I first met the girl I will call Zarmina in the early months of 2006, towards the end of winter in Kabul, when the snow was fading from the streets but spring was some time away. She worked as a TV producer at a local channel. I was part of a small team that had been hired to ‘build the capacity’ of their staff over the next few months. Within a few days, it was clear that Zarmina was one of the channel’s best employees. She spoke fluent Urdu from a childhood spent in Pakistan, and would often translate for us. She had started working as an anchor before moving ahead to become a producer, picking up the necessary skills along the way. Like many of her young colleagues she was hungry to learn, eager to catch up with everything she felt she had missed during her youth, when the world had marched on oblivious to those left behind in the slipstream of war.
All through that winter we worked with the staff at this channel, which I will call NTV. We were young, callow and full of enthusiasm. A lot of new ideas were tested out on our flock of new ‘students’. Fortunately, things somehow fell into place, and most of the staff embraced our unorthodox training as a welcome break from the lectures they had come to expect. Over the weeks, in between playing games, watching movies, practicing theatre exercises and telling stories, the staff produced a series of short films, remarkable for their freshness and insights. In all this, Zarmina was our go-to girl for any logistical tangle or bureaucratic hurdle. If we had a difficult idea to present to the staff, she would be our first volunteer. She prepared tirelessly for her own film production, and when it was finished, she sat in the editing room and cried. It wasn’t as good as she had hoped.
Zarmina introduced us to her aunts, ladies in chic off-shoulder dresses and cropped salt and pepper hair, who lived in Europe and spoke proudly of how their family had always educated women and never believed in the nonsense of purdah.
Zarmina was then in her early 30s and unmarried. She lived with her mother and was the darling of a large family with several older brothers and their wives, a beloved aunt to their children. The last of her brothers was getting married that winter, and she invited her Indian ustads (teachers) to her home for the pre-wedding rituals of her brother. We walked to her house from NTV through a narrow bylane of one of Kabul’s better planned neighbourhoods, in what used to be the suburbs. A large wooden door led into a courtyard with pomegranate trees, and an old-fashioned hand pump. On a large fire her relatives were cooking samanak halwa – a sweet pudding made of wheatgerm and water that requires constant stirring.
The cooking of samanak is a ritual to welcome the spring, and is usually done by women in the evenings before Nauroz, the spring equinox. There are songs that accompany the rituals:
Samanak dar deg maa kapcha zanym / digaran dar khaab ma kapcha zanym
Samanak nazr e bahaar ast ein khosh sal yak bar ast / sal digar ya nasib
Samanak is in the pot we are stirring it / Everyone else is asleep but we are stirring it
Samanak is a sign of spring, this happiness comes once a year / Next year may we be fated to see it again
But that day it was to celebrate the coming happiness of a new bride. Zarmina’s brothers, a large, boisterous lot, invited the Indian ustads to stir the samanak, and then laughed uproariously at our feeble attempts with the large ladle. One of my photographs captured that moment, with us red-faced and exhausted, standing over a massive degh (pot). I remember Zarmina and her mother watching from the large windows of her house when that picture was taken, in between the bustle of looking after their guests and running the house. She seemed transformed from her office-self, but also pleasingly familiar, like so many of my elder sisters before their marriages, handling the complicated reins of our large, rambling home in ways that only they knew.
A few days later, we attended the wedding, which was at a newly opened wedding hall on the outskirts of Kabul. Unusually for Kabul (and even for my hometown of Aligarh, in Uttar Pradesh) there was no segregation between the zenana (ladies) and mardana (men), and the guests mingled freely. Zarmina introduced us to her aunts, ladies in chic off-shoulder dresses and cropped salt-and-pepper hair, who lived in Europe and spoke proudly of how their family had always educated women and never believed in the nonsense of purdah. Sadly, it was in such company that I disgraced myself. When my group of women friends asked me to join them to dance to a racy Bollywood number, I reacted with an instinct I had not known I possessed (one probably honed by my own aunts, ladies of great, if selective, love for purdah and ‘decorous’ behaviour.) “Here?” I croaked in horror, “In front of all these men?”
To Zarmina, my refusal to dance at her brother’s wedding was a sign of rudeness, an insult she still remembers. But being a polite Afghan herself, she did not tell me this till months later. At the wedding, she took to the dance floor with a dupatta drawn over her face, and danced to a popular song from an old Indian film. “Parde mein rehne do, parda na uthao, let the veil remain do not lift it,” crooned the singer, as Zarmina danced, face half hidden behind the pink veil, her laugh just visible through its folds.
I could not attend Zarmina’s wedding, but heard about it on a visit to Kabul in 2009. It seemed to have been something of a romance. Her husband was a school teacher who lived next door to one of Zarmina’s colleagues. He had seen Zarmina anchor a show and was smitten with her, badgering his neighbour for an introduction. Zarmina had sent him about his business, which had made an even better impression on him, proving that she was a ‘decent girl’. He took his proposal to her brothers, via the neighbour.
