. Why Sadia? And that’s something I wanted to know anyway.’
‘Wasn’t it the Taliban?’
‘No. Amin works for the Takfiris. They are technically part of the Taliban but they think like Al Qaeda. You could say that they are happy to work for Al Qaeda.’
‘So how did they fool the Americans – how did they fool Michael – into attacking Sadia?’
‘Jamal Hyder got arrested at Kabul airport as part of their plan. Some suspicious items showed up in the X-ray of his baggage. When the police went through his bags they discovered papers that suggested a plan to carry out a series of suicide bombings in Kabul. The idea was to create the impression that Sadia was a Taliban headquarters for a big operation in Kabul.’
‘The Somali – wasn’t he associated with the company Yusuf works for?’
‘Yes, the Afghan Media Group was asked to help him around, the way they did for me.’
‘What was the need to get them involved?’
‘My guess is that Jamal Hyder was also set up. Al Qaeda knew people at Kabul airport who’d make sure that Jamal was picked up, but they weren’t sure that the Americans would get to see the fake documents. He could even lose his luggage in flight – these things happen. To make doubly sure, they got him associated with the Afghan Media Group and sent off a package in Mansour’s name. If Jamal managed to escape detection at the airport, the letter to Mansour would get him arrested.’
‘How could they be sure that Mansour would give the documents to the authorities?’
‘Mansour is a Shia. They know that he hates Al Qaeda. Interestingly, the day the package arrived in Mansour’s office we were going through the papers when Yusuf began to suddenly feel unwell. I think he realised that Michael hadn’t been as careless as he had first supposed. He understood that Michael, Mansour and he – all three of them – were scapegoats.’
‘Do you think he might even have regretted his action?’
‘Possibly. But it was too late to make amends. Besides, Michael had been inexcusably careless. That part still holds good.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘It’s no state secret that the village of Sadia was hostile to the Taliban. Before ordering combat troops to go in, he needed at the very minimum to double-check with Afghan intelligence. And he would have found out that Sadia is anti-Taliban.’
‘Why didn’t he do this?’
‘Everyone knows there are Taliban informers within Afghan intelligence. Michael was supremely confident that the Somali was a prize catch. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind that he had uncovered a genuine plot to unleash a wave of suicide bombings in Kabul. He didn’t want the Taliban to be alerted by someone that he was on to them. Their plans. Which in fact never existed. He ordered an immediate attack.’
‘Why did Michael suspect Mansour of being linked to Al Qaeda?’
‘My guess is that in the beginning he wasn’t sure but later, when it became clear that he had been set up to order an attack on innocent villagers, he began to think that they were complicit in that strategy. My guess is that he wanted so much to find someone he could blame – apart from himself. You see, somewhere Michael was tormented by what happened. He had the blood of innocent people on his conscience.’
‘But why did Al Qaeda go to such lengths to give false information in the first place? Did you find that out from Amin?’
‘Al Qaeda decided to move Bin Laden from his hiding place in Pakistan into Afghanistan. There could be any number of reasons for this. Maybe his hiding place there got compromised. Maybe US pressure on the Pakistan government was finally working. I don’t know. But they decided to move him to a Taliban-controlled area just bordering Ghilzai. The only problem for Al Qaeda planners was the small village of Sadia. It’s been known to be anti-Taliban since the time of the Russians.’
‘Why should Sadia have been a problem?’
‘Clan loyalties. You have to understand this. Word gets around, doesn’t it? People visit neighbouring villages. There are ties of blood. What if word got out to the people of Sadia that Bin Laden was in the neighbourhood? Anyone could sell this piece of information to the Americans for a million dollars. Even give it free, for they hate Al Qaeda and the Taliban.’
‘And nothing. Al Qaeda couldn’t take such a risk. So they asked their Taliban brothers to kill all the Sadia villagers.’
‘How evil.’ I felt her body shiver beside me, and I knew it wasn’t the cold.
‘This was something the Taliban didn’t accept, and Al Qaeda didn’t have the manpower to do it themselves. Every village in the South is armed. Sadia would have fought back. The Taliban understood the repercussions of carrying out a large-scale massacre on their own people. Everyone would turn against them. It’s one thing to send suicide bombers on a mission to Kabul. If innocent people get killed there, it doesn’t matter. Everyone in Kabul who lives and works under the American-supported Afghan government can be seen as a traitor. But it’s a completely different situation if it got out that the Taliban killed their own people. Kill their Pashtun brothers. This would be political suicide eventually. Neither would they allow Al Qaeda to wipe out the population of that village. There was only one way out.’
‘And that was?’
‘That was to get the Americans to kill everyone in Sadia.’
