Ours is Not a Caravan of Despair

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(An Afghan Winter Continued)

Kabul winter was at its peak. The cold sliced the flesh yet more sharply in open spaces on the outskirts, such as where the airport was situated. Long after the passengers were seated, the aeroplane engines refused to start. With no lights or hot refreshments, the freezing passengers were starting to get agitated.

‘We are going to die,’ a lady who sat behind me said. ‘Is no one going to do anything?’

There were sympathetic murmurs.

Perhaps someone did hear her, for in a few moments tall Afghans with orange tunics, began lashing the aircraft with hot water to de-ice the engine. An unusual, extraordinary sight, it did little to soothe the shivering passengers. Eventually, however, to everyone’s surprise, the hot-water massage worked and the patient’s light and heating systems came to life.

Small screens in front of us sputtered like babies starting to breathe and began to announce safety measures.

‘… would like to apologise for the delay,’ the pilot’s warm voice came across the intercom, ‘but we will try to make some of this up on this short three-hour flight to Dubai. The temperature outside is minus 26 degrees, and in Dubai it is’ – a brief pause as if he was looking at a screen – ‘the temperature in Dubai is presently 26 degrees plus.’

Titters from passengers now replaced earlier moans.

The plane climbed swiftly, and from the window I saw the white houses of the city turn to small specks barely distinguishable against the larger white landscape. Proud mountains, barren and brown a few months earlier, were now buried under a blanket of snow.

The plane steadied and flew through fluffy clouds. I thought of all that had happened in the space of the past few weeks. Mansour and Yusuf came to the airport to see me off. Yusuf brought me a book, and Mansour wrapped a thick Afghan shawl around me.

I leaned back into the comfort of Jet Arabia’s business class; a free upgrade, courtesy contacts of Ladylove Lavanya.

At the time Yusuf and I hugged and said our goodbyes, the tall Pashtun whispered in my ear, ‘There is a message for you inside the book. Read it as soon as you can.’ He smiled. ‘I hope you will be coming back soon.’

It was a large, glossy production with oriental-looking illustrations accompanying some of legendary poet Rumi’s most famous verses. As I flipped through it, I found a letter stuck on a page with tape somewhere near the middle section of the book. I gently removed the thin plastic and disengaged the letter from the book.

I read slowly:

Dear Anzan Jan,

You are like a brother to me, the same-age brother I never had, and today I want to tell you how it all happened.

I knew someone in the US Army was responsible for the great blunder at Sadia that cost the lives of so many innocent people. It wasn’t only my sister and her family who lost their lives in the carnage, but several other families as well. About a hundred men, women and children died, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the Taliban.

How to find out who was responsible was the big question that continued to revolve in my mind for days on end. At first I thought I would ask an interpreter who worked for the US Army. They are privy to all kinds of secret information; the nature of their jobs is such. I spoke to a couple of them, but soon realized that they were all too scared to dig out any information.

I pressed the overhead red button to summon an airhostess. I could do with a second round of tea to bring the fire back to my bones.

I think hard about the issue for many weeks. Since this operation was carried out by forces presently stationed thirty miles outside Kandahar, that city is the place to start looking.

Now I know it’s very difficult to penetrate the US Army system. The best way is to look for someone who is supplying information about the Taliban to the Americans, for he would have their trust. My enquiries among friends in Kandahar and other southern areas finally bear fruit. Someone I know from Islamabad University days, a journalist like myself, comes to my help. He suggests I meet Amin, the number two at Afghan Medical Alert, a charity that is a front for its real operations. I meet Amin the next day; he says he will provide me only a name in a few days; and we agree upon a price.

I came back to Kabul and wait. On the sixth day I receive a phone call from Amin asking me to send him payment. We have a system of hawala in Afghanistan, an informal system of money transfer based on trust, so the next day in the morning I go across to a dealer in the Macrion market, who does these transactions, and transfer five hundred dollars to Amin. At midnight I get a call. The phone number is withheld. I think the person is calling on a satellite phone – it’s extremely difficult to trace the number – and it’s not Amin’s voice, but a stranger’s. The man speaks in a strong Kandahari accent. He asks if I’m Yusuf Khan. When I say yes, he says that there is a message for me. The name of the person I’m looking for is Michael Andrews. I try to ask him more questions, but the phone goes dead in my hands. Clearly Amin doesn’t want to run the risk of my taping his voice giving Michael’s name.

So I have a name, but no idea of where to look for this person, whether he is based in Kabul, in Helmund or anywhere else in Afghanistan. I know of no one in the American military machine who can give me a clue about who this person is, or what he does. I have some journalist friends, and I ask them to help. After two days I learn that there was someone by this name working in Military Intelligence, but that he is no longer there and no one knows where he’s gone. For all I know he may have gone back to the United States. I can’t get to sleep at night for thinking that this man has killed my beloved sister and her family. Finally it occurs to me to do a Google search. A few Michael Andrewses show up, but none of them are related to the US Army. I then decide to do a Google Image search where a few photos show up. There are a few pictures of a person dressed in sportsman’s gear – a basketball player representing one of the American states. There is no one in military uniform but the image of the sportsman stays in my mind.

Some days later Mansour tells me that we have a request from the media company you work for and asked if I could be with you for the duration of the workshop.

On the day you were expected to arrive in Kabul, I am passing by your guest house in the afternoon, and on the spur of the moment I decide to drop in and welcome you to my country. I park the car and am about to enter the guest house when all of a sudden near reception I see a familiar face.

