Sunday, November 16, 2014

आज़ादी के दायरे: एक पुरानी पिटी अफग़ानी कहानी..

क़िस्‍सा 2002 के आसपास का है. एक तरह से कहें तो क़िस्‍सा अफग़ानिस्‍तान में रुसियों के दखल और क्रूर दमन के आड़े-टेढ़े नतीजों, और तदंतर अमरीकी मदद की छांह में परंपरावादियों के सिर के बल खड़े हो जाने के और -औरटेढ़े क़िस्‍सों का है. या मालूम नहीं, शायद पचास के दशक से ही एक कबीलाई समाज के अपनी तरह से पेश आने, और अपनी ऐंठ और ज़ि‍द में अपनी जगह से ज़रा भी टस से मस न होने, हमेशा उसी तरह से बने रहने का भी है. 

बहुत सारी पेचीदगियों में उलझी दुनिया है, फ़ि‍लहाल, 2002 की एक झलक लें. आनन्‍द गोपाल की किताब का टुकड़ा है, साभार.

It was well into the springtime of that first post-Taliban year before she saw a sign of change: a shipment of medicines donated by the US government arrived at the new base and was subsequently parceled out to community leaders. Heela could now prescribe iron pills. Shortly after, an NGO showed up to remove mines left over from the Soviet war. It was the first time, as far as anyone could remember, that an international aid group had ever visited the area. Then, that summer, workers from another agency appeared, to distribute seeds to needy farmers.
Musqinyar began to see the world anew. Ex-Communists around the country were embracing the US-backed government—many were even working directly for the Americans—and he didn’t want to be left behind. He began making trips to the base to meet soldiers, who were members of the US special forces, and he often took Omaid along. In the evenings, he would regale Heela with tales of his visits. Old dreams were dusted off and updated. For the first time in years, he spoke of traveling abroad. He promised that Germany awaited, and maybe even Mecca, too, where they would make their holy pilgrimage together.
And just like that, Heela felt the tug herself. That something inside her that had driven her to economics at university against her parents’ advice, that something that had given her the courage to travel cross-country with Taliban officials to study nursing—it was pulling at her again. It had now been four long years since she’d last set eyes upon anything outside the main wall of her compound, four years of births and meals and quarrels: life lived, no doubt, but she wanted more. When Musqinyar came home in the evenings, she started to beg him to take her somewhere, even just for an afternoon. She had no idea how such a feat could be accomplished, but she didn’t see why they shouldn’t try.
The trouble was, Musqinyar did not have the slightest idea how to pull this off, either. If villagers caught Heela walking about outdoors, the gossiping and backbiting and the resulting shame could be enough to tear apart the strongest family. Not long before, there had been the case of a woman of marriageable age sighted walking alone near the bazaar, prompting folks to say that she was up to no good. Even Heela had assumed so, for what other reason could there be for a woman of that age? Sure enough, it was later learned that she had run off in an unsanctioned marriage or had turned to prostitution. She was not seen again, and the family left Uruzgan in shame.
But for Heela, there was also an obstacle much closer to home: her mother-in-law, the family’s octogenarian upholder of tradition. Since marriage, Musqinyar’s mother had left her house only a handful of times in her life, and she spoke with the stubborn authority of someone who knew that this was the way things had always been and would always be. She saw it as her duty to protect the family name, especially since her daughter-in-law had arrived with her Kabul ways.
Musqinyar thought hard for some days, and then he announced to his mother one afternoon that Heela had fallen sick and needed to be rushed to a nurse on the far side of the district. The old woman demurred, insisting that exposing Heela would do the family more harm than having her sick in bed for a few weeks.
“And if she gets worse?” he asked. “Do you want to be responsible?”
She had no reply. Heela, listening in the next room, ear to the door, could not believe the ruse was working.
After dinner, she fitted herself into a mud-green burqa and stepped outside, following Musqinyar and the children. She didn’t know where they were headed, and she didn’t care.
The sun sat low and fat and pink on the horizon. Through the burqa mesh, she could make out Musqinyar’s sandals swinging into and out of view. They headed along the dirt path leading to the stream.
