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9 months ago

Emotional Afghans, Tagore and Mujtaba Ali

A scene from 'Kabuliwala' directed by Tapan Sinha
A scene from 'Kabuliwala' directed by Tapan Sinha

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Upon being torn by conflicts let loose by the 'expansionist' nations --- Britain, the Soviet Union and the US --- in the last one-and-half centuries, Afghanistan can now claim to have entered an era of tolerable stability. A putatively milder Taliban government is now in power. The regime assumed power in 2021, after bringing an end to the 20-year mixed occupations. Popular euphoria greeted the country's freedom from the senseless era of violence sparked by the rigid style of early Taliban rule. However, with the hopes of social freedom and reform measures slowly fading away, experienced Afghans have started detecting the spectres of the past. After a short pause, many prohibitions and restrictions have surreptitiously come back, especially those related to the adult girls' post-school studies. The issue of women's appearance on the TV screen still remains stuck in a smokescreen. However, in a recent development, the government has decreed that women presenters could appear on the TV with their heads covered.

The Afghans practising liberal and performing arts as profession are still off-limits to the social mainstream. Perhaps this explains the desperate efforts by a large number of Afghans to leave the country aboard cargo aircraft for the US after the regime change. They included a large section of people close to the US administration in Afghanistan.

At the moment, the country under a new and untested government finds itself in a fix. This is quite perplexing to see that amid the ongoing flurry of regional activities to join the march of socio-economic development, Afghanistan remains conspicuous by its absence. However, the country has not been noticeably vocal on global and regional issues since its civil war-torn days in the 1990s. Against this awkward situation, many political analysts feel tempted to call Afghanistan, the 8th SAARC member, a country full of fragilities.  A section of regional experts are eager to see Afghanistan being included in all the South Asian and Southeast Asian forums. These people are attracted to Afghans for their fiercely independent nature. Glimpses of this and other Afghan virtues make the South Asian nation on the region's western flank eligible for membership of any social or economic association.

Coming to their pride in the Afghan nationhood and their ingrained quality of upholding freedom, it was Syed Mujtaba Ali who first detected it. During his three-year (1927-1929) stay in Kabul as an education official, the Bengalee author cast an incisive look at the inner psyche of the Afghans from all walks of life. His travel book 'Deshe Bideshe', published in 1948, gives a detailed portrayal of the Afghan society's chief features which he encountered in the three years of his Kabul stay. In accordance with Ali's portrayal, the common Afghans do not understand the complexities of existence. When conflicts or violence break out, they are least interested to get to their roots. It is the reflexes which guide them and prompt them to look beyond the immediate realities. As has been observed by Mujtaba Ali (Sept 13, 1904-Feb 11,1974), in a sense the Afghans are quite down-to-earth in their survival. Upon observing casually, they may appear epicurean to the outsiders.

They have no serious complaints about anything which they have to pass through. It is their inherent generosity which has enabled them to remain so high-spirited about the many facets of life, otherwise filled with so many existential deprivations and sufferings. Ali remained a wonder-struck spectator of the rugged landscape, as he crossed the border to enter Afghanistan in 1927. The passengers filled the bus like sardines.    It was his day of arrival in the unknown land in one early noon that emitted an incredibly high temperature. To his utter incredulity,    Mujtaba Ali discovered there was no dearth of fun and frolics inside the bus as the ramshackle vehicle rumbled through the dusty road. After joining work Ali continued to discover the many layers of the Afghan society --- from the poor, the middle class to those belonging to the upper strata. In his 3-year stay in Kabul, Ali found the average people to be simple and honest. But when it comes to bruises on their ago and self-respect, they could turn furious. It's a normal feature in the remote areas of the country, some of which, he saw, were continually torn by tribal feuds.

Orthodoxies, especially those linked to women's dresses when outside, were widely prevalent. Young college students wearing Western dresses were also common on the campus, as well as on the Kabul streets. However, the average Afghan women would never go to a public place without covering themselves in 'burqa' or 'hijab'. The loose head-to-toe veil had been a part of the rural Afghan women's life through the ages. When a favourite female student of Ali invited him to her parental residence on an Eid Day, he was lavishly entertained by the student's relatives. The teacher couldn't see the student directly. He could see and talk to her across the barrier of an ultra thin piece of silk cloth.

 Mujtaba Ali's domestic help, the Afghan youth called Abdur Rahman, eventually became his 'friend, philosopher and guide'. He would bring all kinds of news, especially those of 'revolts' in the mountains by local lords, to keep his master updated. As a compassionate reader leafs through 'Deshe Bideshe', the character of Abdur Rahman keeps emerging as the epitome of obedience, love and trust. The last scene of the travelogue, where Rahman is seen waving the tail of his turban at Ali from the airport tarmac moistens the eyes of many readers. 'Kabuliwallas' (Afghans) roaming the city streets and neighbourhoods were a common spectacle in Dhaka in the 1960s. Clad in long and loose Afghani 'kurta' and 'salwar', an untidy heavy sack on one shoulder, these migrant Afghans developed cordial relations with the Dhaka residents. Outwardly, their profession was hawking dried Afghan fruits like Akhrot, Pesta, Khobani, Kismiss and tidbits from the vast country. But their chief source of income was giving people small sums of money as loan on interest. Later, after the Bangladesh independence in 1971, scores of these petty traders were brutally killed by a section of frenzied mobs. Those ignorant people took the Dari-speaking Kabulis for the Pakistani enemy soldiers in free Bangladesh. Many later fled the country with the 'help' of human traffickers.

In spite of many Afghan artistes' seeking asylum in the US and other Western countries after the first Taliban victory, many failed to flee the motherland --- which slapped ban on all kinds of cultural activities. With shutters drawn on the movie industry, the cinema halls were closed down throughout the country. So were all kinds of recreational outlets. Amid these hostile times, a novel-turned movie called 'The Kite Runner' stood out. The novel deals with Afghanistan. Based on the best-selling fiction by Khaled Hosseini, a US naturalised citizen, it won several awards in the USA in a number of categories, in the years of 2007-2008. The first-ever creative writing, a story on a Kabuli, came from Poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1892. An incisive portrayal of the inner bleeding inside a Kabuliwalla, who lives in Kolkata to earn a living, for his little daughter back in an Afghan village, makes the story one of the best in world literature. In the Kolkata city, his chance acquaintance with a small girl at an urban middle-class residence wells up his memories of the daughter. The city girl grows up to reach her wedding age leaving the Kabuliwalla oblivious of his daughter whom he last saw over a decade ago. This is pure innocence.

 

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