Afghanistan held a special place in the imaginations of those who came of age in the 60s and 70s
Back in the early 1970s, I was among a large crowd of Bengalis at Farmgate to watch Afghan President Sardar Mohammad Daoud go by on his way from Tejgaon airport to the state guest house, where he would be staying during his official visit to Bangladesh. In the motorcade with him was Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. We waved at the two leaders enthusiastically. They waved back cheerily.
Those were the good old days, when Afghanistan formed part of the political narrative in Bangladesh. Beginning in mid-1972 -- with Bangladesh emerging as an independent state some months earlier -- a good number of Bengali families had been making their way home in clandestine manner from Pakistan, where they had been trapped after Pakistan’s military defeat in Bangladesh. Bengalis serving in the Pakistani civil and military services had been placed in camps all over Pakistan, a measure resorted to by the Bhutto government obviously as a bargaining chip for future negotiations with Bangladesh.
The Bengalis making their way back to Bangladesh in 1972 and 1973 found Kabul to be a useful conduit to their journey home. Most of them, from such places as Karachi and Rawalpindi and even Lahore made it a point to travel, in stealthy manner, to Chaman and Quetta and Peshawar.
With considerable help from Pathan and Baluch guides, they were helped across the frontier into Kabul and Kandahar. And it was from Kabul, on flights of Ariana Afghan Airlines, that these families travelled to Delhi and from there were flown to Dhaka by Air India. The Bangladesh government had a lot to be grateful for to King Zahir Shah and President Daoud, who took power in a coup in 1973.
There are the personal memories which link me with Afghanistan. No, I have never been to Afghanistan, but growing up in Quetta was as good as being close to the country. In the days of Ayub Khan, there were the regular reports of hostility engendered between Pakistan and Afghanistan over the Pakhtunistan issue, Pakhtunistan or Pashtunistan being a demand of Pashtuns, like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, for independent status as a people. And, yes, there were those in the Pathan community who seriously subscribed to the idea of Pakistan’s Pathans really being part of Afghanistan, that indeed the Durand Line drawn by the British colonial power had been a conspiracy to strike a dagger into Pashtun demographic unity.
While I pored over such reports in the newspapers without much understanding them, because I was yet in junior classes in school, I recall my mother making it known to us, every time bitter cold winds ravaged Quetta in winter, that it was actually a Kandahari haowa -- Kandahar wind -- which regularly deepened the bleakness of the season. That was how we came to know that there was indeed a place called Kandahar, that it was responsible for the hostility it stirred in nature, which fury was then unleashed against all of us, making us get into as many thick warm clothes as we could even as the fire burned in the stoves at home.
As we grew up, meaning getting promoted to a new class in school every year, it was Radio Kabul which took hold of our imagination. Every evening, the radio played what certainly were some of the best songs from Indian movies -- melody from Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Talat Mahmood, and others -- cheering us to no end. My mother, an ardent connoisseur of songs and in possession of an attractive musical voice herself, as were her father and her brothers, and I tuned in to Radio Kabul every day for those songs.
It was an indescribably beautiful time when Afghanistan was for many of us a land of mystery, a place where poetic things happened. Years later, of course, I came into newer knowledge of how large a space Afghanistan occupied in the literary canvas of one of the more prominent of Bengali litterateurs, Syed Mujtaba Ali. It was a remarkable discovery, especially for one who had not had much contact in his boyhood with his own literary heritage.
And who can forget Rabindranath’s inimitable Kabuliwala, which in the person of the central character was an embodiment of the magic Afghanistan was in our imagination? The Pathan making his yearly trips from Kabul to Calcutta, his affection for the little Bengali girl driving him into sheer energy, the treasure of goods in his possession, are today indelible memories of the hold Afghanistan once had on our imagination, individual as also collective.
Kabul was the path Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose took to once he had made good his escape from the British in Calcutta. The story of his travails through his journey from Calcutta to the frontier with Afghanistan is now the stuff of legend. Once in Kabul, Bose put his plans into perspective, eventually devising the means by which he would move out of the city, with considerable assistance from the local community, and make it to Europe. Kabul, in a rather aesthetic way, is emblazoned in the history of South Asia. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the spokesperson of the Pashtuns revered as the Frontier Gandhi, an implacable opponent of the partition of India and a thorn in the side of every Pakistani government till his death in Peshawar in 1988, lies buried in the Afghan city of Jalalabad.
Every summer in the mid-to-late 1960s, a brother of my Pathan friends Akhtar Jan and Faiz Jan, working in what then was West Germany, would drive all the way to Quetta through Kabul or Kandahar and arrive at his home in our neighbourhood in a blaze of glory. He would narrate the long tale of his journey from Europe to Asia, in the process letting us in on the delights he had experienced in Afghanistan.
He then sold his car, a Mercedes Benz, and went back to Germany. We knew that a year later he would be back, with another car and new tales of his passage through Kabul or Kandahar. We would wait.
In these darkening times, it is the old luminous Afghanistan, with its history and its legends, its tales and its place in literature and in the narratives of individuals coming from across the seas, its hardy men and beautiful women, which shines bright in the imaginations of the generation which came of age through the 1960s and 1970s.
The old Kandahari haowa blows through the mountain-encircled valleys of the mind.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.