Holding his hand, she crossed the wooden footbridge and stepped into the backseat of the car, which was always parked on the far embankment. Musqinyar drove them to the bazaar, by now almost shut down for the night. Around this time, boys would bring their goats into town to feed on the garbage heaped by the roadside, a de facto sanitation service. The children working the shops would be busy pulling down the rusted iron shutters. Their sunburned grandfathers would be squatting nearby, repeating their tired tales. Yet even in its crumbling decay, the bazaar still showed some signs of the new era: a poster of a Bollywood starlet, a small satellite dish perched atop a shop.
They waited until the street was clear, Heela ducking out of sight, and then rolled slowly toward the shops. As they pulled up to Musqinyar’s store, she could just make out through her mesh the flowing, cursive script on the window: KABUL PHARMACY. Inside, the dusty shelves were choked with Chinese- and Pakistani-made medicines. With no hospitals for miles, this was it. You addressed your health care needs here at Musqinyar’s pharmacy, or you didn’t address them at all.
“Today,” he told her with a smile, “you are my guest. Take whatever you like.” Heela shuffled through the rows of chalky white boxes as the boys scurried here and there. Six-year-old Jamshed hoisted himself onto a chair behind the glass counter and pounded his fist. “I’m a doctor!” he announced. Heela wished her Kabul friends could see her now, out again, reclaiming her place in the world. One of the boys knocked over a pile of medicines. Heela shrieked and spanked him, but Musqinyar burst out laughing. The muezzin crooned and the sky darkened. She selected a few boxes to take home, including a drug that cured headaches and another that protected against the evil eye.
The trip lasted less than an hour, but Heela felt like the luckiest woman in Khas Uruzgan. Although she would experience much in the years to come, this would be the only family outing she would ever have.
*   *   *
It was a summer’s day in 2002, a day so hot that Heela was avoiding the garden altogether, when someone rapped on the front door. Musqinyar was at work and the boys at school, so she did not answer, but the knocking continued and finally the visitor called out her name. She pressed her face against the metal gate and carefully said, “Who is it?”
“Qudus Khan,” said the voice. It was the district governor, one of the most powerful men in Khas Uruzgan. He was also in charge of an NGO that operated on foreigner-donated funds.
“I’m sorry,” she said self-consciously, “my husband isn’t here.”
“No, we’d like to speak with you. We heard there’s an educated woman in this house.”
“That’s me,” she said through the closed door. “I can read and write.”
The governor told her that they had received funding to establish a female vocational training center and needed someone to help oversee the project. Would she be interested? Heela stood staring at the door. It took a moment for the words to register. She knew that this sort of opportunity came along only once or twice in a lifetime. But turning around, she saw her mother-in-law—standing “with her arms folded like a warlord,” she recalled.
“Thank you for your offer,” she said, “but I don’t want to work.”
Qudus Khan insisted that she was the perfect person for the job, since they didn’t know of anyone else who had experience “outside the house.” Heela was at a loss. She glanced around to her mother-in-law, and finally said, “It isn’t my decision. Please talk to my husband when he comes home.”
As soon as he left, her mother-in-law walked up to her. “What’s wrong with you? How could you let those men hear your voice? You’re going to make trouble for my son, aren’t you?”
Heela ignored her and went inside. She was feeling that tug again, and her mind raced with possibilities. Although she knew of no female in her village who had successfully worked outside the house, she didn’t see why she couldn’t be the first. Confidence was a rare currency, and ironically her stint working under the Taliban had endowed her with more than any woman she knew. That evening, Musqinyar jumped at the news. Nine years of village life had not yet eradicated the last vestiges of his former world. The two began conspiring to get Heela the job.
Fortunately, the position only required twice-monthly visits to the vocational center. The furtive trip to his shop had convinced him that if planned carefully, it would be possible to smuggle her to the center and back without discovery. The only challenge, as always, was his mother. After a day of discussion, he dreamed up a cover story: he would be taking Heela to “visit the village shrine.” When he tested the idea with his mother, she shot back, “What good is a woman her age going to the shrine? The holiest work is here with me in the kitchen.”
Musqinyar countered that, with his newfound religiosity, he preferred a more observant wife. And it was true that he had taken to the Koran, even growing out his beard like the rest of the village. Would she actually stand in the way of religion? There was nothing that could rightfully be said to this, and she knew it.
