The Deviant Diplomat
A diplomatic posting in Afghanistan is not everyone's cup of tea. Sandeep Kumar has made it his pot.
|It was the mid 1980s when the trend of abandoning small towns for the big bad world of city lights hadn’t quite caught fire. Certainly the offspring of affluent business families in his town rarely left the roost. But even then Sandeep Kumar’s feet were itching.|
“It’s always been this love of traveling, languages, interacting with new cultures, meeting people.” So after a very English upbringing at the prestigious Doon School, Kumar left his town of Najibabad in Western Uttar Pradesh to join the Indian Foreign Service and see the world. 22 years later Kumar is still stepping out of the box.
A diplomatic posting in Afghanistan is not everyone’s cup of tea. The country has rudimentary services; cities, villages and families have been destroyed by 30 years of war. There are pitched battles for territorial control in South Afghanistan and elsewhere, including the capital city of Kabul, where bombs, suicide and rocket attacks are commonplace.
In this city most foreigners live almost an embattled existence. Behind tall walls and barbed wire, they travel from one “secure location” to another. Surrounded by a large security apparatus that prevents them from taking public transport, walking, shopping and eating in local restaurants, most complete their postings in Afghanistan with limited contact with Afghans and Afghanistan. Life is lived in an artificial expat bubble that separates foreigners from Afghans, with the real and normal life experienced during frequent rest and recuperation breaks outside the country.
In this peculiar milieu, Kumar stands out by his ability to lead a normal life.
A walk around his flat is a tell tale giveaway of his wide ranging interests. The walls are covered by his oil paintings, the difference in colors and styles hreflecting the progression of his travels, from the rich reds and yellows of Cape Town to the muted blues and browns of Afghanistan’s landscape. Musical instruments are strewn around. In a corner is his gym equipment, the essential tools of a junkie, a man who by his own confession, is addicted to the gym.
He is working on a book, Musings from Afghanistan, in which he jots down his impressions of Afghanistan, the dust, the smells and tastes of the country, the human interactions, the concerns about the rebuilding of the nation.
Before Cape he was in Hong Kong, Paris, Cambridge and Vietnam. In each place Kumar managed to claim a little bit of the country through his eclectic interests. In Vietnam he joined the Vietnamese symphony orchestra, singing Vietnamese songs, traveling and giving performances. “When we returned home there would be flowers at our doorsteps from appreciative listeners.” In Afghanistan Kumar misses his Sitar, something he had to leave behind because of the difficulties of transporting it.
When he arrived here Kumar was fearful of missing out on his gym regimen as well. But he soon found his niche. Not in the “international only” gyms frequented by the denizens of UN and other international organizations, but in an Afghan-only gym.
He writes in his diary:”Hundred metres from my place: mostly young guys in trendy tracksuits, no women. I am the only foreigner, but I am not complaining as I get right of first use on the machines (traditional Afghan hospitality). However I have to constantly watch out for the bulky weights, some of which are beautifully carved out of old vehicle tyres, steel cans and discarded weapons that get swung around wildly in all directions… At times there is no electricity/fuel, in the generator, all movements are conducted in gaslight and although it is admittedly rather risky, I prefer to attribute romantic overtones to the situation: where else in the world does one get to gym by candlelight?”
Now Kumar’s relationship with the gym regulars is one of friends. “They call up saying we want to come and cook pizza at your place.” The crowning glory was the Mr Afghanistan body building competition last year when Kumar cast aside the usual diplomatic reticence to take part, preparing for a month on a strict diet. Finally, in the competition solely attended by Afghans, Kumar took his place in the spotlight to preen and flex his muscles cheered on by a wildly enthusiastic crowd.
At the Indian embassy in Afghanistan, Kumar is a minister, the senior most diplomat after the ambassador. He administers India’s large aid program to Afghanistan, a complex and politically sensitive task, meeting with ministers, officials and visiting around the country.
But Kumar makes sure he makes time for painting. In Cape Town he picked up his brush after a gap of 10 year inspired by the amazing landscape. In Afghanistan the inspiration is Afghan women. Canvas after canvas is filled with paintings of women in blue burkhas. For Kumar the most amazing thing about the women is their strength. His favorite painting based on a picture that of a woman in a burkha her hand outstretched holding a gun, a policewoman from Kandahar practicing her shooting skills, a woman he was to meet later on.
He muses in his diary: “There are five paintings, hreflecting the situation of women at a cross roads of life, against stark backdrops… I can feel their collective piercing gaze slicing through me.. the muse yields, the hear quivers, the sparks solder. The painter becomes the painting.”
Along with other Afghan men he has learnt to look out for the telltale signs under the burkha, the paint on the toe nails, the footwear that reveals more about the personality of the wearer. “I try to get my stare to ducs on the feet of the lady in blue to see what color toe nails she apprents to her torso, but am disappointed by her all-black non-revealing footwear….”
Kumar’s desire to partake of Afghan life fully takes him to Afghan homes, streets, places in the city normally avoided by expats and even Afghan orphanages. A friend Hameed is an Afghan government interpreter who gave up his own academic ambitions to put his brother through college and support his family. Hameed is thrilled when Kumar decided to perform namaz. Wahid has a medical degree, but cannot practice medicine, because of the inadequate salaries of doctor in Afghanistan. Kumar becomes involved in negotiations for Wahid’s marriage, even as he decries Wahid’s double standards towards women in his diary.
“In his own way he has been illegally ‘dating’ several young girls as well, but wouldn’t marry them. ‘If a girl can date another man before marriage, then she is not wife material’ he says simply. ‘And what about the man who leads them on?’ I am unable to ward off the aggression and sarcasm that has crept into my voice. But he just passes that off with a disarming shrug.”
Kumar learns that the relatively poorer border province of Paktika apparently has the highest bride price, ranging from $10-12,000. Why he wonders later, are women not treated better if they are so expensive?
Kumar’s book reveals a great deal about him. Written with a painful honesty, the book records every thought, his emotions, struggles, joys and lows with an almost embarrassing frankness. He struggles with his own frustrations when the problems of living in Kabul and the country get too much for him. In doing so, it also provides a glimpse of Afghanistan. Not the Afghanistan of academic tomes and sensational stories, but the ordinariness of living life in an extraordinary land.