Kabul In The Good Times
We speak to three persons who remember, vividly, a Kabul that they knew and loved before the war of the last 20 years tore it apart.
Before the Russians, the Americans and not to forget the Afghans themselves bombed it into ruins, there was another Kabul—quiet, beautiful, unhurried and full of history. It was a city where Hindi films were popular, Indian diplomats sought postings and Hindustani classical musicians loved playing. What was it like then? Three visitors from the pre-violence days remember a city they loved.
(Lt. Col. Ramachandra): It came as a complete surprise. I had to do one month of briefing in Delhi before leaving—completely pointless. There was a list of some ten chaps I had to meet. ‘Go and meet so and so,’ they said—I went to meet him and he was more interested in knowing what car I planned to buy in Afghanistan. I had to meet the Naval procurement officer. ‘What do they manufacture?’ he asked me. ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Then why are you here to see me?’ An MOD joint secretary was very upset when he learnt that I didn’t speak Persian. ‘What will you do there?’ he asked. ‘What if you have to visit the Valley of Silence? Or go on a shikar with the royal family?’ The diplomatic circles of course spoke English and after the first 3 or 4 months I picked up key words. Those bureaucrats live in a fool’s paradise behind their desks…
There was no great military co-operation between India and Afghanistan – all of us military attaches were there as ‘open spies’. Not spying on Afghanistan, but on other countries—the best information about a country is in a third country.
The Afghan Army was not large but it was sufficient. Besides, every Afghan had to serve two years in the Army or Air Force. Before India’s Independence, Afghan officers used to come for courses to India. That stopped. The Russians, Americans and Turkish were not only training them free of cost, but also paying them the same salaries as their own personnel.
(S.K. Singh): A number of Afghans used to come to India for further studies. I had the authority to send 85 senior officers to India for training. People from the military, civilians, politicians… Their CAs trained in India…
(Ramachandra): No country is another country’s friend. Circumstances make friends, when it’s convenient. At the time when I was there, relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan were sour over the recognition of the Duran line in Afghanistan. Afghanistan sought our support on this matter but we didn’t give it because if we did we would have lost our own case against the Chinese over the MacMohan line. The Afghans were unhappy with us on this score.
The Indian government was completely inept. At one point, when relations with Pakistan were bad, Afghanistan couldn’t send grapes through to India, who normally bought their entire crop. This would have meant a huge economic loss for them and they asked the Ambassador to ask India to either airlift the crop or send vessels to Iran. The Ambassador was worried that we would lose their goodwill if we didn’t—the foreign secretary’s reply was, ‘We have a traditional friendship with Afghanistan…’ By the time Nehru agreed to send aircraft, the Soviets had bought the entire crop, even if they dumped it all in the Caspian Sea because they had their own grapes… I was constantly reminded of this during my stay.
(S.K.): Relations with India were very friendly then. We constructed a huge hospital in Kabul with Indian doctors and nurses. It also had a training wing for Afghani doctors and nurses. AIIMS was in charge of the training programmes—senior doctors from India came to give 6- 8 weeks of training in different disciplines, at which time all the most important people in Afghanistan turned up. Doctors and patients…
(Ramachandra): Roads and communication were not very developed then but what existed was because of the competition between the Soviet Union and America. The Soviets built a road from the Herat border to Kandahar. The Americans built a road from Kandahar to Kabul and Kabul to Peshawar—to their ally Pakistan. The Soviets built the Kabul airport. The Americans built the Kandahar airport that they are bombing now. It was the most modern airport at that time—underground tanks, fitted with the most advanced gadgets. But who went to Kandahar? Maybe a single Dakota landed there!
(S.K.): I also began the Indian Technical, Economic, Cooperation Mission which was involved in development activity. I had irrigation and power engineers, agricultural researchers; we used to provide fruit and vegetable seeds. I started a trout farm. We built—for the first time in the country—a huge sugarcane processing plant.
(Ramachandra): The Russians were better liked – they would mix with the Afghan labour on their projects whereas the Americans lived in a separate camp. The Afghans were friendly people. But only about 10%—men and women—were educated; they were broad-minded. The remaining 90% were under the influence of the mullahs. Purdah had been compulsory until the year before my arrival. The Queen and Prime Minister Daud’s wife were the first to come out of purdah. The PM was a very strong man – when the mullahs started protesting against the lifting of purdah, he told the security to use live ammunition. The protests died out.
(S.K.): Women were not oppressed then. Some of them wore burqah but it wasn’t compulsory, they could dress in European clothes.
(Ragini Deshpande): There was a popular anecdote, a party joke doing the rounds in Kabul. When Daud lifted purdah, he called all his officers and ministers for a party, where it was mandatory for them to bring their wives—without burqah. The wives apparently all turned up —wearing dark glasses…
I once got on to a crowded bus coming back from Mazar-e-Sharif. A farmer sitting next to his wife gave me his seat. The wife was in a full burqah— suddenly I realised that there was a stream of smoke coming out from under the billowing burqah! I was desperate for a smoke but didn’t want to smoke openly—we got chatting and then she led me to the discovery that the bus stations had ‘family rooms’ where she could retire with her husband and take off her burqah—there, she and I could smoke in peace.