I removed the wrapper from the grey toffee, earlier distributed by the stewardesses, and sucked on it slowly.

It is Zeenat. I haven’t seen her for many years, but she’s unmistakable, as you know. She was the Afghan girl I’d loved and was engaged to marry when both our families lived in the refugee camps at Peshawar. Once her family moved to the US, they broke off the engagement. I never blamed Zeenat. I knew it was not her decision but that of her family. And when I see her I realise that I have never really been able to exorcise the deep love I felt for her all those years ago. First love is like that, isn’t it? Those long eyelashes, that long hair … I cannot believe it. I am about to jump out of the car to greet her when a young, balding American comes out of the guest house, and puts his arm around her. She lets his arm stay here for a few seconds, before telling him to remove it. I cannot describe my feelings to you at this juncture. I feel this man is violating my honour by standing so close to the woman I loved. By touching her. You see, right then, it doesn’t matter to me that my engagement with Zeenat was broken. Zeenat is still my woman and no man has a right to touch her. I am bursting with anger, and have difficulty controlling myself. And then …

And then, as I stared at this man I suffer a second shock, a greater shock that sears me from head to toe. This man! This man is the same basketball player I saw on Google Images. Then I know that I’ve found my man.

I feel I will die with anger and pain. For a few seconds I didn’t see Zeenat at all. All I can see are the dead bodies of my sister and her children whom I cremated with my own hands. And then I know one thing: this man must not be allowed to live.

For many years there has been a box of grenades lying in the storeroom of my apartment. For some time I’ve been thinking of getting rid of it, because you never know with these things; they might suddenly explode, just lying there. It’s kept in a corner where there is no possibility of movement but even you never know. I had been thinking of getting rid of it for a long time, but for one reason or another, this kept getting postponed.

Half the grenades in that box are plain and half of them with chara. The ones with small iron balls or chara inside can cause much more damage.

You’ve probably already guessed some of this, but I need to tell you that you were right.

A few days later I come to your guest house in the morning a little earlier than scheduled. I park my car on the street outside and walk to the guest house. The security guards don’t ask me anything, because they have seen me with you by then. At the reception I ask for Michael Andrews’s room number, go upstairs, and find his room. The door is ajar and I can see that he is alone inside, working on his laptop.

His room is in a new part of the guest house so it takes me time to find it, but because of its location it is easy to identify. After I’ve done this I come down, step into the garden just behind the main guest house building, and quickly identify the room from the outside. The lights are on even though it is morning and the windows are open.

I think it over for perhaps thirty seconds, no longer, and then act. I remove the pin from one of the chara grenades, take aim and lob it inside the window. In the chaos that follows I slip out unnoticed.

And then what happened, happened.

You first became suspicious the day we were returning from the InterContinental and Amin called asking for another five hundred dollars for the information he had supplied, and I spoke to you about how those who were responsible for civilian causalities should be held accountable.

This is a confession, my brother, and you can do with it what you want.

Your brother


Michael’s sobbing face came to my mind. I understood the reason for that sudden turnaround, the anguish. There was never any doubt in my mind since I learned of what happened at Sadia that Michael was not merely troubled, but haunted and tormented by images of innocent men, women and children killed because of a human error. His error.

In that moment when I moved away upon his insistence for him to be able to better grieve privately, it was as if there had been a transmission, transference even of his emotions to me. Upon his death hours later, I became the custodian of an intimate secret. It was as if I were somehow exposed to the innermost recesses of the heart of a carefree basketball player before he turned into an armed professional.

Tashi delek, Michael. Rest in peace.

I said a silent prayer.

I now knew that I’d been right after all. Some simmering doubts in my mind now evaporated. I felt relieved and relaxed.

I read the letter once again, and then tore it up into little shreds and put them in my shirt pocket, resolving to destroy them completely once the plane reached Dubai.

* * *

‘Can I be of any service, sir?’ A familiar, melodious voice addressed me with unfamiliar formality. ‘Orange juice?’

I turned around, took the drink from the hand that was offering it and said, ‘Could you tell me what happens when a passenger misbehaves with a stewardess?’

‘Better not try anything, sir.’ Lavanya giggled.

‘You haven’t answered my question.’

‘Even if I don’t say anything, some of your co-passengers may notice something and decide to beat you up.’

‘No, they wouldn’t.’

‘Yes, they would.’ More giggling.

‘They’d probably be encouraged to do something themselves with some of your friends.’

‘No way,’ she breathed heavily. ‘They’d intervene; yes they would.’

‘They wouldn’t if you were the one to initiate something.’

‘Shall I do something then?’

She took a quick look around, and convinced that no one was watching, lightly grazed my cheek with her lips.

‘That’ll have to do for now,’ and so saying she went off to attend to other passengers.

From an inner coat pocket I withdrew a small, red box. I pressed a latch and it sprang open. A silver ring sparkled. It was a traditional Afghan engagement ring embedded with a precious sparkling red stone that I’d bought from Safdar Rehman’s curio shop. I would wait for an opportune time in the evening when we were back in the flat to present it to her, and hoped she would be pleased – and accept my proposal.

Outside the aircraft I saw woolly clouds hovering above a landscape covered with a thick blanket of snow.

I flicked through the pages of the English translation of Rumi’s poetry and stopped to read:

Come, Come, whoever you are.
Worshiper, Wanderer, Lover of Learning;
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Though you have broken your vows a thousand times …
Come, come again, come again …

The End

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More by :  Rajesh Talwar

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