In the far distance the sky was turning orange. As I looked down on the setting sun, I used my hand to block part of my vision that fell on the cliff side, to create for myself the illusion that we were two birds flying across vast open spaces. It was not only a cliché to call this place the ‘roof of the world’, but in the modern space era it carried less meaning. Yet in the old days, this is what it was. On a flat earth, I was close enough to be knocking on heaven’s door.
Lavanya said, ‘Have you told Wendell?’
I shook my head.
‘Don’t you want Bin Laden captured? Or killed?’
‘Bin Laden’s left the area.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘Amin gave me the information about Bin Laden in a veiled way. Without naming Bin Laden, he said obliquely that the attack was done to protect the highest person within the Taliban. But he was looking at me carefully all the while to make sure I understood what he meant – that Bin Laden was living in a neighbouring Taliban stronghold.’
‘But isn’t that true? You said …’
‘It was true. Not any longer. The information Amin gave me about Laden was no longer true. It was provided to others in the NATO and American military. Fake information, just like the bit before.’
I told her about the conversation I’d heard standing behind the door outside Amin’s cabin.
* * *
Amin was saying:
‘There is a journalist from Dubai looking for a story on Sadia. Should I indicate to him that Bin Laden lives in an adjacent village?’ He was silent for a while listening to the person at the other end, then he said: ‘Yes, of course, the rehbar, our master is back in Pakistan, so nothing to worry about on that account. You know how it is, Usman bhai. The Americans will order some drones to wipe out those villages. And that will work for us, won’t it?’ Some more listening and then, ‘Okay, so I’ll tell him.’
There was no need to hear anything further. I quickly withdrew and resumed my former position.
* * *
Lavanya said, ‘Have these people no morals? No ethics?’
‘They say politics is like a game of chess. The only difference is that some politicians play with real people’s lives.’
I looked at my watch. Only two hours left for the flight. We’d been told to arrive at the small airstrip half an hour before time. We started to walk down the stairs.
Once the German hospital released me with a clean chit and a washed-out stomach, Lavanya and I agreed to spend our days doing different things. She would spend the day with Khan, her newly discovered father, and I would say my goodbyes to my friends in Kabul: Yusuf, Richard, Mansour, Safdar and Karim. I also met the American detective Wendell over a lavish breakfast buffet at the Serena.
‘Do you realise that you’ve saved many innocent lives with this news you’ve given me?’ Wendell said, buttering his toast.
‘I hope so.’
‘You have. They were about to divert all troops and launch a full-scale offensive. And try as one might, there is always a loss of civilian life in such cases, isn’t there? When you told me that the latest piece of fake intelligence going around was that Bin Laden was hiding near Ghilzai, I took the news up to the very top. When the General heard me, he immediately issued cancellation orders.’ The detective transferred scrambled egg onto the toast. ‘I knew you would start to figure things out. Even if we didn’t find who killed Michael. With all due respect for the death of an American soldier – a friend of yours – this could have been a huge public relations disaster.’ Wendell drummed his fingers on the dining table, a habit with him, but this time he did it to register pleasure rather than impatience. ‘So no info on who might have killed Michael?’
‘If I learn anything, I’ll let you know.’
‘How did you learn about this fellow – Amin?’ He moved the ketchup bottle over his toast.
I was quiet.
‘All right, all right,’ he said, biting into his breakfast. ‘You need to protect your source. I understand this and won’t press you anymore on it.’ He beamed broadly. ‘The general was really pleased with me. Coming from Washington, telling him what his boys were about to do. And why they shouldn’t. He wanted to meet my source. He wanted to meet you.’ The detective gulped down black coffee and made a face. ‘Listen, I owe you one. Call me anytime you come to Washington.’ His face grew serious. ‘Those bastards are totally unscrupulous, aren’t they?’
No private aircrafts flew into Bamiyan at this time of the years. There wouldn’t have been enough passengers. It was a United Nations Humanitarian Air Services aircraft that would take us back home. This was Richard Brent’s doing. He was friends with a Canadian pilot who was flying in the United Nations aircraft anyway to deliver some crucial medicine supplies to this remote region.
* * *
When I met Richard to tell him I was returning to Dubai, he insisted on our going for dinner at the Sufi restaurant. Over stuffed mantos and chappali kebab, I asked him straight out why he was handing over large sums of money to scarf-faced bearded men inside the prayer halls of mosques.
‘Oh,’ he said, with what appeared to be genuine surprise. ‘You saw me give that money. It was to rehabilitate some wells.’
‘I thought you worked with livestock.’
Richard said, ‘The two are connected, you see. The money was given for these villagers to buy camels to help restart their wells. You must know how they operate the wells in these villages in the South? They don’t have a pump. A system of pulleys leads to a contraption fitted around the camel’s neck, and he walks up and down. That’s the system they’ve used to bring up water for centuries. Same goes for the sand, if you are digging deeper to find water.’