On the appointed day, Heela awoke earlier than usual and fished out her most respectable outfit, holding it up for inspection. The burqa was loose and flowing, sandy-brown like the earth. She set it aside and readied breakfast, then proceeded to finish her chores for the day. It was not yet mid-morning when she and Musqinyar and the children, along for effect, loaded themselves into the station wagon. As they drove the long back road around the village, she caught herself telling rambling stories, her habit when anxious.
The car pulled up to a nondescript house and Musqinyar scanned the area, then motioned for Heela to get out. She had taken only a few steps when a man on a bicycle appeared on the horizon, pedaling toward them. She jumped back into the car. He sped by without looking up.
Heela got out again and this time nearly ran to the gate. Inside, a group of women trainees were crowded together in a small room, hunched over sewing machines. Most were Hazaras, whose families tended to take a slightly more permissive approach to purdah than the Pashtuns of her village. Still, like Heela, they had all endured significant risks to come, and, as the machines sputtered along, the mood was tense. It was 2002, the Taliban had been gone for almost a year, and the Americans were busy building a new Afghanistan, yet in Khas Uruzgan these women had no choice but to work in secret. Everyone there knew the stakes: if word leaked, they would almost certainly be accused of prostitution—a charge that, under the strictures of village life, was usually punishable by death.
Heela was to be an auditor, ensuring that none of the students or teachers made off with the materials. As thrilling as it was, she was not happy to linger. She kept glancing at the door, expecting village men to burst in at any moment. She took down the inventory and hurried back to Musqinyar’s waiting car.
At home, her mother-in-law asked, “Did you go to the shrine?”
“Yes,” Heela replied.
“Did you pray for me?”
*   *   *
One evening a month later, Musqinyar arrived home with a wad of cash and handed it to Heela. She counted it: 8,500 Pakistani rupees—nearly $150. She looked at him.
“Take it,” he said.
Heela knew that she’d be getting paid, but the amount still came as a shock. She handed it back, saying it belonged to him, the man of the house.
He pushed it right back into her hands. “It’s yours,” he said. “You’ve earned it. It’s your right.”
Heela hadn’t gone to work for the money, but, holding the cash in her hand, she felt a gravitas like she’d never experienced. Still, she knew of no women keeping money they had earned. It belonged to the family, to the husband. But it was clear to her that Musqinyar was serious. Had something like this ever happened in the village before? That night, before bed, she sewed a pocket into her dress to hide the money, as if Qudus Khan might come to his senses and snatch it back at any moment.
Every two weeks Heela engaged in a ritual of deceit with her mother-in-law, and every month a new wad of cash arrived. It felt as if she were rediscovering her old self. On those rare occasions when elderly female relatives visited the house, she spoke more knowingly and confidently. She knew that despite their age, they would never understand the world the way that she did or see what she’d seen. “I stopped thinking only about my children and my four walls,” she recalled. “I thought about my village and Afghans everywhere.”
Occasionally she sent the boys out to the bazaar to buy small gifts for Musqinyar. Sometimes they made a game of it. “We got dice and made bets, me and him,” she said. “The kids were always supporting him. I usually lost and would send the boys to buy him clothes. I think I pick out nicer clothes anyway, so this worked in my favor. Then once we played and he said, ‘If you win, I’ll buy you a necklace.’ I finally won, and it was a gold necklace. I still have it.”
*   *   *
Cut into the stream in front of Heela’s house at various points were small canals and irrigation ditches, which fanned out to the farms of the village. Few households owned plots outright. Instead, most land belonged to the khan, who functioned as a feudal lord of sorts, with villagers working as sharecroppers. Nearly every village had at least one khan; some, like Khas Uruzgan governor Qudus Khan, were prominent district-wide, but most were known just in their own village. The khans of Khas Uruzgan had risen to power only in the previous thirty years, when the old elite fled or were killed off by the Communists, and they had climbed to their positions through expert management of CIA-sourced funds and landgrabs. Musqinyar kept up good relations with Hajji Abdo Khan, the khan of their village, as a matter of politics, but he and Heela knew that he was a cause of much poverty. And when the village received aid money, it was understood that Abdo Khan would take a cut. Still, only with his tacit approval was the sewing center able to function at all.
