Aryana was the original name of Afghanistan. If I was to draw up a list of the most unfortunate nations of the world, Afghanistan would be on the top. I went there three times over, 30 years ago, to do a booklet on the work of UN agencies, chiefly UNICEF. My first two visits were within a span of three years. I was impressed by the rapid progress made in such a short period: a brand new airport, a swanky five-star hotel, many women without burqas and working in hospitals, schools and government offices. I titled my booklet Aryana to Afghanistan. A few years later the trappings of modernity were clipped off by the mullahs: women were put back in purdah, cinemas closed down, fierce-looking men in bulky turbans, sporting beards with rifles slung round their shoulders strutting about the roads. It was a classic instance of one step forward, two steps back.
Afghans’ patience with law and order has always been limited. Family feuds go down from generation to generation. Villages are semi-independent republics for ever at war against their neighbours. The only time Afghans came together was when some foreign power was foolish enough to take charge of their affairs. Then they closed ranks and fight like devils possessed, regardless of odds against them. Loss of life and property was of no consequence till they expelled the last intruder from their soil. The British and the Sikhs learnt that lesson in the 19th century. The Soviets learnt it more than a decade or so ago. Having rid of themselves of outsiders, Afghans went back to fighting each other. Similar contradictions exist in their character: they combine exaggerated courtesy with unbelievable treachery.
I always wanted to read some book on Afghanistan written by an Afghan. At long last my next-door neighbour, Reeta Devi Varma, lent me one, with a nervous recommendation, "See if you like it; I liked it very much. I would like to have it back." The book is semi-autobiographical fiction The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Bloomsbury). I’ve not read anything as engrossing for many years: skilfully crafted, beautifully worded, and, above all, an honest exposure of Afghan character at its best and worst. The story spans a couple of decades of Afghanistan’s history from the downfall of the monarchy, Soviet occupation, Mujahideen resistance and the Taliban who, in the name of Islam, put Afghanistan back to the medieval ages of barbarity. Some scenes are bonechilling: the sodomising of a young boy (a Hazara Shia) by a Shia-hating bully who later became a Taliban leader; his nemesis at the hands of the young son of the rape-victim who is also sexually abused by the same fellow: he blinds him by firing a sling-shot in one eye, and the stoning to death of a couple caught in an adulterous sexual intercourse during half-time of a football match and their burial behind the goal posts. Though many coincidences seem contrived they do not detract from the high readables of the novel.
Khaled Hosseini, now settled in California, practises medicine. I hope he has not blown himself up with this one brilliant work of a fact-cum-fiction.
I know quite a few of them. Some spell their names with two ‘oo’s and others with a ‘u’-Kapur. One of my tennis partners, who is a bit of a sahib, we have named Cooper. They are said to be Ddhaee gharaa Khatris, which include Khannas, Khoslas, Malhotras and perhaps some others. I have failed to discover the origin of ddhaee (2`BD) gharaa (of the house) but apparently it stands for the elite of the sub-caste. They regard themselves martial types (Kshatriyas), though most of them are in business. I have often chided Pramod Kapoor of Roli Books who has published a few of my books: "you are a Khatri but when it comes to negotiating with authors, you haggle like a bania." He drives a hard bargain. Now he has published a pictorial about the best-known of all Kapoors: Prithviraj, his sons, daughters and grandchildren who have in succession made it to the top in Hindi films. Prithviwallahs is edited by Shashi Kapoor, the handsomest Indian of his times.
I had the privilege of a few brief encounters with the founding-father, Prithviraj Kapoor, including one on the sets when he was enacting the role of a Sikh granthi. I also met Raj at the preliminary viewing of one of his film Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram with Zeenat Aman. I saw more of Shashi, his English actress wife Jennifer and their children. Two things that all these Kapoors had in common was enormous warmth and humility. I vividly recall Prithviraj, who was older and far more distinguished than I ever hope to be, first embracing me and then touching my feet. It was much the same when I spotted the young Rishi, third in the generation, in the crowded lounge of Bombay airport. I recognised him — as did everyone else. He had never set eyes on me before but pushed his way through the crowd and greeted me exactly the same way as his grandfather had done years before.
Shashi has put on a lot of weight — all members of the family are prone to becoming ‘weighty’ — and looking more and more like his father. He rests on his laurels. I asked him what he was doing since he quit acting.
"Nothing," he replied.
"You can’t be doing nothing," I protested, "you must be doing something to keep yourself occupied."
"I spend a lot of time with my children and grandchildren."
Very reluctantly, he admitted he has involved himself in many social causes — care of slum children, looking after people suffering from terminal diseases. And that sort of thing.
"Are you religious?" I asked him.
"No," he replied categorically.
Moral: You can be a good man without being religious.
The Arab and the camel
There was a time when men and women on Earth
Went about naked as at birth.
To make cloth man took ages;
Then came clothes, tell history’s pages.
And then quietly sneaked in fashion,
The grace of clothes to heighten.
But it proved the Arab’s camel,
As told in the old parable,
Who first solicited for his snout
And finally pushed the Arab out.
So now we see little of cloth or clothes,
Naked fashion romps the ramp and roads.