DHANYA RAVEENDRAN KORAM
(As told to K A Shaji)
Dhanya is 37 and grew up in Ernakulam in Kerala. Married to an Afghan, she lives in Kabul where she works with the UN World Food Programme
At the end of the 1980s, it was a matter of prestige for a Malayali family to send its children to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for higher education. Soviet literature, brought out on glossy paper by both Progress Publishers and Raduga, was available at almost every rural library and party office. Though my father had no sympathy for either the Left or the Right, his library was filled with volumes of Russian literature. Each morning, Communists and anti-Communists would hold heated discussions at the village meeting place over the scientific achievements of the USSR; at school, our teachers were vociferous in their praise of the Soviet Union’s social and cultural progress. Though the so-called ‘bourgeois media’ had expressed doubt over the Communist convictions of Mikhail Gorbachev, most of the village’s social analysts termed such statements as the reflection of the class bias of media barons.
I was determined to live with my husband in his own city, imbibing his own culture. I never imagined living as a mute spectator to the Taliban’s extreme hatred for women I wish to place my going to Leningrad for my engineering degree in this context. I had just finished my pre-university course at a college in Ernakulam. My father was extremely happy when some of my relatives succeeded in securing me a seat at the Civil and Architectural Institute of St.Petersburg University. I was happy too because the USSR was the promised land for most of my generation. There was another thrill, a very personal one, of moving out of India and studying abroad. I never thought the decision would change my life forever.
It was at the Civil and Architectural Institute that I met Humayun Koram, an Afghan national and the only other of my classmates from a different country. Koram was from Najibullah’s Afghanistan, which had close ties with the USSR. He slowly became an integral part of my earthly existence. Both of us shared common dreams and objectives. It’s not the matching of horoscopes but of wavelengths that decides life, I learned. There were no attempts to add an ideological twist to our love affair. We were just two human beings in love. Even when I finally decided to marry Koram, defying barriers of caste, community and nationality, I never thought I would have to battle ultra-fundamentalist outfits and rigid nationalist sentiments to protect my family.
To my utter disbelief, my Hindu family in Kerala accepted Koram as their son-in-law. We married in Pozhuthana in Wayanad, where my family settled after my father’s retirement. By the time I married, the USSR had been dismantled and the euphoria over the socialist paradise was over. Going abroad to study became common and children even from socialist families started moving towards “capitalist” educational destinations like Australia, the UK and the US.
In Kabul, Najibullah was hanged from a lamppost by the Taliban militia. Unrest and uncertainty became the order of the day. But all such developments failed to deter me from settling down in Kabul with my husband and his family. I was determined to live with my husband in his own city, imbibing his own culture. At that time, I thought no political or religious force could change the flow of one’s personal life. I never thought of wearing a burqa and saying goodbye, for at least five years, to my career. I had never imagined living as a mute spectator to extreme hatred for women. In the meantime, I had become the proud mother of my children Naveen and Mallika. I had to teach them in secret, though, as there was no surety about the end of the ultra-fundamentalist regime.
Those who know me compare me with Sushmita Bandopadhyay, who married an Afghan, lived under the Taliban’s thumb and later escaped to tell her story. That became the theme of Ujwal Chattopadhyaya’s film Escape from Taliban. But my experience was different. I never tried to escape. I stayed on to tell the story: of wearing a burqa and secretly teaching children, of witnessing the end of fanaticism and the birth of hope.
Koram and I were in Wayanad with our kids when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996. Days before Mullah Omar imposed restrictions on women being in public places, an Indian Airlines flight took me back to Kabul. On our arrival, the flight crew asked me to cover my head with at least a shawl before leaving the plane.
When I disembarked, I noticed that the aviation staff had been replaced by a group of bearded men. They directed me to destroy all film song cassettes, photographs and handicrafts purchased from India. There was no choice but to obey.
The Taliban put my family under stringent surveillance, because of our Russian connection. This was the time when the Taliban militia burned Russian books to cleanse the community from its “Communist sins”. As a foreigner of a different faith, I found survival extremely risky under the regime. During the years when the Taliban lorded over Afghanistan, I was totally cut off from my family in Kerala. There were no telephonic or postal communications. As for my husband, he didn’t just have to abandon his Western attire, but also his engineering job because of a freeze on construction. Koram had to start trading in iron rods to get by. In the meantime, I concealed myself under a burqa, and held clandestine English classes for children in the neighbourhood. It was a social situation next only to the Dark Ages. It was a life in unseen chains. Extreme fundamentalism took away almost all the joys of life. I was most concerned about my daughter. How could I bring her up in a society where even sending girls to school was taboo? I thought of escaping to India several times. But there was no way out.
Hope emerged only when fighter jets started flying across the horizon. When the civilian casualties started increasing, I had no other option than to cross illegally into Pakistan with my family. Finally, the war ended and the Taliban regime was ousted. I took my husband and children to India as soon as the war ended. When I met my parents, the reunion was a rebirth. My parents insisted we live in Kerala, but I disagreed. I was still unafraid to experiment with another episode of survival in the Afghan capital. On my return, the Red Cross provided me a temporary job at its Kabul office. A little later, I became administrative officer with the United Nations World Food Programme. Koram also got a decent job, as public information officer with the un Assistance Mission.
Following the killing of some Indians by the Taliban after the new government took over, my parents sought the guardianship of my children. I was unable to resist. So they are now in Wayanad as Indian nationals; they speak fluent Malayalam, along with English and Hindi, and lack proficiency only in Afghani. My husband has to apply for a single-entry tourist visa and wait for three months whenever he wishes to come to Kerala to see the children. My attempts to get him a multiple-entry visa started two years ago and are still continuing. The Indian Embassy in Kabul has approved the request and forwarded it to the Union home ministry, where it is awaiting final approval. I have sought the help of people’s representatives and ministers several times to get it cleared at the earliest. But nothing is happening. I am continuing my effort.
(Tehelka, March 31 , 2006)