Title: In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan
Author: Syed Mujtaba Ali
Translator: Nazes Afroz
Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books
Over the noise, you could hear the shout that ‘Bacha-e- Saqao is coming, Bacha-e-Saqao has arrived.’ Then we heard the bang of a rifle and the crowd lost all sense of reason. Throwing aside everything they were carrying, people started running for their lives, some landed in the roadside ditch, some slipped time and again while trying to run over the ice on the Kabul river. The blind beggar who used to sit by the road, stood up trying to find his way with his hands in the air.
I somehow managed to leave the road, crossed the ditch and stood on the front porch of a shop. I decided that I would rather die from the bullet on which my name was written rather than be trampled by mad horses or in the stampede of the crowd.
Within a minute another man appeared and stood next to me. An Italian colonello or colonel, aged about sixty, with a long corrugated beard.
He was the first person whom I could ask something cogently. I said to him, ‘I heard that the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao was coming to fight for Amanullah. But what is really happening?’
The colonello said, ‘Seems like wrong news. He’s coming to take over the city.’
If that was the case, then why were Amanullah’s soldiers not going to the north of the city to fight him? How did Bacha-e-Saqao arrive in Kabul so suddenly? How many men did he have? Were they carrying only rifles or did they have cannons? The colonello could not answer these questions; he only kept saying, ‘What an odd experience!’
I said, ‘I can understand why the ordinary Kabulis are afraid, but why have the foreigners joined them? Where are they going?’
The colonello replied, ‘To their own embassies or legations—for shelter.’
The sound of rifle shots was drawing closer. By then the crowd was moving in waves rather than in a stream. In between two such waves I told the colonello, ‘Let’s go home.’ He said he would not leave without seeing the last act. Military whim—there was no point in arguing.
Abdur Rahman was waiting for me at the door. His worries disappeared at the sight of me. As soon as I entered the house, he closed the door and started to fortify it with heavy rocks. Intelligent man. He had made all the arrangements for fortification when I was out. I asked, ‘Where is Benoit?’ Abdur Rahman informed me that Benoit had left for the French Legation in a tonga carrying only one suitcase.
By that time the sound of the gunfire had been overpowered by the heavy sound of machine guns. Abdur Rahman brought tea. Listening to the sounds carefully, he said, ‘The king’s soldiers have now attacked. From where would Bacha have gotten hold of machine guns?’
I asked him, ‘The king’s soldiers are facing Bacha this late? How could he reach Kabul so easily?’
Abdur Rahman said, ‘I asked many people while waiting for you at the door, but nobody could say anything clearly. It seems he has arrived without any resistance. He comes from the north of the country; my place is also in the north—Panjshir. I would have got some news of troop mobilisation in that region from my fellow Panjshiris in the bazaar, but there was none. The king’s troops have gone to the east under the command of Ali Ahmad Khan to fight the Shinwaris.’
The exchange of fire continued. Abdur Rahman served me dinner early that evening and then he sat down to tend to the fire in the fireplace. From our chat I could make out that he was worried about my well-being in case Bacha won, which would be followed by anarchy and looting. But clearly he was highly excited and curious—much like a small child when the circus came to town.
But who was this Bacha-e-Saqao? I did not have to ask Abdur Rahman, he told me many stories about him of his own accord. I realised that Abdur Rahman had many qualities—a jeweller of snow, a doctor of frostbite, chef-decuisine—but he certainly was no Boswell. You could have constructed an image of a Robin Hood from what he said about Bacha, but much of it was certainly a figment of imagination and myth.
After filtering through all the stories carefully, I had a glimpse of the life of Bacha; he was the leader of a gang of about three hundred bandits; lived in Kohistan, north of Kabul; he looted the rich and distributed a portion of his booty to the poor. When Amanullah was away in Europe, he became so powerful that he started to collect tax from the traders of Kohistan. After coming back, Amanullah proclaimed a price on his head, ‘Five hundred rupees reward on the head of bandit Bacha-e-Saqao.’ Bacha removed all the posters and put up his own proclamation, ‘One thousand rupees reward on the head of Kafir Amanullah.’
Abdur Rahman asked me, ‘But Sahib, help me solve a riddle. The colonel’s son asked me, if I cut off Bacha’s head and my brother cuts off Amanullah’s, then how much money would we make together? I said, one and a half thousand. He nearly rolled on the floor with laughter; he said, “You won’t get a penny.” Please Sahib, explain why wouldn’t we get any money?’
I consoled him, ‘Because neither of them will be alive to give you the rewards. But you can tell the colonel’s son that the throne of Afghanistan will then be bestowed upon your family.’
I had also heard that only a few days earlier Bacha suddenly turned up in front of some high-ranking officials and swore his allegiance to the king in the fights against the Shinwaris by touching the Koran. By doing so he managed to get hold of about a hundred rifles and then disappeared.
Did he turn those rifles against Amanullah?
About the Book
An intrepid traveller and a true cosmopolitan, the legendary Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali from Sylhet (in erstwhile East Bengal, now Bangladesh) spent a year and a half teaching in Kabul from 1927 to 1929. Drawing on this experience, he later wrote Deshe Bideshe which was published in 1948. Ali’s young mind was curious to explore the Afghan society of the time and, with his impressive language skills, he had access to a cross-section of Kabul’s population, whose ideas and experiences he chronicles with a keen eye and a wicked sense of humour. His account provides a fascinating first-hand insight into events at a critical point in Afghanistan’s history, when the reformist King Amanullah tried to steer his country towards modernity by encouraging education for girls and giving them the choice of removing the burqa. Branded a ‘kafir’, Amanullah was overthrown by the bandit leader Bacha-e-Saqao. Deshe Bideshe is the only published eyewitness account of that tumultuous period by a non-Afghan, brought to life by the contact that Ali enjoyed with a colourful cast of characters at all levels of society—from the garrulous Pathan Dost Muhammed and the gentle Russian giant Bolshov, to his servant, Abdur Rahman and his partner in tennis, the Crown Prince Enayatullah.
About the Author
Born in 1904, Syed Mujtaba Ali was a prominent literary figure in Bengali literature. A polyglot, a scholar of Islamic studies and a traveller, Mujtaba Ali taught in Baroda and at Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan. Deshe Bideshe was his first published book (1948). By the time he died in 1974, he had more than two dozen books—fiction and non-fiction—to his credit.
About the Translator
A journalist for over three decades, Nazes Afroz has worked in both print and broadcasting in Kolkata and in London. He joined the BBC in London in 1998 and spent close to fifteen years with the organisation. As a senior editor in the BBC, Nazes was in charge of South and Central Asia for a number of years. He has visited Afghanistan, Central Asia and West Asia regularly for over a decade. A passionate photographer and a compulsive traveller, Nazes quit his job in the BBC and moved back to India in 2013 where he is based in Delhi. Currently he writes in English and Bengali for various newspapers and magazines and is working on a few photography projects.
(Excerpted from In a Land Far From Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Syed Mujtaba Ali, translated by Nazes Afroz. Published by Speaking Tiger Books)
Click here to read the review / interview with the translator
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