That small room with no windows and a dozen old sewing machines was the sole space where women regularly gathered outside their home anywhere in Khas Uruzgan save the Hazara areas. A girls’ school existed on paper, but only to soothe foreign powers and Western aid agencies, as there was no actual facility. In fact, there had never been a girls’ school in the village. When the Communists declared female education compulsory, they had toyed with the possibility of threatening recalcitrant families with jail time, but a series of uprisings in Kandahari villages against the idea led them to back off. The Communists may have believed that they were imposing modernization on the backward countryside, but from the farmers’ point of view a household could not function without women doing the necessary work indoors. With no jobs waiting for high school graduates, villagers could only see potential ruin in allowing their daughters outside.
Not much had changed in the years since, except that two decades of jihadi war had left purdah with a thick Islamic gloss. So everyone involved in the sewing enterprise—Hajji Abdo Khan included—took great care to keep the effort under wraps, lest they be accused of abandoning their religion. It took nearly three months for talk to start bubbling up around the district of the strange building where women had been seen entering. Heela took the news as a sort of inevitability, as if freedom, like all things in a world forged by war, was fleeting by its very nature. Yet even after Qudus Khan shut down the center to avoid trouble, she held on to those three months and did not let them go. The tug within her was nearly constant. It occurred to her that she now understood how the sewing business worked better than anyone. She had spent hours checking machines and spool stocks and fabric supplies. She knew what risks the women were taking to learn the trade, what she was risking herself just to check on them. Why couldn’t she run a center herself, right in her own home?
Musqinyar did not even need to hear the details of her proposal. “I’ll arrange it with Qudus Khan in the morning,” he said, “and get some machines.”
The following day, under cover of darkness, Musqinyar and Omaid unloaded sewing machines from the car and carried them down to the cellar. In return for the donation, they had agreed to provide dresses for Qudus Khan to sell. The governor would quietly put word out about Heela’s “medical practice.”
On the first day of sewing class in that cramped cellar, fourteen women showed up. They would return once a month, each using her own brand of subterfuge. Nilofar, who might have been seventeen (though no one knew for sure), feigned illness to come. Mina snuck out in the afternoons, when her family was taking its midday nap, dressed in black—the color of the elderly, who were ordinarily allowed to pass without notice. Getting caught would likely have meant death, but she kept coming back. Nazo waited until the men in her house were asleep to cross the fields. At her advanced age she would not have been punished as severely as the others, but then she started bringing her two granddaughters. When her son-in-law discovered the excursions, he was incensed. With some effort, she convinced him that she needed help getting to the doctor. Nonetheless, after the third class, he began suspecting that education was involved and confronted her, shouting, “Don’t corrupt my daughters!” Nazo swore that she was doing no such thing. “Look!” she insisted. “I don’t have any books. I don’t even have a pen. I have nothing. Come check my room.”
The class, initially two hours, soon expanded to four. “At first, we didn’t talk about sewing at all,” Heela said, “but instead about how to maintain proper hygiene, how to take care of your house, keep your husband happy, time management, some useful kitchen skills, and so on. These were things I had learned in Kabul, but how could you expect these village women to know about them? I taught them about city life, about the Koran, and then how to sew. I also gave them a primary education, how to write basic things and do basic arithmetic.”
By the sixth month, the students were learning how to operate the machines and measure cloth. Upon graduating, each was granted a table, a ruler, and, to their astonishment, a working sewing machine. This created another set of difficulties, as they had to conspire to sneak the machines into their houses. Eventually the governor awarded the materials to the men of the house, under the guise of a foreign grant. Musqinyar delivered the dresses directly to Qudus Khan, who passed them on to other district officials for sale.
Heela found that she had a way with the students. For women venturing outdoors for the first time, her words came soft and reassuring. Yet they also saw in her a striking model of modernity, bedecked as she was in Kabul’s sartorial splendor: baggy trousers, ankle bells, and a daub of eye shadow. For many, she was the first woman they had ever met who had cast her eyes upon the outside world.
Class size dwindled during harvest season, when men would bring home fruit for their wives to clean and dry, and fluctuated unpredictably whenever domestic difficulties broke out: occasionally a woman somewhere in the district would get beaten or killed, scaring the students off for a month or two.