She had talked about the waves of internal displacement, the rush of returning refugees and those searching for livelihoods, into a city where the population had jumped from around one million to five million…
They also married in one of the halls on Kabul’s fringes. Zarmina’s home, with the courtyard and the pomegranate tree, was left behind. Her colleagues told me in whispers that it was taken over by her own relatives, who had been living there during the war, when Zarmina’s family had fled to Pakistan. Over the years they had looked after it, kept it intact and even repaired it when they could. Now they laid claim to living there during the years of peace. Such disputes over suddenly valuable property were common across Kabul, a city in the throes of a construction boom. Zarmina’s mother decided to simply move out rather than engage in long battles with her own relatives.
It was a bloody spring in Kabul that year. The Taliban had launched coordinated attacks, targeting official buildings and diplomatic areas. All around, the city seemed to be slipping out of control, falling easy prey to suicide bombers and insurgents who would hole themselves up inside buildings and wait for victims. Soon after these attacks, Zarmina’s family moved to a new house that virtually froze in the winters and was stuffy in the summers, and where the walls abutted the streets. But the rooms were large enough for the children to play in, and the neighbourhood was held to be a good place to live, safer than other areas of the city.
Zarmina herself moved to the home that her husband shared with his mother and a sister, on the edges of Taimani, a long bus ride from her office. Many of the homes here were being rebuilt from the rubble, and people who were moving to Kabul from other provinces or returning from abroad built houses along the margins of this area. Their homes rose out, conspicuously new, from the edges of freshly tarred roads and from behind half-broken mud walls. Zarmina still worked in NTV, but she no longer stayed behind to pick up tips from the other trainings the channel hosted. Like most of her female colleagues with families and husbands, she packed up early to catch the first minibus out of the office every day. To miss it, to take the second one, to be late in getting home even by a few minutes, was to trigger questions and situations. I soon found out that her mother-in-law resented her son marrying a girl of his own choice. A few months after they got married, Zarmina became pregnant. Her husband was pleased, and she herself loved children and was ready to be a mother. A few weeks into her pregnancy she lost the baby. The first of several babies she conceived, but never had.
Given the innate courtesy of most Kabulis, Zarmina was troubled by the fact that she could not invite us, her Indian ustads, to her marital home for a meal. As a happy compromise, we accepted a joint invitation from her neighbour, the matchmaker, for iftar and dinner one Ramadan evening. Zarmina did a lot of the work, putting out the dishes and insisting we took third helpings. In Kabul, food is often served on the dastarkhwan, on the floor. After dinner, I unthinkingly unfolded my legs that had been cramped during the meal. Zarmina quietly fetched a sheet and covered my feet so they would not face the other guests – a little touch of Kabuli etiquette unknown to most people from outside, but near instinct for Zarmina.
Zarmina had grown up part of the large refugee community in Peshawar. There she had gained the benefits of a relatively good education and an early commitment to a career. But she had always considered Kabul home. Once as we walked through the streets around NTV together, I had asked her why there were so many graveyards all over Kabul. She had talked about the waves of internal displacement, the rush of returning refugees and those searching for livelihoods, into a city where the population had jumped from around one million to five million over the last decade, pushing its boundaries onto the mountains and out of the encircling valley that used to define it. “Earlier there was just one graveyard, Shuhada, on the edge of the city,” she had added, before continuing with a touch of austere snobbishness. “All real Kabulis used to be buried there.”
“But you grew up in Pakistan, Zarmina,” I teased her.
“That’s how you can tell,” she retorted.
I spent the summer of 2011 back with Zarmina and her colleagues in what I had hoped would be the same atmosphere of giddy enthusiasm and interesting work that had first drawn me to Kabul. But this time, things were different in every way. The channel had become bigger and acquired more funding from international agencies as well as the Afghan government. Somewhere in this process, it had also become slower, more bureaucratic in its responses. The staff was less enthusiastic about making an effort for the same salary. There was much talk of incentives and overtime payment as part of our training programme, words we had heard on our first visit in other places but had never encountered in our own experience. Naively, I once tried to convince a staffer that the learning was more important than the small raise in salary that went with it. “You are learning something for free,” I protested. “People pay to learn these skills”.
“Everyone is making money,” he replied with brutal candour. “Why shouldn’t I?”
One day I found her asleep in the empty editing studio, her scarf over her face in a way that reminded me of her dance at her brother’s wedding, but without her smile. She seemed exhausted, at the point of cracking.
In all this, Zarmina was transformed, a silent, chalk-faced figure who rarely ventured out of her office. Sometimes she would cook me something special and bring it in her lunchbox. Most of the time, however, she slept. One day I found her asleep in the empty editing studio, her scarf over her face in a way that reminded me of her dance at her brother’s wedding, but without her smile. She seemed exhausted, at the point of cracking. I found out that she had been seeing an ‘expert’ – a doctor whom a colleague had recommended. The treatment involved injections of some kind of hormone every day to treat her ‘infertility’. She didn’t know what was in the drug, only that it made her feel anxious and lethargic, unlike her own self. But she took the injections every day, trusting the doctor who had trained abroad, who came with special knowledge and special drugs, hoping for a cure. As time went by, it became increasingly like hoping for a miracle.
