“After a hundred years
Nobody knows the place, —
Agony, that enacted there,
Motionless as peace.
Weeds triumphant ranged,
Strangers strolled and spelled
At the lone orthography
Of the elder dead.
Winds of summer fields
Recollect the way, —
Instinct picking up the key
Dropped by memory.”
( “A Hundred Years”, Emily Dickinson)
Anupama Chandra is a film editor in Delhi, India. She was a resident of Kabul, Afghanistan from 1975 to 1980. While media pundits parse the future of a country that has been in continuous battle since the 1980s, Anupama literally thumbed these three memories on her phone to her friends. The only changes I’ve made are to Americanize her British spellings.
There is no point in idealizing Afghanistan as a short-skirted feminist paradise before the fundoos took over - it was never that place. Kabul was cosmopolitan, and over there my parents and their friends, fresh out of India became much smarter and more fashionable, and dreamt dreams they never dared to in India (my parents and their friends eventually drove overland from Afghanistan across Iran, Turkey, and Europe). They had parties where they danced to “Jumping Jack Flash” and one number by the Ventures “A Go-Go” that began with some sort of a countdown. And every Friday, we drove out of Kabul to wonderful places in the country.
There were friendly faces everywhere. There was poverty everywhere too. But not what you could call “abject.” It was so widespread as to hardly invite comment, but even as a child, I thought it was painful to see the roses Afghans (and me) loved so much growing out of rows of rusty KLIM cans on boundary walls. The local kids I played with were always in the same clothes and the same plastic slippers, but we played together and were happy.
As for the skirts. . . oh the Iranian women in their bouffants and stilettos, hairdressing salons with ornate telephones [maybe Petra von Kant has one in Fassbinder’s film] and gilt mirrors, wedding parties with multi-tiered cakes and belly dancers, Aziz’s with its mannequins wearing lovely things and one flavor of ice-cream (vanilla) it was always too cold to eat, and the entire country madly, badly addicted to Afghan pop stars and Hindi films. And as for short skirts. . . er, yes. But also outraged Afghan women sneaking up behind my mother and her friends in supermarkets and severely pinching their bare waists (saris).
My parents had “cocktail parties,” and I was always disappointed ki why wasn’t there a giant cardboard rooster with a fancy tail placed in the background. At one such, Afghanistan’s biggest singing star - Paryssa Marcelle - drifted in, looking only about twenty times more beautiful than on TV. We stared at her in stunned silence (“gosh it’s paryssa marcelle”) - she looked around uncertainly. In that era of many parties, she’d come to the wrong one. But then my father shouted “Hurrah!!!” And rushed up and hugged her. We talked about it for months afterward.
None of this would have been so magical without the magical setting we had stumbled into. Lapis lazuli skies peeking through gaps in the high peaks of white mountains crowded together, feeling as if they might crash down on you. Wild tulips growing in grass-like velvet next to streams in Paghman and Chilistoon. Fragrant roses as big as dinner plates growing as a matter of course even in the most untended gardens. Hillside orchards exploding in bloom in spring. Snow so deep in the winter that often someone had to shovel it away from your front door so that you could open it. I would peel away iced rose leaves from their ice covers and stare at the perfectly formed ice leaf in my hand. After late dinners at friends’, guests would head out carrying buckets of boiling water to throw over their cars - which would have frozen up in the duration.
I could go on. Did I imagine it? Turns out, no. When our Begum (the lady who worked in our house) came over here as a refugee, she’d come and visit and we’d reminisce together and she’d moan and say, “oh god it was so wonderful, it was so perfect”. When she was resettled in Canada by the Aga Khan Foundation, she didn’t want to go. Here, she still felt close to home. Here, she could come over and visit me, and we could both share memories that no one else had.
Things we had good laughs about in Kabul:
1. Visiting and slightly nervous friends from India, making quietly surprised noises about signs of culture, civilization, and extreme politeness all around them. But always slightly on edge, perhaps expecting a Pathan bandit to spring out from behind a parked Toyota. One such couple came over for tea, which was served on a tray, but our Begum forgot the milk. Fresh milk was unknown in Kabul, and we all lived off powdered milk.
My mother told me to get the milk. I yelled to the kitchen for “Kutti-e-sheer”. Box in Dari is “Kutti”, so I was asking for a box of milk. But in Hindi, of course, “kutti” is a female dog. Our guests freaked out. NO, WE DO NOT WANT THE MILK OF A LACTATING BITCH IN OUR TEA, THANK YOU.
2. Iranians over for dinner. Everyone very excited. Iranians dying to meet the Indians, Indians determined to impress the Iranians. A lavish Indian dinner laid on which is eaten, eaten, and eaten. The Iranian ladies beam at the Indian ladies, the Indian ladies beam back. Everyone asks about each other’s children and families. The Indian ladies notice some side urgent whispering amongst the Iranian ladies. Finally, one of them takes my mother aside, points to the pooris piled high on a tray and says, “Tell me, Mrs. Chandra, how do you pump the hot air into them?”
