In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan

By Syed Mujtaba Ali

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I rented a house in the village of Khwajamollah, about two and a half miles away from Kabul. I acquired a servant too, along with the house. Principal Girard, the head of the college where I was going to teach, was French. He introduced us formally, ‘His name is Abdur Rahman. He will do all your bidding—from polishing your shoes to killing your enemies.’ It meant he was my ‘Harfan-Moula’, my ‘Jack of all trades.’

…I had seen two giants in Kabul. One was this Abdur Rahman—I will talk about the other one later. I measured him from head to toe with a tape—he was six feet four inches. His width was proportionate to his height. His arms came down to his knees and his fingers hung like a bunch of plantains. His feet were the size of a small boat. His shoulders were so broad that if he had been Amir Abdur Rahman instead of my chef, he could easily have carried the entire weight of Afghanistan on them. His mouth stretched from one ear to the other—he could have swallowed a whole banana sideways. His nose sat atop his face like a rugged mountain, and he had no forehead. His head was covered with a big turban but I had no doubt that it was so small that a baby hat would have come down to his sideburns.

The second attraction of Kabul was its bazaars. People who had been to the old bazaars of Agra, Amritsar or Benaras, would know what they looked like. Narrow lanes with small cubicles on both sides, at chest height, double or treble the size of roadside kiosks. The front would protrude like a box eating up road space. Some shops had hinged doors so that at night they could put them up and close their upper halves.

There were small holes beneath the shops, which were either used as storage space, or by cobblers plying their trade. In fact cobblers occupied thirty per cent of them. If the Pathans of Peshawar had their shoes mended once a week, the Kabulis did it three times. A man who had no work would park himself in a shop while the cobbler would stick a few new nails in his shoe or sandal.

You thought that they had to buy something if they sat in a shop? Never. Kabuli shopkeepers were not at all worried about selling their merchandise. A ‘quick turnover’ was a concept, alien to the Orient. Even Calcutta was laidback; the shawl-sellers of Chitpur or the attar sellers of Bara Bazaar still kept this tradition going.

They would talk about everything, except for politics. Even that would be discussed but you had to be a trusted friend in order for them to do that. The habituees of the bazaar of Kabul were very clever—in three days they would find out if you had been a frequent visitor to the British Legation or not. It was unlikely for an Indian to be a spy for the Russians or the Afghan foreign office. The bazaar would share all its ‘bazaargap’ with you once they had established that you stayed away from the places of high politics. And what ‘bazaargap’! From women’s liberation in Turkistan in Bolshevik Russia; to Janakibai, the exotic dancer of Peshawar; to how the wife of the Viceroy in Delhi managed to get diamonds and emeralds without paying a penny. Such colourful stories. After keeping your ears and eyes open for a few days, you would be in a position to figure out how much of what you heard was true and how much concocted. You would begin to understand if two-thirds or three-quarters of it was cooked up.

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