(Ramachandra): My relations with the Pakistan Embassy were very good. Their Ambassador was from the same corps as me—Skinner’s Horse—and had served with me at the same station—Ahmednagar—before partition. I also knew the Military Attache.
During the ’65 operations, we were told not to have diplomatic relations with them. The Pakistani Air Attache lived across the road. One day he saw a projector coming to my house and thought that I had a Hindi movie to watch so, after dark, he and his wife marched in to see the movie!
(Ragini): As white passport holders, we were allowed transit visas to come through Pakistan to Afghanistan. My father was very excited about seeing Pakistan, and my brother, he and I spent a day in Lahore and reached the Khyber Pass by bus 5 or 6 hours before the visa expired. As Baba got out of the bus, he realised that in his excitement, he had forgotten to take Afghan visas for us children – after all, Afghanistan was considered ‘home’. We had to sneak past the border security and our situation was ‘rectified’ once back in Kabul.
The Kabul Three
Lt. Colonel Ramachandra was posted in Jammu when he was unexpectedly summoned to New Delhi—he was to go to Afghanistan, where he served as Military Attache from June ’63 to December ’66.
Ragini Deshpande’s father Vasudev Deshpande, taught Hindustani classical music in Kabul from early ’75 to July ’79. She spent a great deal of time there and was encouraged to travel by her father, who believed that travel was the best education.
S.K. Singh (ex-Foreign Secretary) was posted as Ambassador to Afghanistan from February ’77 to the autumn of ’79. He also served as Ambassador to Lebanon, Jordan, Austria and Pakistan.
(Ramachandra): There was a great deal of partying there—we used to say that a day without a diplomatic party was a holiday. On their independence day, there would be a military parade and then 15 days of partying with kabab shops and fireworks in the evening. It was a dry state but obviously alcohol flowed in the diplomatic circles.
(S.K.): The Soviet embassy was the largest but the American, British and Indian embassies were very large. We also had Consul Generals in Kandahar and Jalalabad.
(Ragini): We first stayed in a hotel for 3 months—it was more convenient since my mother was joining us later. On the same side as the hotel, facing the Dariya river, were a large number of old ‘chai-khanas’. These were busy places—the finer ones had paintings, sometimes a stuffed tiger on the wall, old record players playing Saigal songs. All day, there would be people sitting there, drinking chai, sometimes playing chess with four people standing behind directing their moves. Baba was completely oblivious to the fact that I was the only girl there and since nothing adverse ever happened, the awareness of being the only woman in a situation quickly got corroded.
Kabul was very cosmopolitan. It was a popular tourist destination for the hippies. There were a lot of foreigners living there but the Americans, the Russians, were very approachable, not like people in foreign missions now. There were great Italian food joints and ice cream parlours. There were some great picnic spots where everyone would set out in regal style with carpets, cooking utensils, meat, rice and in my father’s case, harmonium and tabla.
The carpets would be laid out on the grass under cherry and almond trees, the pulao would get cooked slowly and the Afghans would dance their strange, slow-motion dance. The atmosphere was dramatically different. Everything except smooching and sex used to happen outdoors!
They had a Chicken street (like in Nepal) with rows of shops selling everything—carpets, hashish, tea, the concept of Afghan life.
(Ramachandra): A number of Indian cultural delegations came from India—there were regular music and dance performances. Artistes like Bhimsen Joshi, Vilayat Ali Khan, Indrani Rehman, movie stars like Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor…
The Afghans understood our classical music, so much so that I used to feel ashamed. The King used to invite the delegation for a special audience to the palace.
(S.K.): Afghanistan was culturally very alive. The Pashtuns love dance, music. They have their own drums, flutes, stringed instruments. Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s main disciple was an Afghan— Ustad Sarahang. President Daud loved Indian classical music. While I was there, we had Kumar Gandharva, Omkarna Thakur, Bhimsen Joshi…
(Ragini): Hindustani classical music was very popular there – there used to be a gharana founded by Ustad Sarahang. My father’s students included several Afghans including ministers, French anthropologists, Germans from the language school, Americans from the peace corps…
There was a huge fan following for Hindi films —Bobby was released almost at the same time as in Inda. Even the street romeos knew some key phrases. They would catcall, Shaadi karogi?
(Ramachandra): I travelled a lot. I visited the Bamiyan twice. I went once with Humayun Kabir the education minister and once with the family.
(S.K.): We brought in seven archeologists and chemists to clean up, restore, revive the Bamiyan statues. I visited it five times.
(Ramachandra): There were quite a few Indians there – mainly wholesale traders. There were also many Indians working in USAID. All the gold or silversmiths were Hindu or Sikh Indian Afghans. Their ancestors had been brought back by Mahmood Ghaznavi, who made 17 raids on India – he never bothered to convert them.