[They loved the pooris, and after that, our Begum often had to pop over to theirs to fry pooris for Iranian dinner parties, by popular Iranian demand].
3. A thief in the peach trees in our garden. Our peaches were routinely stolen, but my mother didn’t care so much - we had only three trees. But Begum cared very much. One night she came rushing in to say the thief was in the garden. We went out on the balcony and watched a relaxed shadowy figure flitting amongst the trees below and definitely picking peaches in the dark.
After quite a while, my father (on Begum’s impatient prodding) shouted “Who are you?”.
The guy didn’t miss a beat: “A thief,” he shouted back.
Dad [improvising desperately]: “What are you doing?”
Thief: “Stealing your peaches!”
Dad: “Don’t do that!”
Thief: “Ha Ha Ha!”
Begum let out a volley of curses in Dari of the mf sf variety and rushed down and out into the garden, waving a thick stick. The thief picked another peach, said: “Run faster, fat woman” [she wasn’t, really], let her get within two feet of him before calmly vaulting over the garden wall and disappearing into the night.
After this my father decreed that the peach thief should be allowed to steal the peaches without interference (all of us were in awe of him), but he never returned.
A child’s experience of the 1978 coup:
The child was me. I’m calling it a coup and not a revolution because that’s what everyone around me was yelling: “It’s a coup! A coup!” I learned a new word, which in my head then was probably “Koo”.
My father rushed home from work, having seen his minister getting shot in the courtyard of their office block. Luckily it was all the days of unenlightened parenting, so no effort was made to shield me from the news. He was very hassled because his affable Polish colleague had almost been shot too. My father had hidden under his desk like a sensible Indian, but his Polish pal (whose name I can’t remember right now), thought he might get a few exclusive photos for the press, and leaned out of the window, clicking pictures of the assassination and the gunmen. Frightened colleagues finally dragged him back inside.
My mother filled the bathtub with water, expecting the water to be cut off. Friends drove to the presidential palace (why?) and reported that it was being ransacked, with carpets, cutlery, crystal, and china being thrown onto the road.
I learned a new word: curfew. At 9 p.m., we were under curfew.
I learned another new word: Daresht! (Halt). Daresht! Was the word we dreaded. If you heard it, it meant your time was up. Soldiers shouted it before arresting and dragging curfew-breakers away, never to be seen again.
On some curfew nights, by some unspoken mutual agreement, Afghans went to the rooftops of their houses and shouted “Allah o Akbar! Allah o Akbar!” in a show of defiance.
We couldn’t leave Kabul anymore to go anywhere. Our beloved Kargha lake was especially out of bounds. Years later I heard that the resort had been turned into a KGB interrogation center too.
Television seemed to have been requisitioned and curfewed too. No more entertainment. Just “news” and some really boring songs about peasants and harvests. That was for a while. But then things looked up (for me) - they put on a bunch of great Soviet films which fascinated me, and also Kolargul the bear. The Afghans missed their fare of Afghan music and Hindi films. Their favorite singer Ahmed Zahir was murdered. Rumors went around that his body was found near Kargha.
Everyone was scared and rumors were believed more than the news. One popular one: an innocent man was walking home in the dark when he accidentally stumbled into a pothole on the road. “Fuck the dark!” He shouted at the fused streetlight. Dark in Dari is “tareequi”, and the name of the new president of the new Khalq party was Tarakki. So, the breathless rumor-mongers narrated, he shouted Fuck Tarakki! And soldiers dragged him away, never to be seen again.
Visiting friends for dinner became an anxious business. Everyone would have to leave to get home in time before curfew. No lingering or chatting or addabaazi till the wee hours.
Once we missed the curfew deadline. No one said anything, but we were all tense as my dad drove through the silent streets, hoping we’d get home without encountering police.
But no. Daresht! A soldier leapt out in front of the car from the dark. Our Begum was with us. She threw herself down on the floor under our feet. Seeing only Indians, five minutes from their home, he waved us on. If he’d seen her, he might have taken her away. At least, that’s what we thought.
For me the worst was having to replace all our sports day group synchronized calisthenics flags with red communist ones. And, at various public events, having to listen to badly composed revolutionary music. At one such, an Afghan woman practically yelled a song about “Maadar Maadar Maadarrrr” [motherland], and it was a relief when she decided to impress front-row officials in a show of excitement, and jumped up and away from the mic, because my ears were about to burst.
When the new national anthem came on every evening, everyone said “here it comes.” It was like an alarm clock that signaled “almost time for curfew”.
Even though a child, I understood that people were being disappeared and killed. Tarakki was a sinister, unpopular figure amongst ordinary Afghans, with whom I chatted, or I overheard. The good old days had also ended, I understood that as well.