‘Okay, so how many camels?’
‘Quite a lot of camels. About thirty. All ladies.’
‘Gender mainstreaming?’ I laughed.
Richard said, ‘It’s the only way to deal with the water shortage in that area. Originally we thought we’d just rent the animals. We discussed this with the villagers, and they came back to me and said “Haji Richard, it’s going to cost 600 Afghanis per month to rent each camel.” I thought this was a high price, but they were resigned to the fact that camels are very expensive these days. So I went to the market with my assistant, and we found that it would be cheaper to buy the camels. I came back to the village where we had our meetings, collected all the beards together, and told them that we had decided to buy the camels.’ He paused significantly. ‘I told them we didn’t want to buy a camel that would just die, because this would mean we would have to purchase another animal. We were going to buy female camels to produce baby camels that could be used in the future. They saw my point and agreed. The man you saw with me is the Headman of that village.’
‘Why did you give him cash?’
‘It’s a cash economy here for the most part. Especially people who sell camels don’t often have bank account. So the money was for him to pay the trader here in Kabul and he’ll have the camels sent over through his suppliers down in Kandahar.’
* * *
From dry staircase we descended to wet snow, and turned to walk towards the main Bamiyan town close to where the tallest Buddha once towered. It was a small community that lived in Bamiyan, a large village in a valley.
Lavanya was saying, ‘So how did Amin figure out who you were?’
‘I’m guessing,’ I said, ‘that after I left he may have thought over our discussion. I’d mentioned an Afghan journalist, later switching to Afghan American to convince him that it wasn’t Yusuf. He knew I was in Kabul, so he called some of his cronies in the capital to find out if they knew about me. Of course they did. All the journalists knew about the workshop. And they knew also that Yusuf was helping me out. Amin figured out that I knew that he was the person who revealed Michael’s identity as the man who authorised the attack. This by itself was not such high-value information. But it was important that the Americans shouldn’t come to know that Amin was the source of that piece of leaked information. Given that it resulted in Michael’s death. So I needed to be silenced before I spoke to anyone.’
‘But that glass of pomegranate juice – someone must have seen who put it on your table.’
‘A hotel waiter. Many people saw him. But when I checked with Yusuf he said that the waiter was innocent. Some unidentified person asked the waiter to place it on the table and quickly disappeared.’
‘So we don’t know who it was?’
‘No, we don’t.’
‘And Amin – have they got him?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘He’s vanished. Disappeared across the border into Pakistan or some other part of Afghanistan, like Bin Laden himself.’
We reached the main town. Our two-storey hotel – owned and managed by a Japanese woman in partnership with her Afghan husband – was the only place to stay in town, and for this reason charged a high daily rental. To be fair to them, they didn’t have many clients, especially at this time of the year. And yet despite the freezing weather there were a few foreigners besides us. A Japanese couple whom we met for breakfast in the hotel had travelled all the way from Fukuoka.
There were villages close by with interesting names: one called Panjab, pronounced just like the North Indian state of Punjab, another by the name of Hyderabad, a Pakistani as well as an Indian city, but strangest of all was Iraq village. The land itself seemed as surreal as these names. But there was no time to explore any more. There was, however, time for one last look.
We checked out, and with our backpacks walked across to the site where the tallest Buddha once stood.
As I gazed upon the hollow spaces, anger bubbled inside me. Reckless, wanton acts of destruction brought down a gigantic figure carved into the mountain face that took decades, perhaps centuries, to erect.
The minutes passed, and I continued to gaze at the site of the demolished Buddha, my companion silent beside me. I waited for the anger to subside.
I gazed at the mountain, and then my confusion broke as I recalled the words of the Dalai Lama in an interview. Recalling the years he spent in a Chinese prison, he described it as being a time of ‘great danger’ – because he had been in danger of losing his compassion towards his Chinese captors.
Compassion. That was the key word. Compassion needed to be factored into any karma korrector.
In his lifetime, the Buddha spoke out against his own deification. Didn’t vibrations from meditating visitors from hundreds of years ago still reverberate in the serenity and stillness? The mountain was marble, and new sculptors could create new visions. Was everything material?
I would let things lie and not speak to anyone.
She was standing close by and seemed to understand my thoughts.
‘So what have you decided?
‘I’m not going to say anything.’
For the last time, I feasted my eyes on the surrounding magical landscape.
The mist rose, obscuring our view. It was time to go.
A small Hazara boy, wearing a thick oversized woollen cap, came and stood in front of us, watching with curiosity. I fished in my pocket and took out a handful of sweets, and gave these to the boy. The boy ran off with his treasure.
More by : Rajesh Talwar