Syed Mujtaba Ali’s Afghanistan – The Land Next Door

Afghanistan first entered my immediate realm of awareness on Christmas day 1999. “Switch on the news, an Indian Airlines flight has been hijacked,” someone had informed over the phone. For almost a week, the drama unfolded on the news. At the time, the size of Afghanistan for me was a strip of a runway, and when news cameras panned out, brown mountains in the backdrop. Political negotiations were carried out. Prisoners were exchanged for hostages. And Afghanistan retreated to the 1/2-inch border it had shared with India on the map in my school syllabus.

About a year and nine months later, I was in the computer cluster at University. My fingers tapped away at the keyboard as I cleaned up my dissertation to get it ready for submission — the final step in my MA degree. Autumn was around the corner, and there was a nip in the air, but the computer-lab was warm. Body heat from overcrowding combined with heat from printers running non-stop had given the room its own ecosphere.

I don’t remember how the news came in. But, within seconds, all the 50-odd computer screens were tuned in to the same video – a plane crashing into one of the NY twin towers. My first thought was, “This is some elaborate prank.” That illusion shattered as a second plane crashed into the other tower. It came crumbling down on live television. Those images replayed many times over the next few days, and the 9/11 attack was the centre of all conversation. Amidst all that, I submitted my dissertation and returned home. My image of Afghanistan was now the size of a computer screen, but it had moved. It sat atop the rubble of what had been two iconic buildings in New York.

For the next few years, it peeked out from newspapers. Dusty brown streets and countryside. American soldiers in army fatigues. Afghans in kurtas and paghdis. Children with dried streaks of snot and tears across their faces. Kidnapped journalists. Hostage videos of masked men toting guns. I relegated the montage to the ‘Irrelevant – Ignore’ cubbyhole of my conscience.

The year was 2015.

“I am reading In A Land far From Home,” my friend Yash told me. “It is hilarious. You should check it out.” I Googled it and found an excerpt. Meh! But then the whole title caught my eye, ‘In A Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan’. Some catchphrases in the blurb had me hitting buy on Kindle tab: An intrepid traveller and a true cosmopolitan, the legendary Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali …spent a year and a half teaching in Kabul from 1927 to 1929…he chronicles with a keen eye and a wicked sense of humour…first-hand insight into events at a critical point in Afghanistan’s history.

Set in 1927-1929, the story is a memoir of Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali. Armed with a BA degree, Mujtaba Ali takes up a job in the education department of Kabul. Afghanistan is an unknown territory at the time, and it appeals to the young graduate’s appetite for adventure. The first third of the story describes the author-protagonist’s journey to Kabul. Travel delays, breakdowns, red tape in procuring documentation and crossing the ‘biggest test in the world – the Khyber pass’ as per his Kabuli bus driver threaten to throw him off track. But, he perseveres. He distracts himself with observations of his fellow travellers who amuse him and confound him in turns. After weeks of travel, he reaches Kabul and settles down in a rented house.

The second third of the book details Mujtaba Ali’s first year in Kabul. A year without incident. When he is not teaching classes at the university, he spends days picnicking in Gulbagh amidst apple and pear trees and nargis plants. Abdur Rahman, his Harlan-Moula, aka man Friday, plays mother hen. He fussed over him, treats his palate to local delicacies and his mind to folklore and homegrown customs. As the story progresses, the lush Tulbagh and the snowy peaks of Paghman visible from Mujtaba Ali’s window fill my head. The aromatics from Abdur’s feasts tantalize my tastebuds. The sights, the food, and the people invoke my travel-lust. Pangs of FOMO strike as realization hits. A trip to Afghanistan in this lifetime? Unlikely.

The last third of the story forebodes why.

The year 1929 sets in — Mujtaba Ali’s second year in Kabul. Signs of trouble have been brewing, yet, when it strikes, it appears out of nowhere. Ali’s description of shops pulling down shutters, people running in panic and screams of ‘Bacha-e-Saqao is coming’ filling creates images from the dacoit movies from 70’s Bollywood. But neither the 70s nor Bollywood had arrived then. This is real. The king abdicates, and Kabul falls. It is under the reign of Bacha-e-Saqao, who had already captured vast parts of the country. Over the next few months, thievery and rioting are rampant in the streets. Diplomats, ambassadors and ex-pats are evacuated by the embassies as the situation spirals. But, it is not that simple for our protagonist. India is under British rule, and a poor Bengali teacher is at the bottom of the priority evacuee list. Money and food are in short supply, and Mujtaba Ali is driven to the brink of death by starvation. He survives on the kindness of local friends and the loyal Abdur. Finally, it is his turn to leave. He describes his last view of Kabul as the airplane takes off:

I saw white snow covering the horizon. Standing in the middle of the airfield was a figure who could only have been Abdur Rahman, bidding goodbye to me by waving the tail of his turban.

His turban was dirty, as we did not have any soap for such a long time. But I felt Abdur Rahman’s turban was whiter than the snow, and whitest of all was Abdur Rahman’s heart.

The time when I read the book, I was surprised by the end. It seemed abrupt like the author had run out of ink, and not the proverbial kind. But, when I read it today, it appears apt. Perhaps, it is that picture of Afghanistan he wanted to carry home?

In 2021, it is challenging to ignore images. They follow you. They pop up in your palm unsolicited. They get lodged in caches and cookies and other things with innocuous names. The videos of people running through streets. Shouting at family members to hurry along. Clambering over the airport fence. Running alongside taxiing aircrafts. Clinging to the sides of planes. With every second, these images multiply.

I sort through the cubby-holes in my head, looking for one in the farthest corner. But, it is in vain. The exploding montage refuses to budge and settles in a pile marked – I am here. Deal with it. 

Image Courtesy: US MARINE CORPS/REUTERS

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