The heat baked both of us. Under the scorching June sun of New Delhi in 1990, only two souls were restless. Moving weight from one leg to the other, occasionally using the already soaked handkerchief to wipe the sweat beads. The rolling fluid travelled downwards and wet the white uniform socks. Nothing saved us from the air thickened by heat. The sun had nothing to complain about, there was a novel and fresh taste to the energy it was sucking today.The school ground was specked with children from primary to the senior class. We were under the strict vigil of the line monitor, class teachers and the Principal.
Was it just the two of us who felt this temperature as unbearable? Or did others also feel the same? She was only two girls ahead of me. In the sea of students, she stood unique, but familiar too.In minutes after I saw her long serpentine plait swaying along with her neck, searching for some aerial relief; I collapsed on the dusty school ground. The next moment, I saw the same girl lying on the bed next to me in the medical room.
“This breed of children is so sensitive. They can’t even take the morning sun! Huh!”, went about the nurse.
We both looked at each other and passed a shy smile. Her cheeks had turned crimson, her pointy nose had a film of moisture.She pointed at my skirt and spoke from her small mouth, “It is completely soiled. Your mother will have a tough job cleaning it”. She rippled into bouts of laughter, showing her grain-sized teeth. Each time she did so, her eyes closed, letting the eyelashes flutter.
“Parasto, your brother Imran has come with your water bottle”, called out the nurse.A broad-shouldered, tallboy handed over the dripping water bottle to Parasto. She immediately opened the bottle and drank like a desert traveller. She offered it to me too, but I had my bottle next to me. After fifteen minutes of cooling, we were sent to our class.
We crossed through the noisy corridors and classrooms on the first and the second floor of the school. At first, we were mute companions, but just as we parted ways to sit at our respective seats in the class, we felt a sense of bond and belonging to each other. Our parting smiles and goodbyes were ceaseless. We didn’t bat our eyelids until being pointed at by the presiding teacher in the classroom.
At the PTM, I got curious when she addressed her father as “Bab”(Father in Kashmiri and Pashto). She spoke in a dialect which sounded similar in spirit and emotion to the Kashmiri language. Our parents shook hands and weirdly so, we all looked alike. Our features, skin tone, hair colour and physique looked identical.This was only the tip of the common mountainous terrains we both belonged to. The land that constructed us, yet hurled us away into the heat of the plains.
Parasto’s family had fled out of Afghanistan, under President Najibullah’s reign. They were a family of many children. Probably her father pre-empted the fall of the Afghan politician and the rise of the Taliban; therefore, decided to leave Kabul and settle in a friendly country.
“So, you can wear a skirt?”, said a nosy girl to Parasto during the lunch break.
I jumped and frowned, “Well, why can’t she?” Strangely, Parasto chooses not to respond. She munched away her sandwich, after sharing a large chunk with me. In the weeks ahead, there was an uninviting atmosphere in the class. The girls didn’t like me hanging out with Parasto. We both were called the ‘New Girls’. In the coming two years of our association, Parasto was the only friend I had made in an alien land. Rather we both had found each other in a foreign land.
We would have our lunch in a less crowded corner of the school building. Since we both were new to the school, it took us a while to discover that.As I write this, I am fresh with moments I had shared with her. Quite like the Kashmiri’s, even the Afghans swear by the kiln and its fresh produce. Even they gobble densely cooked dishes with the baked bread. Curd is an important ingredient in their cooking too. Samovar, with ingenious Afghani designs, brews tea for them too. They also enjoy the mid-evening thick and pink salty tea.Like the Kashmiris, even their dastarkhana(Table cloth)bears all the dishes and plates on it.The dining table was too much of a Western concept, therefore everyone sat in easy-pose to grab the bite.Rabab was their musical companion too.
In her Phasto influenced English she informed me that their country’s president had passed out from a school in the Baramullah district of Kashmir. In exchange, I replied, “My grandmother’s wedding trousseau had come from Peshawar in Afghanistan.”At the cusp of teenage, jumping on the bandwagon should have been our talking point, but we were talking about melons. The red, seed-spotted, golden and bottle green melons, befitting for a baseball. Favourite summer fruit of the Afghans and the Kashmiris. Mountains, vales, willows, springs, streams – that’s how bizarre went the Himalayan girls. Everyday, I carried back home a little bit of Afghanistan, and Parasto had carried back Kashmir.
And then, there was another common melancholy we played. The song of separation.I wonder what was the common thread between two distinct girls? Both Himalayan girls from the remote ends of the Hindukush ranges. Were we both attempting to weave the threads of our common cultural ancestry? Or were we both desperate to connect with another anchorless migrant?
Human life tends to bond, more fiercely in troubled times.We cling so hard to things that take us back to our pleasant past. And if the migration is out of fear and atrocity, then we cling to bleed.We both had inherited troubled native land. Our places of origin were the pawns in the play of strategy and diplomacy. Our baggage of lost identity, clipped roots, nomadic existence, make-to-do dwelling, brought forth the human urge to belong -to humanity. Perhaps that’s what pulled both of us towards each other.
Today I remembered Parasto yet again. The current chaos and terrifying footage from the ancient country have grabbed everyone’s attention. Who would have imagined that a country which stood at the gateway of two prosperous empires, stands ruined and collapsed today? A custodian of vibrant culture, music, language, ethnicity has been robbed of not just its identity but basic humanity. And not just once. Afghanistan has been robbed and mauled by selfish pretenders of peace multiple times. This game of geo-political supremacy has been played for eternity. What we see today is a fruit of the seed sown much long ago by the same peace pretenders; leaving the erstwhile magnificent country as an international stage for war-theatricals.
What do we see on the ground? A land impregnated with landmines, instead of lapis, highways freckled with abandoned tanks instead of Noorjahan (special Afghani mangoes) plantation, natives addicted to opium instead of progression, brandishing of arms instead of Khamak roomals(Afghaniembroidered handkerchief). 40 years and this clink of guns have silenced the music of the tabla and tambour.
And what’s in store for the women? I ask the custodians of world peace. Prompt came the reply, “Well… we will put them in a timemachine and transport them to pre-historic barbarian time.”
Whatever may be the world dynamics, women get the raw deal. And Afghan women; don’t even get the whiff of the deal.While everyone mourns at the viral videos from Kabul, yet again lakhs of helpless women have been left behind to be fed as fodder to the Taliban. Weeks will grow into months, and we will have a new crop of video surfacing – this time showing the primitive lives of Afghan women under the new regime. In the same breath, I want to know were those girls in skirts walking down the streets of Kabul in the 1960s for real? Were those college campuses real or a page from fiction? Did those pictures of men and women stroll down the streets of Kabul for real?
Wonder what will be the fate of the other minorities under the new regime? Will they be given a pass, or will they be the poster pictures to pervade the terror?It is heartening to see the city on my bucket list in shambles. I wish for humanity to prevail in the land where Buddha once preached.