November 1993. Time, unbroken, lurches forward at its own slow pace. For all I know, it will go on this way till eternity. I sit in a corner of the veranda, wondering wistfully whether I’ll ever go back. The Indian women here no longer dream of returning home.
Kakoli and Shoma have accepted their fate; why can’t I? And then I ask myself, why should I? If I accept this, what are my education and my culture worth? I’m not a woman to take such things lying down. Islam doesn’t seem to empower women to talk back. They have to accept all kinds of oppression. Or else the men will either divorce them or kill them.
It’s only November and yet it has already begun to snow lightly from time to time. One more winter has arrived. I see no effort from Jaanbaz’s side to take me away from here. Winter only means sitting quietly in a corner of the room. There’s very little sun, which seems to have been driven out by the cold to some other part of the world. Winter acquires a devastating form here. But we have no shortage of food to speak of. Meat, potatoes, onions and Dalda to cook in have been stored in advance to last four or five months. Just dip into the stocks and eat. There’s no certainty about food the rest of the time though. It’s mostly tea and a potato dish. And to add to this uncertainty, there is malaria. And to treat that, quacks!
My heart trembles to hear of doctors. Abu, my husband’s uncle’s wife, says, “Did you know there’s a new doctor here, Saheb Kamal?”
They’re given to consulting doctors here for no rhyme or reason, even when there’s no illness. Once Nadir Chacha’s wife was unwell. I was absolutely new here then, unaccustomed to the practices in this country …
Suddenly Nadir Chacha says, “I’m going to Mamdekhal, Saheb Kamal. Your aunt is going as well; you come along too.”
I have no wish to go because I’m deeply upset. Only last night Asam Chacha’s daughter Fauji passed on some secret information to me. Although it’s hateful, somewhere in my heart a pain has begun to grow. There’s a woman here named Jahanara, whom I can’t trust at all. Anyone who can be involved in an illicit relationship with a man from outside the family can also be involved with someone who’s part of the family – such as Jaanbaz. There was always a relationship between them. Jahanara used to be in love with Jaanbaz once. Fauji disclosed to me the details of their relationship last night.
Still, I have to accompany Nadir Chacha. It isn’t just his wife, Dranai Chacha’s wife and children are coming too. A truckful of people are travelling, much in the same way that sheep are transported back home. A large mattress has been laid out near the partition between the back and the driver’s cabin. Sitting at the tail end means a jerky ride. I have occupied a corner.
We’re passing the Maktab market. Going there is usually an outing for the women here, just like going to New Market in Kolkata. There’s no peace in my heart. I requested Jaanbaz to come with us many times, but he refused. He has no work to do, all he does is stay at home or meet his friends at some shop or the other. No Afghan has any work other than war. Still, Jaanbaz didn’t come with us. A restless heart cannot find comfort anywhere. If this wasn’t the case, I would certainly have been delighted at this moment.
We get down when the truck stops near a ziyarat in Mamdekhal. Ziyarat – that’s what graveyards are called here in Afghanistan. The Chachis sit down, the children are running about.
Suddenly Roshendar tells me in Hindi, “Come with us, Saheb Kamal. There’s a lake over there, full of fish.” Having lived in India for two years, Roshendar speaks fluent Hindi.
I am surprised. Fish? Here? I accompany her out of curiosity, and the children come along too. They’ve never seen fish before.
It’s nothing but a small pond that Roshendar has been calling a lake. She has no idea about lakes, but then, why would she? The pond does have fish. They look like small carp from back home. Pona maachh, as we call them. There’s very little water in the pond, it’s barely knee-deep.
“Let’s go in and catch fish with our scarves,” I tell Roshendar in Hindi.
She’s frightened. “I’ll drown,” she says.
I laugh and go into the water to show her that nobody can drown in such a shallow pond. Still, she doesn’t agree. Suddenly Nadir Chacha appears with a heap of pomegranates. I ask him to hold one end of the scarf, and he walks into the water too.
We catch about a dozen fish, but on closer look, I have no desire to eat them. They may look like the fish I’m used to in India, but, in fact, they’re not. They’re foreign, like me. While we’re busy catching them, people suddenly begin to run in every direction. The shops close rapidly. Those who were milling about are now running for their lives. The entire area becomes deserted.
Suddenly a group of belligerent Russian soldiers charge in our direction with their rifles pointing towards us. For a moment, we stand stupefied. Nadir Chacha says, “We’re in trouble. There’s a machine in the truck. (They refer to AK47 guns as machines here.) None of us will go back home alive if the Russians see it.”
I begin to sweat at this and jump out of the water.
The truck is parked not ten yards from us. I’m staring at it, terrified. I don’t know what to do. Meanwhile, the Russian soldiers have advanced a long way. Where there was a large crowd earlier, not even a dog is to be seen now. Only us. A faint hope rises in my head. I pick up a rock and strike myself hard on the head with it. I can feel a wound opening up on the right-hand side. In unison, the Chachis and the children ask in Pushtu, “Why did you do that to yourself?”
It felt necessary to injure myself mildly to save all of us. Pressing my hand down on the wound, I race towards the truck. The Russian soldiers are nearby now. Swiftly shoving the gun beneath the mattress, I lie down on it and begin to groan. I press down hard on the wound to make more blood flow. It begins streaming down my face. Still, I keep pressing down on it. The soldiers are watching me closely. I am racked by anxiety. The Chachis are standing close by, holding on to their scarves. The slightest mistake will mean giving the game away. The soldiers ask Nadir Chacha in broken English, “What happen?”
Nadir Chacha stands there as though he has no idea what’s going on. I look at the soldiers. Pretending to speak through great pain, I tell them in English, “I hit my head against the door and injured it badly. We’re here to see the doctor.” Knowing that Russia and India have friendly relations, I add that I’m Indian.
The soldiers don’t ask any more questions. They only say, “Don’t just keep waiting here, go meet the doctor.” There’s no more reason to worry now, there’s no fear of being killed. We don’t dare stay there anymore. Nadir Chacha asks everyone to climb into the truck and starts driving.
Everyone marvels at my presence of mind and courage. Not that we visit a doctor. I pass several days in unbearable pain but don’t dare go to the doctor.
Excerpted with permission from The Taliban and I, Sushmita Bandyopadhyay, translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha, Eka/Westland.
Disclosure: Arunava Sinha is the editor of the Books and Ideas section of Scroll.