The Man from Kabul

  • Arnab Banerjee | New Delhi

    March 29, 2017 | 02:53 PM

(PHOTO: SNS)

We first met Naajab on a dreary December evening. It was very cold and the wind pricked our faces with sharp, icy needles. We had just got off the bus and right in front of us, inside the bus stop shelter, was this tall gaunt man playing Hedwig’s theme on his violin. My daughter, being a recently indoctrinated, diehard Harry Potter fan, was understandably excited. She stood rooted, rapt in awestruck admiration. I had to remind her that she would be late for her ballet lesson and Miss Sarah wouldn’t be too happy. She asked me for a pound and with the greatest possible gentleness and care, deposited it inside the upturned, tattered cap on the pavement in front of the violinist, who had probably just met his biggest fan that evening.

I hurried along almost dragging my daughter by her hand. She continued to look behind her and though I did not turn back to see, I instinctively knew that that the fascinating object of her admiration was also holding her adoring gaze with a big toothy grin and violently nodding away at her, amid the gradual quickening tempo of the fiddling. When we came back to the bus stop after the lesson, much to the disappointment of my daughter, he was gone.

***

After that we saw him every week on our way to ballet lessons. If he was playing anything else on the violin, he would stop at once, as soon as he saw us, and immediately strike up Hedwig’s theme to my daughter’s evident satisfaction.

What’s your name? he asked my daughter, one evening.

Rukmini, she mumbled shyly.

Mini, he laughed out loud, Mini, the leetil one, ha ha ha. He held out a bar of chocolate. Take, take, he insisted, I will be happy... Please!

Sensing my daughter’s hesitation and seeing the apparent delight on the face of the man opposite, I gave her a tiny nudge of encouragement. She almost snatched the chocolate off him and ran. As I trotted after her, I heard a guffaw as Hedwig’s theme came back again on the airwaves. That evening, after dropping my daughter off, I came back to the bus stop. It was a relief to hear something else being played for a change. As I got into the shelter, he stopped playing and looked up, a little apprehensively. I rummaged in my pockets and offered him a fiver, Very kind of you but you shouldn’t. Those are expensive chocolates. He refused point-blank, Leetil girl, she is baby, I don’t. Not wishing to dilute the sentiment, I changed the subject, What’s your name? Naajab You from Afghanistan? Yes Whereabouts? Kabul Been here long? 14 years. I leeve in Pinner. How come we did not see you in the summer? My daughter’s started ballet in August. Summer, I do odd jobs here there. Help in garden. Garden, did you say? Perhaps you can help me then. The squirrels have dug up all my tulip bulbs. Can you replant them and cover the bed with some netting? Yes Tomorrow? Yes Eleven in the morning? Yes, I will go I jotted down my address and handed it to him. Then I went back to get my daughter. When we came to the bus stop again, Naajab was gone. On the bus ride home, I could not help thinking that this was straight from the pages of Tagore. You know Tagore, don’t you, I asked my daughter. In a flash she uncoiled like a jack-in-the-box and stood up. Before I knew what was happening, to my utter consternation, in her accented Bengali she began belting out, Jana Gana Mana Adhinayaka jaya he, Bharata Bhagya Bidhata. Fortunately, no one on the bus seemed to mind, some even attempted little indulgent smiles. I was glad this was London, such a child-friendly city. The little tykes can get away with murder here. As for me I was glad that I did not have to stand up. Tagore also wrote stories, I told her, a lot of very good stories. You should read them. Perhaps I will read them to you and your sister, one day, when I have time. The Man from Kabul, I was already translating in my mind for my daughters’ eventual paraphrased consumption.

***

True to his word, Naajab was there the next morning. And on time too! My daughter could not believe her luck when she saw him, though she was a tad disappointed when she discovered Naajab did not have his violin with him. In the garden, Naajab knew what he was doing. Within an hour he was done. When the doorbell rang, the tulips were back in their beds, the protective netting in place; everything swept up and cleaned; all tools, nettings and strings put away neatly in the shed. As I handed him a little more than the pro-rated London minimum wage, I thanked him for a job well done and asked if he could come next week to remove the dead annuals and put them on a new compost heap.

