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.
I shared the house with Principal Girard, head of the college where I was going to teach, and his wife. Professor Girard 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.”
Girard was a busy man. He spent his whole day fighting in the offices of various ministers. That was called work in Kabul. “Au revoir, see you in the evening,” he would say every morning, and with that he was gone.
I had seen two giants in Kabul. One was this Abdur Rahman – I will talk about the other one later.
I once 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 from there 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.
His skin was fair, but so cracked and creased by the harsh winters and summers that it had formed contours that resembled the relief map of Afghanistan. His cheeks were red, as though someone had slapped him. But who would have that courage? He was not likely to put on any makeup either.
He was wearing a shalwar, kurta and a waistcoat.
I could not see his eyes. He stood there, his head hanging down, looking at the carpet. He hardly ever raised his eyes from the patterns of the carpet during his stay with me. One was not supposed to look at one’s master or elders in my country – possibly such a custom existed in Afghanistan as well.
But I did see his eyes at times. They looked like two round black balls floating in giant china bowls.
I felt reassured by his size and strength. But I was slightly apprehensive too. He would cook for me like Bheem and like him he would be my bodyguard too. But what if he ever grew angry with me? Then?
I was searching for an example, when suddenly it came to me. A philosopher had once asked Dwijendranath to have quinine when he had fever. Dwijendranath said, “Quinine will get rid of my fever but who will rid me of the quinine? Who?”
Dwijendranath did not have the quinine. But I am a Muslim. I had to do the opposite of what the Hindus did. So Abdur Rahman instantly got the job of being my major-domo, chef-de-cuisine and handyman – three in one. When I informed him of this, he muttered, “I will try to make Sahib happy with my chashm, sar and jaan” – meaning, with my eyes, head and life.
I asked, “Where did you work before?”
He answered, “In the army, in charge of the mess. I finished there just a month ago.”
“Can you fire a rifle?”
He laughed heartily.
“What can you cook?”
“Pulao, qorma, kebab, faluda – ”
I said, “You need ice to make faluda. Is there an ice-factory here?”
He said, “From the mountains of Paghman.” He pointed at the snow peaks through the window. It was mid-summer, yet one could see the white snowy ridges on the high blue mountain peaks. I asked in surprise, “One goes up so high to get ice?”
Abdur Rahman replied, “No, Sahib, in the winter, people make big holes in the ground at a much lower level to store ice. In summer they dig the ice out and bring it down to the city on donkeys.”
He proved to be resourceful too. I discovered that there were no utensils or crockery in the house. I told him, “Go and buy everything from the market. You probably won’t be able to cook tonight. Make lunch tomorrow. And, by the way, I need tea in the morning.”
He left with the money.
I too left for Kabul in the early afternoon. There was a nice breeze, and I was enjoying the stroll. On the way I saw Abdur Rahman returning, carrying a mountain of goods on his back. I said, “Why did you have to carry it all by yourself? You could have hired a porter.”
The gist of what he said was this – who in Kabul could carry a load that he was unable to carry?
I told him, “But you could have shared the load.”
I guessed he either did not figure that out or did not want to.
He was carrying the load in a big net bag. I could see firewood, oil, salt – everything in there. He said, as I resumed my stroll, “Sahib, come back home for dinner.” The way he said it, I did not have the courage to get into an argument with him on this deserted road in a foreign land. I started walking fast towards Kabul, saying, “Okay, okay.”
I had not gone very far when I saw Monsieur Girard returning on a clip-clopping tonga.
As my boss and the head of the college, he was within his rights to scold me, and he did so now. He said, “You neither have the strength nor the weapons that one needs to be out at night in Kabul.”
It was always best not to disagree with your boss if you lacked enough grey matter in your head, especially when his better half was sitting next to him and supporting him, “Oui, certainement, évidement” (yes, certainly, evidently).
I had heard that there was only one occasion when there had been an agreement between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. But apparently it was the opposite in France; there, one’s spouse agreed with one all the time.
Abdur Rahman came to the living room once to make sure that I had paid heed to his threat and obeyed him.
It was not the month of Ramzan. Yet I thought that if I was lucky I might get my dinner by sehri time.
I dozed off while waiting for the meal and was awoken by a sound. I saw Abdur Rahman waiting with an aftaba and a bowl for me to wash my hands. It was summer, yet as I was washing my face I sensed how cold the water of the Kabul river was. I was sure that it would create contours of relief maps on my face in no time.
Looking at the dinner table I had no doubt that my servant Abdur Rahman had indeed been in charge of the army mess.
A kilo of lamb qorma was swimming in a thick gravy of onion and ghee, not in a small bowl but in a big dish, a few nuts and raisins were playing hide-and-seek here and there, while one outcast potato was trying to kill itself by drowning in one corner. There were eight jumbo-sized shami kebabs on a plate. A big serving dish was full of pulao with a roasted chicken sitting on top.
Seeing me speechless, Abdur Rahman hurriedly said, “I have more in the kitchen.”
You could scold someone if he served three portions of food to one person. But what could you do if he served food for six people and said that there was more?
The cooking was excellent and I was hungry too. So I ate much more than an average Bengali normally would. That was the opening night and Abdur Rahman was checking out my ability to eat like the way a student of medicine concentrates on his first cadaver dissection.
When I could eat no more, I said, “Bas – enough. Fine cooking, Abdur Rahman.”
Abdur Rahman disappeared. He returned with a plate of faluda. I told him, taking care to show a great amount of appreciation, that I did not like desserts.
Abdur Rahman disappeared again. This time he came back with a tumbler full of crushed ice. I was at a loss, “What is this?”
He showed me by removing the ice. There were grapes underneath. He said, “Barki grapes of Bagh-e-Bala – the best in Afghanistan.” He then sat down with some ice and grapes on a saucer and started rubbing each grape very gently with the ice – in the way that women in our land rub lime on a pumice stone to prepare it before making pickles.
I figured out that the grapes were not cold enough; so it was a special way of making them colder. It was not necessary – my tongue and palate froze when I tried to bite the grapes. I ate about eight of them with the courage of the Khyber Pass just to prove to Abdur Rahman that his master was not an uncivilised barbarian. I could not manage any more. I told him, “Enough, Abdur Rahman, now you go and eat properly.”
Excerpted with permission from In A Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan, Syed Mujtaba Ali, translated from the Bengali by Nazes Afroz, Speaking Tiger.
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