This would be my last and final post on people I befriended in Afghanistan. I know all the Afghan stories have not been told and they never will be since my Afghan Affair will continue as long as I breathe. Neither have I told of all the people I met; only a few, which is not to say that these were more important or indelible in my memory than all the others I befriended and walked with.
I have told of the little girl in the black but her pretty friend was no less impish or charming; I have narrated the story of our cab driver Carry but our other drivers were no less courageous or resourceful or hard working; I have told you of the shopkeeper Dawood but then all the others were equally welcoming and smiling.
I will not be telling about the brick layer Naseeruddin with the leather deerstalker cap who, on hearing there was one Urdu speaking Indian lost in his village, walked 22 km just so he could come and speak to me and find out if I needed any help and walked back the same night to be on time for the work to begin next morning and the path upon which he had walked was one that would even challenge my sturdy limbs. I will never be able to do justice to the woman who actually commanded me to take her picture with her kid and dragged me inside her home to feed me naan and tea, who smiled through her tear laden eyes; I prefer to keep her mysterious and veiled since I would never be able to gleam what turmoil lay within her heart.
Neither do I know how best to capture the smiling gestures of our guesthouse keeper and his giant of a cook. The group of five kids always jumping in and out of a chilling pool and greeting us with ‘hello’ must remain a mystery too since I always found them there, morning, day or night. They never had any adults around them. They must remain in my mind nature’s children springing out of the verdant grass placed there just to greet us with their toothless grins.
The stories told and untold are similar on one hand and unique in each, on another. I didn’t create them, neither am I ending them. They will continue even after I have gone and they won’t stop for anyone. They are like wildflowers upon high alpine meadows that grow unbidden, unseen and untold. They grow since they must and they live the way they would and then end one day like all things that are born.
I am only a chronicler, one amongst many, who pass by these lands, hearing and seeing, living and sharing lives for a while. I am sure all my stories that I write would be forgotten one day and lost forever into the winds so it really doesn’t matter what I haven’t written. If you have been following my tales carefully and sharing my journeys across the world then I am sure you would know how and where to fill in the gaps, to conclude or to create the stories that I left incomplete or did not relate.
Sirajudullah was the tallest porter of all who took us to the Base camp. He has been there twice before hence knew the route well but what made him priceless was his shaky knowledge of Urdu, a tongue he had picked up while working in the Hunza Valley of Pakistan. He was also a natural leader and easily took command of the other 7 porters. I passed our wishes to him that he got done in a manner impeccable. Normally any foreign expedition had to spend substantial amount of money hiring a translator cum guide but with Sirajudullah and I, that became redundant. He was our guide and through him I could get things done, albeit with few hilarious outcomes since our Urdu skills did not match all that well.
During our climb to the Base camp we not only became good friends but also shared smiles, food and stories of our lives like long lost brothers. It was easy to like this gentle giant. His stentorian laughter often echoed from the high cliffs around us but the moment I had my camera ready, his face would be sterner than a firing squad commander. The picture with this post took more than dozen retakes.
After our climb when I returned alone to the village to get porters to fetch my friends and our gear etc I headed straight for Sirajudullah since he would be the only one I could speak to. I reached the meadow and was immediately encircled by kids, old and young, all eyeing my sun burnt face and overgrown white beard. Of Sirajudullah there was no sign. Finally one kid sprinted into the maize fields afar and returned after half an hour with Sirajudullah in tow. By then I had exhausted my pantomime skills and all power of communication. Seeing him was of such intense relief that I all but collapsed on ground.
He embraced me with his brightest smile. Did a jig around and then asked about my welfare. It took me at least quarter of an hour to explain to him what I wanted. He immediately called for the community chief who would decide the porters who would go up next morning. Being a poor village, they let the chief to decide upon the porters to ensure even distribution of money among the families. While the chief gathered all the able bodied volunteers, except the ones who had gone with us before, I looked for a place to camp. Sirajudullah wanted me to take home but the sky was beautiful, clear, and starry with a crescent moon hanging like a teardrop. So he led me to a high meadow into which a stream gurgled through. It was perfect. He helped me pitch my tent and got me water. Then he completely ruled out my making dinner. He ran home and got me food and a blanket and a pillow. I brewed tea on my gas and by the stream beneath the moon and million stars two brothers ate and drank in complete silence. Then he left.
