Hostelry

In the 1960s, the Kabul of my childhood

It was a very different time, and Afghanistan, a very different country. But the Kabul that’s imprinted on my mind belongs to that decade

Karan Thapar, Hindustan Times

23 August, 2021, 01:30 pm

Last modified: 23 August, 2021, 01:40 pm

Karan Thapar. Illustration: TBS

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Karan Thapar. Illustration: TBS

Karan Thapar. Illustration: TBS

They say the city you most fondly remember is the one you grew up in. In my case, that’s Kabul. I spent my formative years in the Afghan capital in the mid-1960s. It was a very different time, and Afghanistan, a very different country. But the Kabul that’s imprinted on my mind belongs to that decade.

It was a happy city. No other description does it justice. Of course, it was poor, conservative, and hierarchical, but people were always smiling. They were warm, welcoming, courteous, and generous. This was most obvious in their attitude to children. Everyone called me “bacho.” When Mummy took me out, shopkeepers would slip Hershey’s chocolates or Spearmint gum into my hands, and then seal my lips with their fingers. It was our little secret and it made a nine-year-old feel special.

Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

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Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

Every morning, Khan Mohammad would hold my hand and walk me from the ambassador’s residence, past the Italian embassy, to the corner of Ariana Hotel to await the school bus. Across the road was Dilkusha Palace. A little further was Pashtunistan Square and Khyber Restaurant, famous for its beef steaks and lemon meringue pies.

Daddy’s office, as I called it, was in Sharinau, not far from what later became famous as Chicken Street. In the 1960s, it was literally a place to buy fowl. Carpets and antiques were nowhere to be seen. The birds were crammed into wire-mesh coops. Mummy would pick her choice and the chicken would be slaughtered in the jui (drain) that ran alongside it. She would look the other way, but I was transfixed by the gruesome slaughter.

Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

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Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

Old Kabul lay beyond Pashtunistan Square. It was a warren of shops surrounding the Pul-e-Chisti Mosque, an amalgam of money lenders, jewellers, second-hand clothes stores, naan bakeries, and dingy little supermarkets. In fact, there was nothing “super” about them, but the American term had caught the Afghan fancy.

The grandest hotel was the eponymous Kabul. The Inter-Continental was still a few years into the future, The Serena, decades away. But there was a delightful Swiss hostelry called Spinzar. Its pastry was delectable. It overlooked the Kabul river and stood at the end of a long row of little shops selling Afghanistan’s prized Karakul caps.

On Fridays, we would drive to Kargah Lake, just beyond the city limits, or even further, to Paghman, where the royal family and aristocracy had summer homes. The restaurant at Kargah was rather posh. But I preferred the handcarts selling candy-floss and Coca-Cola in old-fashioned bottles.

Society, in the Victorian sense, was small, but sophisticated. The upper classes spoke better French than English, but they all warmed to Indian classical music. Vilayat Khan and Amjad Ali were favourites. Hindi films were adored, and Dilip Kumar was every Afghan’s hero.

Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

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Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

The rich lived behind high-walled compounds. Outside, some women wore burkhas. Indoors, however, it was Chanel dresses and high-heeled shoes. They smoked American cigarettes held by carefully manicured fingers with bright red nail polish.

Those were innocent days. Grass grew in gardens and dates were numbers on a calendar. Even parents were incredulously trusting. When Daddy fell ill, he was surprised at how often the princes would drop by, until it dawned the real attraction was his daughters.

Much of today’s Kabul didn’t exist. Wazire Akbar Khan was a vast barren spread. From our upstairs balcony, there was an unbroken view all the way to the Pakistani residence. The American ambassador lived opposite the Indian Chancery. The present-day United States compound was scrubland. It was here, when he was free and feeling indulgent, that Daddy taught me to drive.

Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.

Daily life in Afghanistan during the 1960s.