The four poems below and the short story were written almost 20 years ago at the time of the first withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan. It is tragic that 20 years later there is a sense of déjà vu in reading these. The question posed in the story, The Stone Age, finds ample answers in the images from present-day Afghanistan we see today. Clearly, nothing has changed, or if it has, not for the better. To superpowers, Afghan lives don’t matter.
In the Back Light of the Sun
In the back light of the sun
The ruined houses
And Afghan children sitting on the walls
On the cover of the American Art Journal
Save for the slight smoke still rising from them!
A More Than 200-Feet High Pillar of Smoke
‘A more than 200-feet high pillar of smoke
Twisting and twirling upon itself
And unfurling above it an umbrella of dense black smoke
Erupted from the belly of a small bomb
And spread all over Qandhar
Darkness descended at noon
As ash fell to the ground from the dark smoke
People walking about were killed.’
In the coming generations when
A grandmother narrates this
Children will shut their eyes thinking it is just a story ....and go to sleep!
Don’t Worry About Khanum, Now, Abbu
Don’t worry about Khanum, now, Abbu
She doesn’t take her sleeping pills
The bitter medicines too have stopped
The way she used to get scared at night
Seeing the flying tents in the sky
And clutch at the walls and say:
‘Stop! Stop! The house is moving!’
She doesn’t get those fits anymore
A tank suddenly entered the house
We buried her on Thursday,
Whatever little we could find of her
Don’t worry about Khanum, now, Abbu!
The soles of the feet had begun to fester
Bullets sprayed in the streets
Like shooting stars breaking upon Kabul
Like suns bursting here and there
And entire houses blown away
Once again, Abbu said: ‘Let us run away’
But this time Mahmood wrenched his hand free
Pulled out a slingshot from his pocket and asked:
‘Abbu, whose side is Allah on?
Theirs or on my side?’
The Stone Age
The bomb had fallen some distance away but the walls of the house could not bear the impact of its explosion. After all, they were made of mud. In a matter of moments, they crumbled. His younger sister was buried in the debris, and died. The elder sister picked him up and ran, her face unveiled. The smoke in the alley provided a veil. The father held the mother’s hand, tucked a bundle of some belongings and a trunk that was always kept packed and ready, and they all ran away.
He was then four years old.
“Abbu...here...the goras are on that side!”
And he jumped away from his Apa’s side. His eyesight was sharp. Coming from the road ahead, a jeep passed by showering bullets along the way.
“Naseer has saved us!”
His sister smothered him with kisses. His mother showered him with love and blessings.
There was a strange sort of glimmer in Naseer’s eyes. Like the glint in the eyes of a cheetah. He was now getting used to this life in the jungle. Now even the memory of a home was beginning to fade. They would stay away for two or three months at a stretch, then return briefly. To collect the scattered pots and pans, boxes and bundles and then flee once again. Dadi was the only one who stayed put ... lying in one place like a bundle of hay.
He was two years old when he had first heard the roar of the aeroplanes and the thunder of bombs. His entire house was shaking as he clung to his mother’s breast and trembled. His mother had tied him to her chest with a sling fashioned out of a wide piece of cloth. She clutched a bundle in one hand and held Bano, his younger sister, in the other. His father had a little trunk tucked under his arm. He was muttering something under his breath as he dragged his mother till the door, and said: “Amma! Try, try a little! Hold Allah’s finger and come till the mosque.”
Dadi too was muttering and cursing God knows who: his father or god? Naseer’s eyes had been glittering then, too. He had seen the stars falling from the skies. And the suns bursting upon the earth. An innocent thought had crossed his mind even then: “Why is Allah so terrifying? ... Why does he scare us so?”
Two years is far too short an age but the eyes... the eyes can swallow and gobble a great deal during this tender age. And hoard all that they see. To ruminate over later, like camels do!
The mosque was filled with the stench of blood. Bleeding hands, knees, shoulders, necks! There were very few people who were whole and intact. For Naseer this was the “normal” view of the world. This is the world he had seen from the day he had opened his eyes. This is the world he had grown up in. To see blood on the ground and want to splatter it with his feet was much the same to him as splashing his feet in rain water.
He heard many new names in the mosque. He knew the names of most of his clansmen. But Russian, American, Bush, Turgenov, firangi, copter, helicopter.... these seemed to be names of some other clan. Their jungles must be beyond those hills – from where these helicopters flew in, from where these balls of fire came in to destroy their homes. He hadn’t yet forgotten the death of his tiny sister.
“Houses fall down, don’t they, Abbu... then, why do we live in houses?”
He was three years old when he had asked this question. Those days they had come to stay in a city with pucca houses.
“It rains fire outside, son, because bombs fall,” his father had said.
“Who drops them?”
“They ... those white people who come in helicopters.”
“Why do they drop bombs?”
“Because they are our enemies!”
“Are we, too, their enemies?”
“Of course, what else?”
And a year and a half later, he had asked:
“So, can we too drop a bomb on their mountain?”
“We don’t have helicopters, son.”
“Then how will we drop them?”
