October 1, 2003
The airstrip at Kandahar is baking hot, about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun blazes down relentlessly on the surrounding mountains, harsh, naked and mud-brown from four years of drought. There’s no beauty here, except the well measured flatness of the airstrip, built by the Americans in 1959, as a stopping off point for propeller planes going from Europe to India and then rebuilt after October 2001, when the United States took Kandahar from the Taliban.
As I get off the United Nations Humanitarian Assistance Services aircraft that’s brought me here from Kabul, I squint, remembering the last time I saw this airstrip. On television, in December 1999; an Indian Airlines aircraft hijacked from Kathmandu by terrorists.
An ominous prelude to the 21st century. The easy success of that first operation emboldened Al Qaeda to launch the audacious attack on New York on September 11.
But in this new, post-Taliban Afghanistan, the Indians aren’t the victims or the enemy — they’re the good guys. Everywhere in Afghanistan, Indians are welcome, and loved. ‘‘You’re Indian? Welcome to Afghanistan,’’ locals beam at me.
Not feeling like a foreigner in a foreign land was a new feeling. In the 4x4s waiting on the tarmac of Kandahar airport to take my group of 41 other women and me into the city, the driver switches on the air-conditioning — and the Hindi film music.
It’s nothing that we’re used to these days — not the hip Indipop or Saathiya A.R. Rahman-type music. But some Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakravarty movie numbers.
They’re dated, and some are bad. But they sound sweet to me that morning in Kandahar, as I drive past the desolate landscape of this once-proud city. The land is flat and dusty, the roads are just rubble, and the buildings are brick and mud ruins. There’s almost no power, and the city had phones only until the Taliban fled. They had pulled the lines from the Quetta telephone exchange.
I am here with a group of women who have come from all over Afghanistan to attend a boldly convened conference in this conservative former stronghold of the Taliban to discuss women’s rights in the country’s upcoming draft constitution.
The conference has been organised by Women for Afghan Women, a New York-based NGO that was formed by expat Afghan and non-Afghan women — including one Indian, Sunita Mehta — to help their sisters in Afghanistan shake off the burden of the burqa, and claim their financial and constitutional rights.
To do it in Kandahar, where the warlords are back, where the Taliban is making inroads, where children can’t go to school from fear and women are still chattel, where international aid is difficult to reach because Taliban attacks on international aid workers are so vicious is a statement that was intended to be heard all the way to Washington.
We arrive at our destination — the office of Afghans for Civil Society, an organisation run by a courageous American Sarah Chayes, a former journalist — where the women’s conference is being held. It is a large compound, with a multi-roomed, two-storied building tucked away behind 14-foot walls, and guarded fiercely by armed Afghans.
Right next to their heavy guns, is a cassette recorder on which they listen to … right, Bollywood music. And a DVD player, on which they watch Bollywood movies. All available in beautifully pirated versions on the streets of Kabul for less than what you’d pay for pirated Hollywood fare in China.
For Afghanistan, India is the mother culture. Bollywood’s popularity predominates, with its conservative no-kissing but sensuous musical flicks. A repertoire of Bollywood songs can save your life in Afghanistan, as an Indian executive of the Asian Development Bank discovered in 2002.
While on an inspection tour of the Kandahar-Herat road, being reconstructed with ADB aid, he was kidnapped by local Afghan highwaymen. The hapless Indian had forgotten his passport at his camp-site.
The highwaymen, thinking he was Pakistani, were ready to kill him. But he established his credentials when he sang a series of Bollywood songs. His captors were delighted and personally escorted him back to his camp — with apologies.
Beyond Bollywood though, the culture is familiar and warmly comforting. Kebabs apart, Afghans eat lentils, okra and aubergine. They take off their slippers before they enter the house. They are conservative, respect their elders, fuss over their guests, are devout and child-centred.
Twenty-five-years of war has made them a traumatised society, but they have protected their children as best they can. A research report by Save the Children, an American NGO, found the children in Afghanistan have emerged through the suffering ‘‘with their hope and humanity intact’’.
The credit, says the report, goes to Afghan parents, who love their children deeply and teach them how to cope: developing courage by confronting their fears, being thankful for being alive after an attack, being happy by playing with friends. Most important, children are taught to pray when they are afraid, and have some of that Hindu fatalism.
Tomorrow: Afghans and the Indian role model
(The writer is the India bureau chief for BusinessWeek)
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