(S.K.): I used to travel a great deal. I went to Badarshah—the Wakhan corridor—close to the Chinese border… It was a fascinating country and people. You must remember that for several hundreds of years, Buddhism was here. Right up to the 18th or 19th century, there was one corner of Afghanistan where the Hindu Shahi kings ruled. Ranjit Singh conquered part of Afghanistan. Not for long – for about 10 years. Akbar sent an army under Birbal. Jalalabad was founded by Birbal. Akbar’s full name was Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar. Babar married the daughter of the Amir of Kabul. His tomb is here.
(Ragini): I set out alone to Mazar-e-sharif on a local luxury bus, with other Afghans and a few tourists. My father had told me to stop halfway and stay with an Indian music lover—a mining engineer—who had invited him there. There was a slight technical problem—Baba hadn’t informed him of my arrival and it was a non-family station. He was aghast when I turned up at his small bedroom and living room set. So he arranged for me to stay next door with his Afghan junior colleague who lived with his family—old mother, wife, son, two or three young brothers—in quarters that had just one more room. All day, we sat on their Afghan carpets and I chatted to them in my broken Dari. It was ’76 but this was a remote place (not yet clued into Amitabh Bachhan) so the kind of questions I had to field were ‘Is Sadhna married?’ I had to cook up stories to keep the conversation going! Finally, everyone had retired for the night when the old woman suddenly knocked on my door—she had the biggest ever stone in her hand! I first thought she was going to kill me! After much pointing, I understood that I was to put it against the door. I had to wonder what it was that I was supposed to barricade myself against and had to conclude that she didn’t trust her own son!
I stopped at another Indian house on the trip—thankfully a family posting—planning to go see the poppy fields at the Russian border. Ambassador S. K. Singh chanced on me there and was shocked to learn of this ‘young girl travelling on her own’! So he suggested I go with him in his car so I travelled like royalty for a while and went to areas where I might not have gotten permits.
(Ramchandra): An Afghanistan delegation that went to India came back and said, ‘The poor in India are poorer than the poor in Afghanistan.’
(S.K.): Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973 by his brother-in-law Daud Khan, who declared Afghanistan a Republic. Daud Khan became Executive President. Zahir Shah left for Rome.
Afghanistan, until the Soviet troops came in 1979, followed a system that was very close to a Greek democracy kind of governance. Afghan society consisted of Pashtun tribals and other ethnicities—Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkomans, Hazaara Shias, Herati Shias. The rule all over was through the chiefs of each predominant tribe in the villages. They in turn came under the Woleswalis—district governors. About 6 -10 Woleswalis would fall under the Provincial governor—the Wali. There were not too many police stations, officers, inspectors. There were no tax collectors at that time, no customs duties.
In May 1978, the Saur revolution took place. Taraki became the first Communist president. He declared that Afghanistan would remain a republic but a thoroughly non-aligned republic.
Amongst the Communist leadership there were two parties—the more radical Khalq party, and the more liberal Parchan party. Taraki, the president, from the Khalq party, was a bit of a doddering, impractical old man, an ideologue. His deputy prime minister was a very tough young man called Hafiqullah Amin, who had been educated in Columbia University—a modern man. He felt threatened by Babrak Karmal, the vice-president, who was the leader of the Parchan party. He was a scholar, a non-revolutionary kind of intellectual. Hafiqullah Amin planned to get rid of Babrak. Babrak was clever—he quietly went off to the Soviet Union. But the seeds of dissension and distrust had been sown. Hafiqullah, through his Secret service chap—Colonel Wardak—had Tariki killed. After which he made himself president.
The Afghans are a very independent people, xenophobic—they don’t brook interference in their affairs. To ensure minimum interference from the Soviet Union, Hafiqullah became closer to the Americans, Germans, Austrians, Italians. That is when the Soviets sent the Army. Hafiqullah was killed. And Babrak came back as President.
I helped the then Minister of civil aviation and tourism, Shah Mahmood Ghazi and his wife to leave the country in ‘78. One of my cherished memories is the evening we spent with them just hours before they left. I also helped Noor Ali, Daud’s finance minister, and his wife to leave. I interceded with Hafiqullah and the Saudi ambassador, who had been 3rd secretary in Teheran at the same time as when I had been 3rd secretary there. We were very close.
(Ragini): Baba used to say that India could import just two thieves to ransack the city —unlocked doors, unbarred windows, no barricades. You never heard abusive language or shouting in the streets.
The Afghans have the longest ever greeting—‘How are you, how are your father, mother, wife, children, etc. etc. And tell me more news about yourself’. People would often say the greeting simultaneously since a detailed reply thankfully wasn’t expected.
When my husband Prashant went back in the eighties, I asked him to locate the house we used to stay in – but he couldn’t find it probably because it didn’t exist anymore.
The other day, in the documentary ‘Behind the veil’, I saw a picnic spot that we used to frequent. It was deserted, a ruin – the fountain that used to be full was broken. Afghanistan then seemed so poised for being forward-looking. After those years, every time something happened there, we used to say, it can’t get worse. And then it did.
This story was first published in the November 2001 issue