At the end of the
1980s, it was a matter of prestige for a Malayali family to send its
children to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for higher
education. Soviet literature, brought out on glossy paper by both Progress
Publishers and Raduga, was available at almost every rural library and
party office. Though my father had no sympathy for either the Left or
the Right, his library was filled with volumes of Russian literature.
Each morning, Communists and anti-Communists would hold heated discussions
at the village meeting place over the scientific achievements of the
USSR; at school, our teachers were vociferous in their praise of the
Soviet Union’s social and cultural progress. Though the so-called
‘bourgeois media’ had expressed doubt over the Communist
convictions of Mikhail Gorbachev, most of the village’s social
analysts termed such statements as the reflection of the class bias
of media barons.
I wish to place
my going to Leningrad for my engineering degree in this context. I had
just finished my pre-university course at a college in Ernakulam. My
father was extremely happy when some of my relatives succeeded in securing
me a seat at the Civil and Architectural Institute of St.Petersburg
University. I was happy too because the USSR was the promised land for
most of my generation. There was another thrill, a very personal one,
of moving out of India and studying abroad. I never thought the decision
would change my life forever.
was determined to live with my husband
in his own city, imbibing his own culture.
I never imagined living as a mute spectator
to the Taliban’s extreme hatred for women
It was at the Civil
and Architectural Institute that I met Humayun Koram, an Afghan national
and the only other of my classmates from a different country. Koram
was from Najibullah’s Afghanistan, which had close ties with the
USSR. He slowly became an integral part of my earthly existence. Both
of us shared common dreams and objectives. It’s not the matching
of horoscopes but of wavelengths that decides life, I learned. There
were no attempts to add an ideological twist to our love affair. We
were just two human beings in love. Even when I finally decided to marry
Koram, defying barriers of caste, community and nationality, I never
thought I would have to battle ultra-fundamentalist outfits and rigid
nationalist sentiments to protect my family.
To my utter disbelief,
my Hindu family in Kerala accepted Koram as their son-in-law. We married
in Pozhuthana in Wayanad, where my family settled after my father’s
retirement. By the time I married, the USSR had been dismantled and
the euphoria over the socialist paradise was over. Going abroad to study
became common and children even from socialist families started moving
towards “capitalist” educational destinations like Australia,
the UK and the US.
In Kabul, Najibullah
was hanged from a lamppost by the Taliban militia. Unrest and uncertainty
became the order of the day. But all such developments failed to deter
me from settling down in Kabul with my husband and his family. I was
determined to live with my husband in his own city, imbibing his own
culture. At that time, I thought no political or religious force could
change the flow of one’s personal life. I never thought of wearing
a burqa and saying goodbye, for at least five years, to my career. I
had never imagined living as a mute spectator to extreme hatred for
women. In the meantime, I had become the proud mother of my children
Naveen and Mallika. I had to teach them in secret, though, as there
was no surety about the end of the ultra-fundamentalist regime.
Those who know
me compare me with Sushmita Bandopadhyay, who married an Afghan, lived
under the Taliban’s thumb and later escaped to tell her story.
That became the theme of Ujwal Chattopadhyaya’s film Escape from
Taliban. But my experience was different. I never tried to escape. I
stayed on to tell the story: of wearing a burqa and secretly teaching
children, of witnessing the end of fanaticism and the birth of hope.
Koram and I were
in Wayanad with our kids when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Days
before Mullah Omar imposed restrictions on women being in public places,
an Indian Airlines flight took me back to Kabul. On our arrival, the
flight crew asked me to cover my head with at least a shawl before leaving
When I disembarked,
I noticed that the aviation staff had been replaced by a group of bearded
men. They directed me to destroy all film song cassettes, photographs
and handicrafts purchased from India. There was no choice but to obey.
The Taliban put
my family under stringent surveillance, because of our Russian connection.
This was the time when the Taliban militia burned Russian books to cleanse
the community from its “Communist sins”. As a foreigner
of a different faith, I found survival extremely risky under the regime.
During the years when the Taliban lorded over Afghanistan, I was totally
cut off from my family in Kerala. There were no telephonic or postal
communications. As for my husband, he didn’t just have to abandon
his Western attire, but also his engineering job because of a freeze
on construction. Koram had to start trading in iron rods to get by.
In the meantime, I concealed myself under a burqa, and held clandestine
English classes for children in the neighbourhood. It was a social situation
next only to the Dark Ages. It was a life in unseen chains. Extreme
fundamentalism took away almost all the joys of life. I was most concerned
about my daughter. How could I bring her up in a society where even
sending girls to school was taboo? I thought of escaping to India several
times. But there was no way out.
Hope emerged only
when fighter jets started flying across the horizon. When the civilian
casualties started increasing, I had no other option than to cross illegally
into Pakistan with my family. Finally, the war ended and the Taliban
regime was ousted. I took my husband and children to India as soon as
the war ended. When I met my parents, the reunion was a rebirth. My
parents insisted we live in Kerala, but I disagreed. I was still unafraid
to experiment with another episode of survival in the Afghan capital.
On my return, the Red Cross provided me a temporary job at its Kabul
office. A little later, I became administrative officer with the United
Nations World Food Programme. Koram also got a decent job, as public
information officer with the un Assistance Mission.
Following the killing
of some Indians by the Taliban after the new government took over, my
parents sought the guardianship of my children. I was unable to resist.
So they are now in Wayanad as Indian nationals; they speak fluent Malayalam,
along with English and Hindi, and lack proficiency only in Afghani.
My husband has to apply for a single-entry tourist visa and wait for
three months whenever he wishes to come to Kerala to see the children.
My attempts to get him a multiple-entry visa started two years ago and
are still continuing. The Indian Embassy in Kabul has approved the request
and forwarded it to the Union home ministry, where it is awaiting final
approval. I have sought the help of people’s representatives and
ministers several times to get it cleared at the earliest. But nothing
is happening. I am continuing my effort.
told to KA Shaji