‘How do you grieve for your colleagues...’

on Monday, July 28, 2008

The number two at the Indian embassy reminisces on how he had come to Kabul looking for adventure, it was played out at somebody's expense

Deputy Chief of Mission, Indian Embassy, Kabul

AT THE time of the suicide bomb attack on the Indian embassy on July 7, the most potent in the capital since the fall of the Taliban, the clock in my colleague, Venkat’s room, who was blasted in the attack, freezes at 8:27. His room, like most others in the building, is littered with glass and rubble, but the clock remains intact, recording the precise moment of the death. The blast is also recorded at another place: in a wrist watch retrieved from the charred corpse of Brigadier Mehta, the defense advisor at the Embassy. The body is totally unidentifiable, but the watch remains unscratched.

When I make my way to the Embassy, on foot, within minutes of the blast, muscling my way through barricades of police guards along the cordoned off road, clambering over the boulders and rubble, the mangled chasis of the embassy vehicle blown up by a 100-125 kg explosives- laden Toyota Corolla, glaringly blocks the entrance gate, with bloody body parts strewn everywhere. “Which car is that? I ask, incredulous. “Yours. The white land cruiser.” “Who was driving it?” The question, posed in rising hiccups, is in self denial mode. It does not merit a response. “Who were the others in it?” I now need to steady myself against the jagged boulders stacked up by the collapsed reception area.

Blood, sweat and tears: Kabul embassy blast victim being carried away Photo: Reuters

This question proves more difficult than apparent. It takes a while to identify the passengers after determining the head count, and timing the movement of staffers from their residences. The staff is bundled in a small anteroom when the news is broken. Spontaneously we join hands, lean forward in a collective embrace. We rally together in solidarity, know we have to go through this as one family.

That night, as we sit in the Ambassador’s residence, the chilling realisation blows the senses away. It could have been me or anyone else, and everything would have been arranged the same way; just the names would have changed. And in a macabre kind of way, I see through the imaginative eye, that if anything were to happen to me at some point, how exactly it will all be played out, how a special plane will come to carry the body, how and where the body will be embalmed, how colleagues will react, how friends will send emails and SMSs registering their concern and alarm. And, perhaps, the clock in the upstairs office room, not far from Venkat’s, will freeze too.

How do you grieve for colleagues — Venkat, Brigadier Mehta and two security officials — with whom you have spent whole days in adjacent offices? With whom you have shared the trials and tribulations of living in a non-family environment like Kabul’s? You grieve by reaffirming their legacy — by continuing to rebuild a country that they loved. By vowing not to be cowed down by dastardly attacks. By reflecting on the inspiring words of Venkat’s wife when she came to carry home her husband’s body — “I will not cry in Kabul, because I do not want the perpetrators to see us crying, they cannot get the upper hand, we cannot let them succeed.” She had become stone, the grief had momentarily curdled.

How do you grieve for the 60 or so Afghans who also got blasted? For whose families, the world turned upside down in one fraction of a senseless second? As I witness the footage on TV, I am struck that in most cases there is resilience, fortitude and determination.

And, how do you grieve for the fiercely devoted local driver, Niamat? He was my anchor in Kabul. I remember the day when I arrived in this country on a freezing afternoon on December 15, 2008, he was there at the airport to receive me. Thereafter, he steadfastly stayed by my side — until 7/7. The moment I stepped out of my house, he knew exactly where I went, what I did, whom I met. There were no secrets from him. And after a while, I did not want any secrets from him: he became my close confidant, my friend, my brother. If there was any security incident in Kabul on any day, he was the first one I would call, to get an update. Even on that fateful day, while I was waiting for him to come to fetch me, after I heard the thunderous blast and saw the massive plume of smoke rising in the air from the direction of the Embassy, the first person I called was him. The “no network” message flashed ominously on my screen. I would tell everyone that he was the sort of guy who would give his life to protect us. That’s what he did — he took the plunge, made the ultimate sacrifice. When I later reached the Embassy, I just stood next to his charred, wiry body, stripped of all essentials, in a trance, and when no one was watching, reached out to it in salutation with my right hand, and then instinctively brought the hand to my chest — the Afghan way.

There is a six-year old boy, Javed, who stands outside my hotel gate selling chewing gum. These days, Javed is totally bewildered.

He can’t understand why the white land cruiser, with Niamat at the wheel, does not come to fetch me anymore. He asks what has happened to Niamat. I just press his hand tightly in mine and stand beside him mutely. I want to save him the pain, the shock, the confusion. It is at that point that I also realise how difficult it would be for Niamat’s or Venkat’s or Brigadier Mehta’s young children to fathom what happened to their fathers, and why. Or to any children in the world who lose their anchor.

ON NUMEROUS occasions, Niamat had extended an invitation to me to visit his house, in the highest tradition of Afghan hospitality. But I could never get around to doing that. A couple of days ago, I finally perform that journey, now in the form of a pilgrimage. But I necessarily have to undertake it by myself, and it is very lonely. As I enter the rented mud brick dwelling on the outskirts of Kabul, I can sense Niamat’s presence, his spirit hovering in the air. His eight children ranging from four to fifteen are seated in a neat row on a long floor cushion, clasping one another. I am struck by their extraordinary beauty — majestic green eyes, brown hair, and Niamat’s handsomely crafted features, the perfect curve of the nose, the arching eyebrows. Never before have I seen a family with so much convergence in physical features, with so many splendid green eyes, one child genetically spilling over into another in large overdoses. I sense a shiver run down the spine. Quietly, I slide between the kids, who are now crying softly. No sound, just the tears streaming down their cheeks with compelling dignity. Children are not supposed to cry like this; without their knowing, in the turn of a day, they have turned into adults. One by one they come over to me, put out their cheeks for me to kiss and we huddle together. As I step out of the house, still clutching the youngest daughter in my arms, the afternoon sun impaling her head in a golden halo, I sense that Niamat’s spirit is no longer around me. It is firmly embedded within me, and I know it will be my protector and guardian angel during my stay in the country — like Niamat himself was to me in flesh and blood. And I also know that when at some point, there will be a reckoning high above, all the celestial beings will join hands in unanimously applauding the new angels who would have joined them in their abode, with the twinkling of a million stars in the galaxy system.

Later that night, I reminisce to myself that I had come to Afghanistan looking for adventure, for gathering stories, for making memories. I had perversely joked several times with Brigadier Mehta that Afghanistan would be a waste of a posting if no untoward incident were to happen; just a simple kidnapping or a plane hijacking for a couple of days with a safe escape or return (no killings, no injuries, no negotiations, please) would be adequate to provide the needed drama and excitement. Now this was precisely what I had got - full frontal, full blast, relentless, deadly. Except, that in all my jabberings, it was always I myself whom I had placed at centre stage. But in this story, the real life drama had been played out at someone else’s expense.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 30, Dated Aug 02, 2008