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The Kabuliwalla

world Updated: Aug 19, 2009 19:25 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
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Kabab Diplomacy

The Baba Amir Restaurant has the look of a hunter’s retreat about it. As I sat down for a hearty meal of kababs, salad (read: French fries), a plastic cupful of yoghurt and a Kabuli naan, my eye wandered off to a stuffed tiger in that corner, the skin of some animal displayed on a cupboard in the other corner, and a lion and a deer made of light wood next to me. I guess their purpose in these parts of the world is to drive home the message: eat or be eaten. As I plucked the meat off the skewers that came with the menu and ordered another can of Coke, my waiter asked me in Urdu whether I’m a Hindustani or a Pakistani. Now, I knew that Afghans love Indians and hate Pakistanis. But what if I was in the only friendly-to-Pakistan restaurant in Kabul? I took my chances and told him the truth. His stone face gave out no reaction. Meal finished, I went towards the stationary tiger. There was a laminated note in front of it that read: “Mr/Mrs Baba Amir Restaurant has participated in our cooking and be the best cook in Afghanistan by having good and delation Afghani food has been awarded this certificate of excellence.” Signed Ambassador Daan Everts, Nato Senior Civilian Representative. Dodgy English, but I figured that I was on the right side of the ongoing war in Afghanistan if I relished the food too.

Flicking Movies
One wouldn’t have guessed that Afghanis were cineastes of the most demanding kind. Even as we in India are happy to watch new movies like Public Enemies, GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra and Steven Soderbergh’s latest Che in cinemas, shops in Kabul are selling the latest Hollywood fare for as little as 20 Afghanis ($1= 50 Afghanis). The Bollywood fare isn’t bad either with at least two stalls on Kabul’s ‘chic’ Chicken Street selling DVDs of Kaminey. For purely economic reasons I’m tempted to pick up a box set of The Complete All Season Simpsons from Arash Store inside the Safi Mall. But I figured that it would be more ‘authentic’ to pick up a copy of The Man Who Would Be King, starring Sean Connery playing a British soldier who ends up becoming the ruler of Nuristan. Pirated copies, you say? Really?

Howzatt for Afghanistan?
I met a bunch of youngsters outside, of all places, the Afghan Spinneys Supermarket on the ‘posh’ Wazir Akbar Khan Road. One of them was wearing an Indian cricket team t-shirt with ‘Ganguly’ written on the back. Being from the same tribe as the Bengali cricketer, I asked the strapping lad whether he played the game. He and his friends apparently watch the game regularly on TV more than they actually play it (sounds familiar?). One of them even informed me that the Afghan national team’s not doing too badly these days. ‘Er, Afghan cricket team?’ I thought while nodding encouragingly as if I was a pal of Irfan Khan. Turns out that the national team is now No. 14 in the world and has just missed out on qualifying for the 2011 World Cup. “We beat Ireland,” said one of the lads. We exchange numbers and they promise to take me out to a round of Afghani cricket on Friday.

Plane misunderstanding
The problem with bad phone connections is that you don’t <not> hear things, but you mishear them. Because of a slight visa snafu at the Afghan visa office in Delhi, I was not allowed to board the Indian Airlines flight to Kabul as planned. Instead, I was told to catch the next IC flight (which was on the 20th, and thus too late) or jump aboard a ‘Palmair’ flight scheduled to leave that afternoon. I contacted my office, asking the travel agent lady to put me on the ‘Palmair’ flight. An hour later – half of which was spent in the Afghan embassy getting my visa ‘fixed’ by an official wearing a swine flu mask – I was provided a ‘Palmair’ number. I purchased my ticket from the airline’s office at the airport. It was only while I was standing in the immigration line with the boarding pass in my hand that I saw that it was not ‘Palmair’ (a low-cost British-owned airline) I was flying, but ‘Pamir Airways’. A day later – and after a strenuous landing in a dust-blinded Bagram Airport that would have tipped the plane over if an overweight warlord was sitting on any seat on the left) -- that I felt secure after passing the main office of Pamir Airways in Kabul.