Mar 27, 2023
Mar 27, 2023
Continued from “I May be the One to Slaughter Her”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 24
James, Aram guesthouse
It is five a.m. The morning azaan, the call to prayer, echoes through Kabul’s neighbourhoods. And as the namaaz commences so will the attack . . .
At another party in the Maple Tree last night, I had too much to drink. The thing is, I feel guilty about raiding my friend Barry’s stock so often, and alcohol is something that’s hard to come by here in Kabul. So last night when it was flowing free I couldn’t resist loosening up a bit. And now I can’t sleep. Amala was right – even though worries about our relationship were partly why I drank so much. Excuses, I know, excuses.
‘James Stewart!’ said Amala, while I was in the middle of my fourth drink. ‘This is not England. You are supposed to be a hard-working consultant writing an important report.’
I’ve been struggling with a report on the state of corruption in the Afghan government and its impact on the security situation here, and sometimes I get my brightest ideas early in the morning. Despite my fuzzy brain, a couple of useful notions occur to me as soon as my eyes open. Then I worry that I might forget my morning’s inspiration, so I drag myself out of bed, stumble across to my writing table and start to jot down my thoughts. It takes me only a few minutes to put down the ‘headlines’, as I like to call them, before I’ve returned to my cosy bed, trying to get back to sleep.
Oh, for Christ’s sake! A couple of original expressions have just popped into my mind. Hard-hitting, succinct phrases really, which will fit well with the report. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll forget these turns of phrase if I don’t write them down immediately. So I force myself out of bed once again . . .
This isn’t easy, because it’s getting cold, now it’s the start of winter. Morning temperatures are above zero, but inside the guesthouse there is still no heating.
I first realised how cold it can get here in Kabul around the time I was flying out to Dubai for my R and R. Rest and recreation, they call it. Most development agencies have this, or something akin to this. If you’re working in a dangerous place, you get more frequent breaks than you would if you were working in, say, London or New York, although, to be honest, sometimes those cities can be equally dangerous. I mean, where are you safe these days?
Last year, it was the dead of winter and I was flying out of Kabul airport to Dubai in this small aircraft that’s used to carry us development and security workers, and we’d all got seated when the bloody engine refused to start. It’s just like your car not starting on a winter morning. I wondered if they were going to ask us all to get out and push.
It was freezing cold inside and, as the minutes ticked away, some of us started to panic.
‘We’re going to die of the cold,’ a woman sitting in front said quite loudly.
I heard a countryman, a British soldier seated on the other side, sigh heavily. He looked exhausted. The British had fought a pitched battle in Helmand the week before, and two soldiers had died. From the heat of the battle to the freezing interior of an aircraft: I wondered if he’d been there.
Red-tunicked Afghans emerged with the de-icing machines. Pipes were pulled out, the aircraft was sprayed for several minutes, and finally the engine came to life.
All of us heaved a sigh of relief. Thank God. Not the best way to start your holiday.
Right now it’s colder inside my room than it will be later in the winter, because Zia Hussain, the guesthouse owner, is such a miser that he delays switching on the heating for as long as possible. Once the heating is on, it’s warmer than possibly any other place in Kabul. Personally I don’t like bukharis. I feel suffocated whenever one of these traditional Afghan stoves is burning. This guesthouse has heating the way I like it: hot water flowing through pipes. And the way the building is constructed it feels more or less centrally heated.
That’s only one of the reasons I’ve been trying to persuade Amala to enter into a relationship with me. I always come back to her, don’t I? Can’t seem to be able to get her out of my brain.
‘I need more time to think,’ she said on the last occasion.
When I persist, she just shakes her head and smiles. I interpret those little gestures in my own way. The reason she smiles is because she’s saying: ‘Excuse me, James, but I’m sorry. It’s getting cold, but I don’t want to be your bukhari. At least not just yet.’ The shake of the head is practical: Amala reaffirming that her charity’s rules don’t allow her to stay anywhere aside from her own guesthouse.
If someone were to ask me why I continue to remain obsessed with Amala, I could provide any number of reasons. I could say, for instance, that I love how she pouts whenever she’s a bit annoyed with me, or the way her nostrils flare slightly whenever she’s angry or excited. I could describe the luminous quality of her skin, which is the colour of pale moonlight and always has a soothing, calming influence on me, even when she is being, or trying to be, her most acerbic. But if I thought hard about it I would have to say that at my very first glimpse of her I was somehow trapped, captured and dragged further down the tortured path of love because of the idealism I saw shining in her face. It’s a quality I too possessed when I first began to work in post-conflict situations.
Amala has told me about some of her life experiences – what it was like for a young girl with tremendous dreams and poor prospects growing up in Bangladesh. I knew she was telling it like it was, and I knew also that she was the woman for me.
Despite her difficulties she hasn’t become cynical. Idealism still lights up her face. I used to be like her, but gradually I’ve become more cold-hearted, having seen so much. After the time I’ve now spent with her, though, I want to return to the way I used to think and feel, with a belief in our ability to make improvements – the whole reason why we’re here, whether as development experts or security analysts.
She has told me much but also hidden a great deal. I can guess that she has had a hard, deprived childhood; her experiences have toughened her perhaps but certainly not hardened her.
In a short while from now it will be daylight outside. I’ve spent the whole night thinking about Amala and our future, worrying that she will turn down my proposal, but now all of a sudden I feel calm.
I think I’m maturing in my feelings towards her. When we are young we think only of ourselves, but now as I’m approaching mid-life I should see things differently. Why should I need to be jealous of K-Jim? If his love for her is sincere, which I don’t doubt it is, let her respond. I should want her to be happy.
And even as the stars disappear into the emerging light, I realise that this is what true love is all about. Or should be at any rate. Not about yourself but about the other.
More by : Rajesh Talwar