It was a cold morning. Cold by my standards of course. We had slept upstairs. While JP slept in one room, Aj and I shared another. I, of course, was given the single bed that stood in the middle of the room, in honor of being ‘older’ and being a woman. Aj had made his bed down. JP did his magic trick with the heater… half an hour of clanking while he ‘taught’ us how to work the monster. We never learnt, of course. During our whole stay, our hopeful pokings at the heaters never convinced them to light up… it was as if the heaters waited for JP, like forlorn lovers, waiting to be set alight with his magic touch! JP would regularly scowl at Aj, probably wondering why a strapping, young six-plus-two could not light a measly heater… and our shared hilarity, barely suppressed, did nothing to quell JP’s temper, possibly only fuelling it more!
So … it was a cold morning. And we came down to a flask full of tea. JP was going out of his way to be nice to us – I mean, we knew the French and French idea of hospitality, after all. Our cumulative experiences in Paris had sent the community many, many notches down in our esteem. But then, that is another story. And while we were sipping tea, JP came in with Naans. Foot long naans. Our breakfast. And we munched at this different tasting naan with a little cheese and jam. It filled us up quick…. And while we lazily hung around, JP tried to coax us into going to work… Our walk to our work-place meandered through Karte Chaar. That is what this area is called, said JP. The streets were lined with rundown looking shops of various kinds, so much like home. Many of them vied with one another playing loud music, another one like home. Was that Hindi film songs being played?! Did you see that, said Aj. Wasn’t that a picture of “Tulsi”? That’s when we realized the Bollywood had quite invaded Kabul… the shops fronts were lined with posters and pictures of Apne Log… It felt odd. One usually was used to ‘looking up to’ everything non-Indian.. and here we saw people crazy and idolizing about India!
The French Embassy was fairly unassuming. The office even more so. It was simple and nothing like what an opulent, lush, overly self-important, Indian Embassy would look like. We were introduced around to the ex-pats and Afghans alike and set up quickly at two tables. We were in business. You have to give it to the French. They knew how to put you to work quickly and efficiently.
We quickly discovered that our Hindi worked. Most Pashtu Afghans knew Urdu and thus were able to understand Hindi…. And happily we chatted to Kamal, Ghulam and others. We also met Gerard and some other French girls who managed JP’s project. JP was the Architect. The French were re-building the Teachers’ Training Institute and the ‘french’ extension to the library in the University. Both of these were in Kabul. JP was also building the Juvenile Home at Herat. And off we went to see these works.
The TTI was already constructed and in use. It felt like any normal institute teeming with the energy of young people. JP gave us a nice introduction to the building, showed us the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures, explained to us his basic approach and the reasoning of his design. He had, he said, kept as much as possible to the original design. The roof was traditional. The old foundations were kept and the new structure built over them. And just by keeping the old foundations, as they were in good condition, he had managed to retain the original flavor of the building, because that automatically determined the shape and size of the structure.
There were some anomalies, of course. The ‘auditorium’ looked very ‘western’, oddly out of place. The chairs completely alien. Why so? Everything, JP said, had to be imported from France. Every chair, equipment, window-frames… you name it. JP said that there were no good artisanal workers available anymore. People had lost their crafts and skills… and the ‘quality’ of what they churned out was far below par. I had my share of questions… Why couldn’t the local people be trained? Why couldn’t France be more patient? Couldn’t the project bolster the local economy? Why weren’t any locals on the team, except in ‘assistive’ and menial capacity? These questions did not pop up just then, of course. They slowly started taking shape over the week… as we went to project after project… of every country, of every type … and faced the same method, the same rationale, the same approach. Over time, my discomfort slowly and steadily increased.
The next day, vague suspicions began to sprout when I talked to their ‘Finance’ person. She handled the money and the funds of the project, she said. I, curious as ever, and wanted to hear other ‘stories’ of her experience. She told, quite innocently, that she had no previous experience. She was actually a kindergarten teacher. She was out of work and on dole and she was assigned this job as a ‘volunteer’. My stomach churned. A kindergarten teacher? On dole? Handling millions of euros of an architectural, construction, and International Co-operation project? I couldn’t quite digest this.
Our talks with K and G revealed more. What work did they do? What was their role in the project? And by and by we discovered that they were the ‘interface’ of the project. Basically all “international projects” had the same approach… the ex-pats ‘executed’ the project with local ‘partners’. The local ‘partners’ provided the linkages to the local bureaucracy, markets, suppliers, labourers and workers, and filled them up with the local ‘lingo’. The ‘interface’ was also a euphemism, which I only realized for what it was, after our own post-tsunami reconstruction finished. The ‘interface’ basically trouble-shot, pulled out the chestnuts from any local fire, took the brunt of any local ‘troubles’ and basically was the ‘frontliners’ that kept the ex-pats safe and protected from local bureaucratic and legal hassles. But then I am being unduly catty, and acerbic. Should I be a little more compassionate? I couldn’t be. For it only got worse.
While an internal disquiet was taking birth, we continued playing ‘happy guests’. We played Hindi songs from our laptops… and before we knew it had the whole office surrounding us, chatting and sharing excitedly. People had forgotten (thankfully) that I was a woman, and talked freely to me too. GB came out of his cabin, wondering what the commotion was about… and saw to his amazement, his quiet-as-death office transformed to a lively, happy, energetic interactive space. The French kept their reactions to themselves. In all this G invited us to lunch at his home the next day. They were having some ‘function’ and his whole family from all over was gathering… would we like to come? Of course! A traditional Afghan function? Who would ever miss an opportunity this??