The summer of 2004. Kabul was brown, broken, hopeful, romantic in a dangerous way, and exciting. I was on a holiday, and like in the Cliff Richards song, young, newly married and nervous.
It was only my second day in the country that the Americans had ‘liberated’. And it was nothing like I expected. Kabul was quiet, for one thing, Very much so, if you ignored the helicopters that hovered around, especially at night. There were cars, enough to populate a mini-sized city, all four-wheel drives—all white—on choked Kabul streets.
A mall, straight out of Delhi, Chicken Street—my first stop after the airport to stock up on ice cream, movies, everything you could wish for from BBC adaptations of Wodehouse to Kurosawa and the newly released Shrek, the original. And then there was Anna, the Italian architect who had come to Kabul armed with a head-light and a penchant to party like Paris Hilton (She was an instant hit on her first night out. She had been invited to a wedding party and had kissed the groom. She stayed on for years, but never spent the evening at home).
If those were all too many contrasts to take in, my trip to Istalif lived up to real Afghanistan vs reel Afghanistan image.
It was Saturday, the Sunday of the Afghan world—which meant only one thing—a picnic. For some strange reasons, Afghans love picnics. Families pile into cars, tandoors are brought out and the whole khandaan heads outdoors. Kababs and carpets are the two staple Afghan images. Following the Afghan tradition, we jumped into a white four-wheel drive and took off to Istalif with loud Hindi movie music playing in the car.
And it wasn’t to make me feel at home. Tere Naam was a hit in a way that would have made Salman Khan weep.
Istalif is historic. Alexander’s army is said to have camped there, Mughal emperor Babur’s mother is buried there – in a garden he laid out – and it was vine country. There were fresh green vines peering out of the ground all the way through. It was also the closest place to picnic if you wanted to get out of the confines of the city.
Picnic in my limited knowledge involved hampers, sandwiches, cake and a ball of some sort. I was wrong. We all had a back-pack each. It involved a walk, along a stream, for about two kilometers. I still remember distinctly feeling like I used to when my parents forced me to go to birthday parties to mingle—cornered and embarrassed. It didn’t help that my significant other was chatting away with people.
I was an outsider. In my blue sneakers, my head covered, long sleeved shirt and loose jeans, I was uncomfortable, hot, shy and unnerved. I was also hungry and was traumatized that I may need a loo break. It was a bit like an episode of Survivor. Certainly nowhere close to pleasant, and far from bliss.
Reading, writing, watching a movie is about an unbeatable high. It is like the first flush of love—giddy, uncontrollable and exciting in a heart beating drunk-on-four-glasses-of-red wine sort of way. It is the rush of emotion when I read “Midnight’s Children’’—it was like being on a roller-coaster and I never wanted the ride to end; Aga Shahid Ali’s neat four-inch postcard of the Himalayas, it is watching the train scene in Pather Panchali on a hot Mumbai afternoon.
Bliss, however, is a beast of another kind. It is much calmer, deeper—a more mellow whiskey high, Begum Akhtar vs Farida Khanum. And for a former fat kid, there is usually something edible involved—a piece of carrot cake, a perfect cup of coffee, chocolate, biryani, phirni, kababs, parma ham lurking in the corner of the memory.
In Istalif, it was mangoes—sickly sweet ones. The king of fruit can trigger off many heated arguments. The langra vs the alphonso debate in my family is legendary –gives Mohammad Hanif’s “The Case of the Exploding Mangoes’’ a different twist. But these were neither. They were ordinary ones, sans the rich mango smell. In India, they would be ordinary. But there, in the middle of the mountains, within shooting distance of men with AK 47s, who were also out for a picnic, sitting on those rocks—they were much better than any Alphonsos would ever be.
Perhaps, it was the danger—or well lack of it, or the absurdity of sitting in the middle of one of the world’s most famous battleground and doing something as banal as eating a mango without a knife. But it was bliss, in the dictionary definition of it. It was an out of world experience, much more peaceful, than anything in Delhi; in the heart of a country that was still waging a war, one that even 10 years later, it is losing. It was magic, may be, because it was well, surreal. And rare, not because it didn’t exist, — most of Afghanistan is like that — but because that is a side we rarely see.
Kabul was littered with blissful memories—eating tut (mulberries) under trees, reading on the roof of the Shahjahani mosque, sipping chai and sour doh (Afghani lassi) post-lunch on vivid carpets, trying to find a patch of sunlight under thick walnut trees in the Panshir Valley and water–always lots of it — sparkling streams in Baghe Babur and deep still green waters littered with decoy ducks outside.
If a high is fleeting, it is the joy of extraordinary, which is more common; Bliss, is the ordinary, strangely tougher-to-pin-down episodes. And for moments of bliss, it has to be Kabul.