Roots

I should have written this eight months ago. I do so today, hoping for the objectivity that time allows and immediacy denies.

Many know the profound effect my two-month stay in Kabul had on me. Very few know that there is another connection that now binds me forever to Afghanistan, one that I came to know of only after I returned.

A few weeks after my stint training Afghan journalists in the coverage of parliament early this year, my mother informed me that my maternal ancestors came from Afghanistan. My maternal grandmother’s maiden surname was Khumri, derived from the place of her clan’s origins – Pul-i-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province in north Afghanistan.

I was stunned. I hadn’t known this when I left for Kabul. Had I known, I would have surely attempted to visit it.

Pul-i-Khumri, I found out, is a small Hindu Kush town of 60,000 that is the administrative centre of Baghlan, one of Afghanistan’s more troubled provinces. It was founded by the Kushan dynasty – who called it ‘Bagolango’ – and was part of Emperor Kanishka’s vast empire that stretched from Bactria (Central Asia) to northern India with its capital in what is today Peshawar.

Tajiks make up between 55% and 70% of Baghlan’s population, depending on which source you trust. While my mother’s side of the family has no information on whether my ancestors were Tajiks, I do notice some similarity in their features with those of my late grandmother – the shape of the nose and the colour of the skin, in particular.

I can only speculate on what my ancestors did for a living and what made them come to India. Maybe they grew cotton and beetroot, as most farmers in Baghlan still do today. Or maybe they herded the famous Karakul sheep, renowned for their hardiness and their camel-like ability to store fat (they do so in their tails). These sheep are said to have originated in the deserts of Central Asia and can survive conditions that would suck the life out of most other animals.

Maybe my ancestors came to India as merchants along the Silk Route through the Khyber Pass and stayed on in what is today Gujarat. Maybe they were part of the armies of Taimur or Babur, who looked upon India as a conquest but were won over themselves by this land.

I wish I knew.

There is one more coincidence. My closest Afghan friend, no less than a brother, Farid Ahmad, it turns out, is from Baghlan. The veteran journalist’s father is an Aimak, a Tajik sub-group, and mother is a Pashtun (we Indians know them better as ‘Pathans’), Afghanistan’s dominant ethnicity.

I was never a big believer in destiny and cosmic connections. Perhaps I should change my mind.