***

Soon Naajab was a regular feature in our lives. Hedwig’s theme on Friday evenings and his pottering about in the garden on Saturday mornings became routine. So where did you learn the violin, Naajab? I asked him one day. In Kabul I play rubab. One garden job here I find violin in shed. I take it. I listen to radio and play. Violin not so difficult. Not for you Naajab. You are a man of many talents.

***

Winter gave way to spring. Summer followed. My daughter started with her own violin lessons. We no longer had Hedwig’s theme to entertain us on Friday evenings and I, for one, wasn’t complaining. My daughter was a bit upset at first but since she saw Naajab every Saturday, she did not take it too much to heart. Naajab brought his violin on some Saturdays. The ever so familiar Hedwig’s theme resumed, assailing my senses once again when I was on the phone with my mother in Calcutta. Rukmini lost her shyness and leaned heavily on Naajab when he played the violin. She taught him jelly on a plate, which Naajab, after a few exaggerated false starts and punctuated with shrill reprimands, Finally got it, to the exhilarated delight of both my daughters who, holding hands, broke into an impromptu dance. They played in the garden after Naajab finished work and all three grinned and giggled and rolled on the lawn laughing out loud till it was time for Naajab to tear himself away to his next job of the day. So when were you in Kabul last, Naajab? 14 years You haven’t been back since you came? No Do you have family Naajab? Yes, in Kabul. Two boys one girl. Do you Skype them? Do you Facetime them? No! Internet no good in Kabul. I talk to them. I send them money. How old are your children? Two, five and seven. ‘But you said you haven’t been home for 14 years? Two, five and seven when I leeve Kaboul. 14 years ago. I leeve when they sleep. They don’t see me go. So they are all grown up now? He shrugged his shoulders. Why don’t you go back? They need money. I make money here. I don’t go back. If I go back I can’t come.

***

It was as I had feared. I had been providing employment to an illegal immigrant and had put myself on the wrong side of the law. Her Majesty’s law enforcement officers owed me a visit; social service too, when they found out we let our daughters play with Naajab, unsupervised. When I come I fill papers. Make me a refugee I ask. Afghanistan no safe. They take papers. Two years I get letter. Go back they say. Afghanistan is peace. No war no more. Democracy. I tear letter. I pack, I leeve Kent. I come to Harrow. I don’t go back. I work. I make money. I send money home. Don’t we all, I thought to myself. If they make me refugee I can bring family. That day we made a decision. Till he wanted, we would employ Naajab in some capacity or the other in summer and winter. He would see my daughters grow up. Not that it would lessen, in any way, the unarticulated pain of not seeing his own children blossom into young men and women, but at least every week, he would see expectant faces light up with innocent joy whenever he came to the garden through the back gate. He could talk to them about the stories he knew but never got to tell and play games he would have played in the Kabul that was never far from his mind. Sitting in his little room off Pinner Lane, perhaps he could see before him, a little more clearly, his own little children growing up in the barren, war-ravaged mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.

***

Next week before leaving for the airport, I popped my head into my daughters’ room to say goodbye. Both were deep in sleep. I knew when I came back home on Thursday, they would have gone to bed. So they get to see me only on Friday? Naajab, you either have a heart of stone or else a bank of resolve and a well of sorrows that puts me to shame, I whispered. In the flight I opened my long neglected, well-worn copy of Tagore’s collected short stories at the The Man from Kabul. I started to read and began to paraphrase, My seven-year-old daughter Mini cannot live without chattering. I really believe that in all her life she has not wasted a minute in silence…Tears came to my eyes. I forgot that he was a poor man from Kabul, while I was, but no, what was I more than he? He also was a father. The memory of the sleeping faces of his little children in their distant mountain home that Naajab carried inside him every moment of his life, reminded me of my own daughters.