Thursday, September 15, 2011
Afghan Affair – Dawood Pathan
First day inside Afghanistan (Eishkashim) and Pat draws out a long list of stuff that we need to purchase from the local bazaar before setting off to the mountains. We walked down to the bazaar and soon face the common problem of any international traveler who is not a linguist, that of lingua franca.
Every shopkeeper in that bizarre bazaar smiles at us and offers his display for our benefit but we can’t make anyone understand what we really want since most of our ‘wanted’ list items are not on display. I apply my pantomime and say ‘Hindustani’ (I am from Hindustan or India) that brings out more smiles but no comprehension and then I scream ‘Urdu’ like a demented gorilla, to which brings in severe nods of denial. I feel like a deflated balloon without gas since I had boasted Pat I would be able to swing through the shopping like a hot knife through hot butter.
We walk up and down, looking and smiling and clicking pictures of people and donkeys for the want of anything better. Pat sips a coke; I ponder the vast emptiness within my head. We are climbers so perseverance is not only our forte but birthright, so we keep up our completely unsuccessful efforts at communication. Pat knows three and half languages; I know half and three or three fourth so that makes it a little more than four. Even then we remain wherever we are and we both aren’t sure, after hours of aimless loiter, where exactly that is.
Suddenly a giant in brown salwar kameez bars my way, popping out of a dark window like the genie of Aladdin. And speaks in chaste Urdu: tum Hindustan se ayaa? (You come from India?). I stare at him as if I have finally sighted the lighthouse that would guide me out of the stormy night. Yes, I respond.
He engulfs me in a hug that is larger than that of a Polar Bear. His laughter echoes from all corners of the bazaar and everyone looks at us to see what the uproar is all about. My name is Dawood Pathan, he says, you are my friend from India. Someone told me that you are here and looking to buy things. I will help you.
From then on, we are under the stewardship of Dawood. He shows me his one room abode with a blue door (freshly painted as he pointed) atop one corner of the bazaar and then we head for his shop first. He assures that whatever we don’t find in his shop, he would take us to others and get us the best bargain.
As we follow Dawood with confident strides as if we own the place, everyone waves and chucks words at our guide. Dawood seems to be a popular man. He tells me his story. He has been a traveling salesman for many years peddling his goods atop his beloved donkeys from Iran, across Central Asia, to Pakistan (that’s where he learned Urdu) onwards to China and back again. His knowledge of the silk route was impeccable. For the last two years he had set up his shop in this godforsaken corner of Afghanistan. We were short of time else I would have spent days with him hearing his travel tales, yet he did fill me up quite a bit.
We reach his shop to discover it has a vegetable kiosk open-display on the front while the main shop contained many of the stuff we looked for, like jam, butter, cheese, biscuits, macaroni, tinned fruit, etc. predictably most of the products came from Iran or Pakistan. He even had a freezer outside (running on generators) that contained an assortment of fizzy beverages. He offered me one on the house. The vegetable section contained potatoes (rather distorted), onions (all falling apart), green chilly (sizes to match that of Dawood), radish (rotten and falling off), tomatoes (they were still remotely red) and half a dozen ripe watermelons. As he got the stuff out, our list kept getting smaller. Once done, Dawood took us to other shops. He got us at least 20 % discounts everywhere and at no place did we have to pay individually. We were supposed to pay Dawood for everything together lump sum. This was highly convenient. We finally went to the gas shop.
Here the gas purchasing rules are decidedly funny. First you have to buy the empty gas cylinders (we wanted 5 ltr, two) and then you pay extra for the filling. Now the catch is that the cylinders you buy actually become yours, you don’t have to return them and no one tells you what you would do with them once our expedition gets over. Thankfully the burner comes free along with the cylinder.
I told Dawood to do something about it. After few minutes of haggling with the stern looking gas seller, Dawood declared that when we return the two cylinders (and if they are still in good order) we would get refund for one of them. So that meant an extra 1000 Afghani for us. We liked the deal and the gas seller told us to come an hour later to pick up the two filled gas cylinders plus one burner.
Our shopping list was a little obfuscated since things kept being added or dropped at the whims of the three of us and I had to go to the bazaar several times to complete the purchase, even returning things that on the hindsight we felt we wouldn’t need. Every time all I did was reach Dawood’s shop, drink a coke and then go with him to get things done. Not once did he complain or say that it might be difficult for him to leave his shop to help me out. After all, majority of the stuff we didn’t buy from him. But Dawood was always there with his bear hug, kiss on the cheek and rumbling laughter for his friend from India.
On our last day when we parted, he shook my hand for long and gave me his address and asked me to drop him a postcard from home. I am very sure there’s no postal system in that part of Afghan and whatever mail or parcels come in there, comes through diplomatic or humanitarian missions. Yet, I would surely send him a postcard, no matter where it goes. Since he taught me that it’s not the real physical thing that matters, but it’s the spirit, the brotherhood, the bonhomie that transcends the barriers of race, nation, culture and language.
I am sure we would have managed equally well without Dawood and we wouldn’t have starved up on the mountain, but this gentle giant only brought in the ray of hope that is so difficult to find in a place so ravaged by greed and anarchy.
My Afghan friend Dawood Pathan sits in a remote corner of a lonely valley in the forlorn land of Afghanistan. I would request all of you, who is reading this and feel the way I do about these people, please do send him a postcard too at his address below and tell him that his friend from India is proud to have known him. Thank you all.
Dawood Nasiri (Pathan)
Shop 152, Badakhshan