Musings on Migration, Labour, Politics, Dissent etc.
– Bonojit Hussain
This is an English translation of a short piece originally written in Assamese for the daily Asomiya Pratidin of Assam. 25th September 2010.
Badakhshan province comprises the northeastern most region of Afghanistan sharing much of its border with Tajikistan and a much lesser part with China and Pakistan. In Afghan folklore Badakhshan is known as the roof of the world due to its location amidst the high altitudes of Hindu-kush and Pamir mountain ranges. Predominantly populated by Tajik and Uzbek tribes, it still boosts of being the only province which was never captured or taken over by the Taliban when they ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to until their fall in 2001.
Until 2 years ago Badakhshan was practically inaccessible by road. Now there is an asphalt road, built by the Koreans under NATO/UN led developmental/reconstruction program, connecting the sleepy provincial town of Faizabad to the next provinces of Takhar, Kunduz and beyond. But Faizabad still remains practically inaccessible by road because of increasing presence of Taliban in Kunduz province. And donkeys are still the favorite and only practical mode of transportation for both goods and humans outside the town of Faizabad.
After spending couple of weeks in Kabul, the next assignment allotted to me was Badakhshan. So on the morning of 14th September, I along with my Indonesian colleague and our Afghan Personal Protection Officer (PPO) set out for Faizabad on a Polish MI-24 chopper of Russian make. Our security convoy carrying supplies and weapons was traveling by road to Faizabad. Upon landing in the soviet era airfield in Faizabad, we were told that our security convoy was ambushed by Taliban while traversing through Kunduz province. Frantic phone calls were made by our PPO until all of us were rest assured that all security personnel in the convoy made it alive and un-injured out of Kunduz province.
The rest of the day we spend making yourselves cozy in the tiny guest house; setting up our internet network and re-charging our satellite and mobile phones with generator ran electricity.
Next day’s mission is a random inspection in the districts of Argo, Khash, Jurm and Barahak. As we drove out of Faizabad in 2 Land Cruisers early in the morning, we realized that there is nothing which resembles a road; it is just a mountain dirt track. We drove through knee deep Mountain Rivers, along crevasses and sharp turns; and to make my heart pound faster our drivers were driving as if they were in the broad boulevard of Lyuten’s Delhi on a Sunday.
Already into the 7th hour of the trip, at around 1.30 pm we entered a bazaar in the small mountain hamlet of Jurm. Nicely dressed man were traveling on their donkey, shopkeepers were proudly displaying colourful scarf made in Tajikistan, precious deep blue Lapis Lazuli gilded in silver necklaces, donkey saddles etc. It was nothing less than a scene out of the Nassaruddin hodja comic strip in tinkle comics I read as a child.
Now the first priority for our PPO is to find a secured place to have lunch. He locates a place which serves Kabuli palao, kebabs and khamiri naans with freshly brewed green tea. It was a typical men’s den with the only woman being my Indonesian colleague. Men in traditional dresses were biting into the skewers of kebab or tearing apart the thick khamiri naans, but their eyes were glued to the television. To my bad luck, in the middle of nowhere in the hind-kush mountains, I saw the irritatingly familiar face of Smriti Irani on the television screen, Tolo TV was showing re-run of popular ‘North’ Indian TV drama dubbed in Persian (called Dari in Afghanistan) ‘Saas bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ (Once Mother-in-Law was Daughter-in-Law).
Our PPO and the interpreter who is an unemployment engineer could recognize my surprised look and assured me that ‘Tulsi’ has ravaged family TV time even in the remotest part of Afghanistan. Soon surprise gave way to disgust and then to laughter. As we laughed together enjoying the steaming pot of green tea, our PPO narrated stories of how households were robbed by thieves in Kabul city while the whole family was busy and mesmerized watching ‘Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi.”
Even more interestingly, while another family was being mesmerized at night by ‘Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi’ in the northern city of Mazhar-e-Sharif, thieves entered the compound and made their way out with the 4 tyres of a Toyota car; but before leaving with the tyres they pasted a hand written poster on the windshield of the car which read “THANK YOU TULSI” (the main character of the drama).
Me and my Indonesian colleague expressed our desire to take a stroll in the bazaar after the heavy lunch and hence half our security team went ahead into the bazaar street while we walked behind; little did I know that there are more ‘Tulsi’ surprises in store. Suddenly I noticed big packets with the brand name ‘Tulsi’ and the picture of Smriti Irani on it in a shop. Apparently that is one of the most popular brands of Henna in this part of the world.
A quick conversation with our interpreter convinced me that ‘Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi’ could become this popular in Afghanistan and people could relate to the self styled moral policing of ‘Tulsi’ because, if not more, Afghanistan’s family structure is as oppressive as in many parts of India, especially the North.
The trip back to Faizabad took us around another 5 hours, everyone was exhausted and it was already 9 pm when I settled down in my room. As I slipped inside the warmth of the quilt I remembered the hilarious stories of theft in Kabul and Mazar-e-sharif that our PPO had narrated, I told myself that the same could have happened in our homes in Guwahati if only some of us were not so irritated by Smriti Irani.
Then came the tremors measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale, to which my Indonesian friend in the next room reacted as she was expected to. She, with half closed eyes, ran helter-skelter across the lobby of the guest house. Indonesian earthquakes of that intensity on the Richter scale give different results, namely: thousands of people dead and equal number of houses razed down to the ground.
After the trembles were over, I felt off to deep slumber with the hope that Afghan women won’t start wearing “Mangal Sutras” as it happened in the cities and small towns of Assam after ‘Saas Bhi Bahu Thi’ dislodged news, sports and movies from the television screen.
The next morning I woke up, the mountains around Faizabad were white; it had snowed after the earthquake.