“We have the fidayeen; that’s why we have sent our martyrs.”
He didn’t understand. The words were becoming difficult... fidayeen! He added another word to his piggy-bank. He would “spend” it when he grew up. Though he had fallen silent, he was far from satisfied with such answers. But like flies, these questions would keep buzzing around his face. He would go and sit outside and work on making his sling-shot.
He would often remember his Dadi. She had told him many stories during the few months that they had spent in the “black” mosque in Qandahar.
“The monstrously tall Artful Imposter had taken the fairy and trapped her in a sky-high tower. The fairy lived in one tower and the Artful one in the other. He had trimmed the fairy’s wings so she could not even fly away. The twin towers were so tall that no one could reach their tops. When people gathered at the base of the towers, he would pluck one feather from her and let it drop. The people milling about on the ground would run for thousands of miles to catch it.”
“Even the prince?” he had asked.
“Yes, even he was there but what could he do? He could neither climb up nor fly...”
Suddenly, a coin fell out of the piggy-bank. He said, as though to himself: “Why didn’t they send the fidayeen?”
By now, he had understood the meaning of fidayeen. Had Dadi been here, he would have told her. He asked his father where she was.
He answered, “She is with Allah now... he has taken her.”
“Dadi, too?” And he fell silent again.
It was hard to tell if the minars of the mosque were getting smaller or he was becoming taller. He would get up off Dadi’s bundle and climb the steps of the minar, like a rat scampering out of a sack. He could see the entire city from there. From that vantage point, the city looked a large brick kiln. Smoke was spiralling out from many places. They must be the bakers’ shops. Meat must be cooking there. Kababs being made
Naseer was growing up very quickly. His clothes would keep getting short for him. Dadi would keep finding clothes for him, God knows from where and whose. He had heard the rumble of the tanks from that minar. The ground would seem to shake when they trundled through the bazaar. They looked like those iron rhinos from Dadi’s magical stories, hurtling forward with their snouts raised, spewing fire.
There was another attack. The rhinos surrounded the mosque and set up a siege that lasted days. In the darkness of the night some people would be let out from the basement of the mosque, like cattle. Crawling on their knees and elbows, they would cross the alley and go across the clear ground. Naseer, too, escaped like this, along with his Ammi and Apa. Abba and Dadi were left behind.
There was another village behind the mountain. Some families found refuge in a stable. There was little noise here. Abba would visit every few days. Once, Abba didn’t come for many days. Ammi would fall in prostration and pray. She would always be praying. Her eyes would always be wet with tears. Once, Naseer asked her as he lay on the ground: ‘What are you praying for, Ammi?’
‘I was asking Allah to keep your father safe, my son.’
Naseer kept lying on the ground and staring at the sky. Then, he asked softly: ‘Ammi, whose side is Allah on? Our side, or theirs?’
He turned around. But Ammi had gone.
One night, Naseer tucked his sling in the folds of his salwar and sniffing his way in the dark reached the same basement of the mosque. The sight that beheld his eyes numbed him. The mosque was completely destroyed from inside. There was debris everywhere and a stink, too. As his eyes got accustomed to the darkness, he saw the arms and legs of corpses sticking out from beneath the wreckage. The way to the minar was blocked with rubble. When morning broke and he moved towards the main gate, he spotted some people. Their nose and face swaddled with cloth, they carried shovels in their hands. Perhaps they had come to clear the rubble. Hiding as best as he could from them, Naseer came out of the mosque. Seeing a crowd of people outside, he quickly climbed into a truck that was parked beside the wall.
An avalanche of dead bodies, their arms and legs missing, and badly mutilated corpses began to be piled into the truck. A Naseer crouched in a corner, nearly buried under the pile of dead bodies. He had seen piles of such half-cut, partly-skinned goats, loaded on to carts, being brought to the butcher’s shop.
He lay where he was. The truck moved. Who knew which butcher’s shop he would be dumped at! During the journey that lasted some hours, it is hard to tell whether he passed out or fell asleep. But when the truck emptied its contents in the maw of a mountain and he fell out, he came to his senses with a start. The truck dumped the debris into a large pit and went away. Naseer crawled from under that rubble of dead humans. A naked rocky mountain rose above him; it was pockmarked with the mouth of caves looking like small, open rat holes. Climbing on all fours, he scrambled up the mountain face like a scared fox and sought refuge in a cave-like crevice.
He could see the rubble from here. By the evening the pit had been filled and closed. Naseer stayed there all night. He could hear some human voices in the darkness of the night. Perhaps some people were staying in the caves near him. He could see some eyes prancing about; maybe they belonged to wild rabbits. Searching around him with his hands, Naseer collected some small stones and pebbles. The sling was still tucked in a fold of his salwar. He took it out. He found a small, pointed stone which he began to rub against a bigger stone. He remembered his Dadi.
“In the beginning of time, men made weapons out of stone. They hunted for food and lived in caves. Those clans that had fire would be considered superior to others. They moved to open grounds, travelled and conquered new territories...”
Naseer was preparing a stone weapon by rubbing a small, sharp stone against a bigger stone.
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