On our first trip to Kabul, Zarmina had given my husband a copy of her book of poems. She had written them while still a student. At the time she had hoped to write another collection. I asked her that summer if she still wrote, even if it was just to capture the changes she saw around her. “That part of my life is over,” she said.
That year, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated at his home in Kabul. The violence in the city was relentless over a course of months, with attacks at a supermarket, the Intercontinental Hotel and the American Embassy. A few times we were told not to come to work as the city was too tense. Towards the end of our stay, Zarmina lost another baby. Soon after we left Kabul, several of the women from NTV came to Delhi to consult doctors for various ailments. Zarmina was one of them.
For a few weeks we watched and tried to help as she wandered the murky networks of Delhi’s medical tourism industry, was shuffled from doctor to doctor, avoided agents and commissions and haggled over already inflated bills. She was told she needed surgery, after which she would be able to have children. After her operation, she didn’t return to Kabul.
Zarmina’s son was born in Delhi. When I went to visit her I got lost several times in the labyrinthine galis of Hauz Rani, where she and her husband had rented a room and lived all through her difficult pregnancy. The neighbourhood was a revelation for me, with its signboards for chemists, kababs and airline tickets all lettered in Dari, and the vast complexes of hospitals and shopping malls glittering across the main road. I finally located Zarmina’s husband outside a grocery store and followed him home. Incredibly, and also predictably, Zarmina had cooked up a storm in her tiny kitchen, and we had a traditional Afghan lunch followed by multiple cups of tea. After the food her husband left, and we talked of Kabul. In her tiny room with no windows, surrounded by people who had at best a casual connection with her small family, Zarmina talked of her home in Kabul, with the trees and the courtyard, recalling her brother’s wedding and our futile attempts to stir the samanak halwa. We ate musk melon someone had got for her from Kabul, and she showed me the gifts her mother had sent for her infant son. “In Afghanistan, you do a lot for your daughter’s children. My mother cried as she could only send a few things,” she said. She also told me she wanted to apply for refugee status in India and that she was determined not to go back. She knew it would be difficult, and it would take a tussle of wills with her husband, who wanted to return. But she had made up her mind, and she did it.
I met Zarmina several times over the next few months, asking about the progress of her application from desk to desk, following her around as she moved from lodging to lodging herself. Sometimes she would have to leave because of a sharp rise in the rent, sometimes she would be tired of having no water supply. The last time I met her was in the oppressive Delhi heat that follows the rains, which would be autumn in Kabul. It had been seven years since we had met in Kabul. She told me she had joined English classes, and spoke about various schemes for making a little money to help offset the costs of living in Delhi. Her husband could not work in Delhi, not only because his visa did not allow him to be employed, but also because most Afghans like him ended up working either as drivers or cooks. He could
In an alternate universe, Zarmina’s son would have had the childhood she never had, on the streets of his parents’ city, hearing the voices of his extended family around him, playing with his cousins and going to school in their company.
do neither. For the first time in her adult life, Zarmina didn’t have a job. But she was happy to spend days with her son, speaking to him in Dari, massaging his feet with oil from Kabul.
In an alternate universe, Zarmina’s son would have had the childhood she never had, on the streets of his parents’ city, hearing the voices of his extended family around him, playing with his cousins and going to school in their company. Zarmina, who grew up in exile herself, took all this away from him with her decision to stay in India – an irony she is sharply aware of. She does not talk of this, or of the cycles of displacement she has seen in her own life and is seeing continued in the life of her young son. Instead, she talked about a picnic she had gone for that weekend with a group of other Afghans, some recent arrivals and others who had lived in India for years. They had gone to a park, but as soon as they had spread open the dastarkhwan, they had been attacked by bees. “This is the most exciting thing that has happened to me,” she said in tones that precluded any pity. “I was attacked by bees.” The group and the network was part of her attempt to put down roots in Delhi, a city she felt hid behind a startling opacity and where she scrabbled to find a foothold. When we last met, she had permission to live in Delhi until the early months of 2014. The final decision about her status was still pending.
We talked about news of an attack in Kabul, and I got assurances of the safety of several mutual friends. I knew that when the news broke, she would have called everyone to get updates, and before making the calls would have passed down the familiar roads of anxiety and silence followed by a whispered prayer of thanks at the news that her loved ones were safe, which would in turn have been followed by an awareness that never entirely recedes: that next time she may not be so lucky. I asked her what she felt people at home would do after 2014. Buried in that question was another sentence that I left unsaid – what would she do if she had to return to Kabul after 2014?
“Do?” she said, a little distractedly. “As if it was ever up to us.”