When I was invited to visit Kabul, my family were naturally unenthusiastic. I disregarded their advice for two reasons: first, because my host was a brilliant and brave diplomat, whom I was loath to let down; second, because I had recently received a text message from the actor Naseeruddin Shah describing Afghanistan as ‘[a] gorgeous country [with] gorgeous people’.
Two days before I was to fly out, terrorists entered a half-finished high-rise building in the centre of Kabul and began spraying bombs and rockets in all directions. Friends phoned or mailed advising me not to go. I was reassured by my host in Kabul, who said these things happened all the time, and this last incident had not made the place less safe than it had previously been.
I went, to be rewarded with some intense encounters with a gorgeous country and its gorgeous people. To be sure, the ravages of war were everywhere — as in a once magnificent palace, now bombed from outside and blasted from within; and security barriers taller, thicker, and altogether more frightening than I had ever seen or experienced. But the mountains were grand, if quite different in their starkness from the tree-clad hills of my Himalayan boyhood (or my Nilgiri middle-age).
The men were just as impressive as their mountains, and rather better clad, dressed almost always in traditional attire. Some women were in burqas; but many others, the younger ones especially, wore elegant trousers and tops, with a coloured head-scarf marking their sole concession to tradition. I drove one evening through the campus of Kabul University, to see — and marvel at — groups of young women chatting and laughing, a sight impermissible under the Taliban and which will be verboten if the Taliban come to rule Kabul again.
The most impressive Afghan I met was a musician named Altaf Hussain Sarahang. His late father, Mohammed Hussain Sarahang, was a prodigiously gifted khayal singer whose genius is still visible, albeit in snatches, through YouTube. In his pomp, Sarahang pére had been a frequent visitor to Bombay and Calcutta, his admirers including his fellow Patiala gharana ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Lata Mangeshkar. Mohammed Hussain was very handsome, even by Afghan standards. It is said that Lata Mangeshkar once wondered if she should close her eyes and concentrate on his music or open her eyes and focus on his form.
I never saw the father, but can testify to the high musical abilities of the son. In the mehfil I attended, Altaf sang a fine khayal in Yaman, and then, in deference to the mixed audience, some thumris, ghazals and folk songs. His command of these genres was complete. His multilingualism was as impressive — in that one evening he sang compositions in Braj, Sanskrit, Pashto, Dari, Urdu, and Hindi (the last the Hemant Kumar favourite, ‘Na tum humme jano’). Unlike his father, Altaf is not conventionally handsome but he is a character withal. He wears a colourful cape, plays the harmonium left-handed, and — when the music is done — matches the diplomats whisky for whisky while outclassing them in the quality of his conversation.
Altaf Hussain Sarahang loves India and Indians, and not only because of his father. In my encounters with other Afghans, I likewise found an affection and even enchantment with a land connected to them by culture and history but with which it fortunately does not share a border. Afghans admire Indian films, of course, but also the Indian doctors and nurses who serve them, and the Indian colleges to which they would like to send their children.
To Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, the Republic of India can appear — and indeed sometimes is — overbearing. But the Big Brother here is Pakistan, regarding which country Afghans have profoundly ambivalent feelings. They are connected to that land, too, by culture and history, and additionally by ethnicity and religion. On the other hand, it is from Pakistan and with the patronage of the Pakistan State and military that the terrorists who stand between Afghanistan and peace operate.
In Kabul, I attended meetings, listened to mehfils and found time for two excursions as well. One was to the Bagh-e-Babur, the tomb and garden where lie buried the remains of the first Mughal Emperor. The second was to Paghman, a green, wooded, well-watered hill town that was once the summer capital of the Afghan kings, and later an epicentre of the mujahideen. In villages along the way we saw boys playing cricket — which, the Taliban permitting, bids fair to become the new Afghan national sport — as well as peasants selling absurdly large melons and families out on picnics (it was Friday, the weekly holiday).
In Paghman we got out of the car, and took a walk in a park that houses an arched memorial built by King Amanullah in the 1920s. The boys and men around us were incredibly handsome, variously attired, and very friendly to random Indians on the move. Their cheeriness bespoke of an extraordinary dignity, masking the fact that their country has been through some 30 years of near-continuous civil war, successively stoked from outside by the Soviet Union, the United States of America and Pakistan.
Two days after I left Kabul, the former president and putative peace-maker Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed by a suicide bomber. As I heard the news, I thought of the boys in Paghman, the gardeners of the Bagh-e-Babar and the great singer (and raconteur) Altaf Hussain Sarahang. Surely a country with such good people deserves better luck - and less malign neighbours.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. The views expressed by the author are personal.