Early next morning Sirajudullah appeared with his younger brother and declared that he will carry my load till the next village from where I could look for our return vehicle. He would discard field work for the day. It was pointless refusing his offer, he wouldn’t listen. He felt I had lost weight and looked famished and in no condition to carry my backpack.
Post breakfast, Sirajudullah tightened his turban, hauled my backpack like feather and led the way. It was a beautiful morning. Lilting breeze, swaying yellow fields of mustard, playful children running after and ahead of us, the white capped peaks glowing like gold and the sun radiating its warmth through the mist covered grounds. Sirajudullah easily outpaced me with his long strides; neither did I try to catch up with him. My mind was much too occupied in every sensation that it was being privy to. Almost like eating a chocolate truffle; you gobble big pieces initially but as it keeps getting smaller and smaller, your bites too get tinier and bite intervals longer. You dread to eat more since it would finish soon, yet you cannot stop eating and then at the verge of the final piece your senses open up and you begin to eat completely through your mouth, tongue, mind, heart and soul. My chocolate truffle couldn’t be bought from any shop in the world hence my senses were much more heightened.
There were frothing streams on our path, which we had earlier crossed on hardy vehicles, which now were dangerous on foot. Sirajudullah would scout the best place and then help me wade through the rushing water that could easily sweep me away to my death. Never once complaining, never once tiring, he remained my guide till the end. We barely spoke. When we reached my destination and it was time for him to go; he asked me if he would see me again. Without a moment’s hesitation I assured him that he would, for sure he would. And I realized that it wasn’t an empty promise just to keep him happy. I will return one day, come what may; I just knew it like I knew the mountains of this world.
Our final moments together were spent sitting on a large boulder above the river beneath the sky-kissing mountains, both of which form the known boundary of Sirajudullah’s world. He has never known anything beyond or more and perhaps never will, neither was he curious to discover what lay beyond, while my world was much beyond and across. I am good at farewells since I am always going, he isn’t since he would rarely see his loved ones go; Sirajudullah lingers, smiles, fiddles, chews grass and sticks flowers into his turban. But time and tide doesn’t wait for anyone, the sun rises high, day grows hotter and I remind him that he has a long journey back home, his fields and his family is waiting for him.
He draws a handful of fresh peas from his pocket and offers them to me. From my field I picked up this morning, he informs. I accept his gift since it’s a gift from nature, the most priceless one could ever ask for. I have no idea what I could give him in return, something for him to remember me by. Then I notice his trousers that have more number of patches and repair stitches than hair on my head. I open my backpack and hand him over my old pair of hiking trousers. His face splits into a smile that could easily outshine the lighthouse of Babylon. He thanks me profusely and asks me when I would visit him again. I promise that I would soon and I will get for him and for his family clothes and socks and woolens. He refuses any money from me saying that I was his elder brother. We hug one last time and Sirajudullah walks away.
From my high point I can see him walking down to the river and then cross the bridge. He pauses in the centre and looks back, we wave at each other. I am sure he smiled as well. Then he crosses the bridge and climbs upon the embankment and then the sky gulps him away from my eyes forever.
As I turn around and walk away into the opposite direction I try to visualize Sirajudullah now walking with a smile on his face clutching the trousers that has been to all the continents and that would surely be too short for him. In every parting there is sadness and then there is joy. Everything that begins must end but then there are things that are worth beginning even if they end soon. Such was and is my friendship with Sirajudullah, my Afghan brother. I know for sure, as long as he tends his fields in his village beneath the mountains, feeding his family from the glacial streams, he would remember me and so would I no matter where I go or how far I go or if time and tide doesn’t let me return to his valley again. Memories and what we believe are indeed the realities of life.
Thus I would conclude my Afghan Affair. It is my reality because I believe whatever I experienced and they are now an indelible part of my memories.