One of the students was a young woman rumored to have been kidnapped from Kabul during the civil war, and Heela was eager to learn more. During the first sessions, the woman sat in the back without saying a word. Heela couldn’t help staring at her as she worked. Did she know anyone back home? How did she end up here? On her fourth visit Heela cautiously brought up Kabul, and the woman told her the name of her home neighborhood. Emboldened, Heela decided to ask her directly about her story at the next session. But she didn’t return, and Heela never saw her again.
*   *   *
After harvest season the students returned and another class graduated, but the women were finding it ever more difficult to explain how they were mysteriously acquiring the skills to work the machines. And Heela lived with the constant fear that the sound of a dozen machines going at once could be heard from the outside. Worse yet, there was her mother-in-law, whom Musqinyar had sworn to secrecy. Although she hadn’t impeded the classes—what, after all, could she do without leaving the house herself?—she had stated in no uncertain terms that she found the whole enterprise dishonorable.
One spring day in 2003, Heela looked up from her machine to see her mother-in-law standing at the top of the stairs.
“Someone is here for you,” she said.
Turning to her students, Heela motioned frantically and they scrambled, noisily pushing their machines into a corner and taking cover behind curtains. She threw on a burqa and went upstairs. Standing glowering at the gate was Jamila, a relative of her husband—a woman “very clever and fat,” as Heela shared later.
“I killed your chickens,” Jamila said. The birds had evidently wandered into her yard. “All nine of them.” She looked furious.
“Why are you angry? I should be the one that’s angry.”
“Those infidels gave you chickens, and they damaged my garden.”
“Infidels? They were from a charity.”
“A foreign charity. Infidels.” She slowly scanned the yard. “Forget about the chickens. I heard you are working for the infidels as well.”
Heela’s mouth went dry. “I’m not working for anyone,” she said. “Someone is lying to you.”
“No, the whole village is talking about it. They’re saying that you’re working for the infidels. You better stop it. I know what you are doing.”
“I’ve done nothing wrong!” Heela exclaimed. Her mother-in-law shuffled closer to listen. “And I have an education. I have a right to work if I want to.”
“No, you don’t,” Jamila shot back. “Keep going on like this, and no one will see a single family member of yours alive.”
Heela’s mother-in-law chimed in. “Why don’t you come inside for some tea?” Heela stared at her in disbelief. Before she could say anything, Jamila strode past and made her way inside. As she sat down, she spotted a pair of baby blue burqas, puddled onto the floor.
“Whose are those?” she asked. Her eyes swept the room. In the cellar, a dozen women held their breaths. Heela tried to change the subject. “Have some tea and let’s talk. This is between you and me. It’s got nothing to do with the village. It’s my fault the chickens came to your garden. It’s really my fault, I’m sorry.” She waved her hand across the room. “Look around. Do you see a problem here? I’m just a simple housewife.”
Jamila finished her tea and left. Heela’s heart settled and she went back to her students. After a few nervous minutes, Heela continued her lesson, and the machines started up once again.
Suddenly the cellar door burst open. Jamila stood there, aghast, with Heela’s mother-in-law standing beside her. The machines stopped; the students froze.
One of them broke into tears. “I’m just a widow. I have no choice,” she sobbed, “I have no choice.”
Another said, “Please, sister. We’re poor. We just need money.”
People started speaking all at once, begging Jamila not to say a word. Women’s lives were at stake. Heela reminded her that since they were relatives, the news would put Jamila’s family in an unfavorable light as well. This, finally, seemed to cool her down, but before she left she told Heela, “It’s not just me. The whole village is talking. Don’t be selfish. Think about your families, think about your religion.” She paused at the top of the stairs and added, “I’m not responsible for what happens to you.”
Heela canceled classes for the month. But the stoning started anyway. First, rocks rained down on the window and the roof. Then, when her boys left the house, village youths hurled stones at their heads. One month rolled into the next, and the students refused to return to class.
*   *   *


  1. Many thanks for this piece as well as another one about China few days back.


  2. It's a scary world out there. I am afraid, it is knocking at our doors too. Sooner or later it might engulf the entire world.
    I am reading a book, The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Though my fear has nothing to do with this book.
    Ghughuti Basuti