The land of Rumi lies in ruins

The land of Rumi lies in ruins

What tragedy has befallen, once again, the country that must otherwise remind us of Tagore’s Kabuliwala, and of Rumi’s poetry

Afghans walk along a fenced corridor after crossing into Pakistan through the Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing point in Chaman. Credit: AFP Photo

O Kabuliwala! Kabuliwala! These words of Mini, the little girl in Rabindranath Tagore’s short story, Kabuliwala, still chime like jingles whenever I see Afghans or read about Afghanistan, the land of remote, forbidding and mystic mountains, the land of valiant ancient warriors. Abdur Rahman, the tall, loose-robed, long-limbed, high-turbaned and bearded vendor of fruits and wares, who plied his goods in the back lanes of Calcutta, like many of his countrymen across many cities of India, and made their annual pilgrimage back to their land high in the mountains, has been made immortal in his story by Tagore.

Migrants are feared as aliens and seen with suspicion and antipathy, but Tagore etched the character of Kabuliwala as a kindred spirit with such delicacy, beauty and endearment, your heart swells as you read the story.

The friendship between little Mini, her father, who is an author, and Kabuliwala, blossoms. But Kabuliwala is imprisoned over a stabbing incident with a buyer who owed him a debt, and is put away for eight years. After release from jail, he goes to meet Mini. It happens to be her wedding day. He is dissuaded from meeting her by the father, who thinks he could be a bad omen on the auspicious day. When Kabuliwala offers some dry fruits as a present to Mini and turns away, deeply disappointed to depart, Mini’s father, touched to the quick, asks Mini to be brought in. Kabuliwala is flustered as Mini doesn’t recognise him when he tries to speak to her as in former days. She is now a bashful bride, no longer the carefree child he once knew, and she blushes and bends her head down.

Kabuliwala, overcome with a flood of emotions, pulls up his vest and shows the ink imprint of the hand of his little daughter in Afghanistan and fondly runs his hand over it. Mini’s father, tears in his eyes, feels they are all universally bound by the same filial bonds, and offers the proud Kabuliwala some money and urges him to go back home to his own daughter, who has also now grown up. The ink-smeared impression of the hand of Kabuliwala’s little Parvathi in her distant home reminds him of his own little Mini. Mini’s father forgets that Kabuliwala is a poor dry fruit seller from Kabul. Was he more than ‘him’? He was also a father. 

These heartwarming thoughts from the story of Kabuliwala swept over me as I saw the disturbing imagery of the fall of Kabul to the marching gangs of Taliban fighters, rifles slung across their shoulders. Thousands of Afghan civilians, women in burkhas and hijabs, with children in arms, stricken with fear and panic, were fleeing their homes to cross the land borders to neighbouring countries. The chaotic scenes of desperate hordes of people rushing to the airport to catch American rescue flights, apprehensive of the Taliban rule in the offing that had terrorised the population for five years in the late 1990s, clinging on to the planes in despair even as they taxied toward take-off, and a few of them soon falling to their death as the planes got airborne, were horrifying and heart-breaking.

A land that has been ravaged over the centuries by many waves of occupational armies -- from the time of Alexander, the Great, to the Mauryas of Maghada, (yes, even the pacifist Emperor Ashoka), Mongols, Arab Muslims, the British, the Soviets, and finally the mighty US military in 2001, along with NATO forces -- was “freed” once again a few days ago by the Taliban. This is a land that is termed unconquerable and often referred to as the “graveyard of empires”. This land, whose soil has been fertilised with the blood of millions of its people as well as irrigated by the gore of invaders over millennia, has also been the breeding ground and source from which the Greco-Bactrians, the Kushans, the Ghaznis and Ghoris, the Khiljis and Mughals and others, invaded and marauded and went on to found new empires, including in India. 

While the Taliban must be condemned and reviled for spawning terrorism, despised for their bestiality in enforcing extreme Sharia law, hated for treating women abominably and loathed for ruthlessly killing innocents, and while nothing can justify any of that, were not the war games of the superpowers turned into video games of mindless killing, inflicting collateral damage on a large number of innocent women and children and civilians, especially in the rural areas, reminding one of Shakespeare’s line— ‘‘as flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods; they kill us for their sport.” But above all, we have to pay homage to the common people for braving the onslaught of terrible hardships, bereavement of loved ones, their inextinguishable spirit and their stoic courage— caught perennially as they are between the cross-currents of international geopolitics and their local tribal leaders, warlords and religious fundamentalists. 

Now, the US has abandoned the country shamelessly, leaving the country in total disarray and chaos, a result of a gross disconnect between inept policy, confusing diplomacy, and failure of intelligence. The Taliban, now virtually in command, is sending signals of its intention to form an inclusive government, giving a call of amnesty to everyone, and promising more freedom for women to work and to go to schools and colleges. But there are already reports of reprisals and killings. Analysts are divided about the genuineness or otherwise of the ‘new’ Taliban. The people, especially women, await in fear and foreboding. 

It is a cruel irony. Jalal ad-Din Rumi, a 12th century Afghan mystic, one of the most beloved Sufi poets, a precious gift to the world, whose poems of love and peace and harmony are still heard in churches, synagogues, monasteries and temples, rose like fragrant incense from the same land that now lies in tatters, riven by bigotry and sectarian violence, torn between the imperialism of the superpowers of the world. The time has come for them to exit Afghanistan. China trying to fill the void left by the Americans and wooing the Taliban is foolhardy and it may find its soldiers’ bones interred with the graveyards of former invaders. Fools always rush in where angels fear to tread. And Pakistan forgets that one cannot export terrorism without also importing it into its own society. 

And alas, India, the land of Gandhi and Buddha, seems to be out of the picture in playing a role to rebuild and bring back peace to the country, with which we have historic connections and roots. 

The Taliban, one hopes, will begin to build bridges. Who could have sung it better than Rumi: “Love is the bridge between you and everything.”

(The writer is a soldier, farmer and entrepreneur)

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