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29 April 2011, Gateway House

The Cultural Paratrooper: Travels in Delhi

Although notoriously well-known for conflict today, Afghanistan’s history with India is outlined by language, architecture and politics. Many Afghans reside behind entrepreneurial establishments and universities in Northern India, giving us a glimpse of that historical connection between the two countries.

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A never-ending blanket of fog covers Delhi throughout my week long stay. Halls of impressive magnitude and grandeur such as the Red Fort and the Rashtrapati Bhavan reveal only portions of their majesty at a time; the bright light of roadside fires burns through the mist, revealing homeless people gravitating from their makeshift tents and metallic tin-can homes. These scenes are lost as quickly as they are rediscovered.

I went into the fog of Delhi on January 9th to learn about the Afghan Diaspora living there; I came out on January 16th with small snapshots of the lives of a handful of Afghans who have made India their home.  I came here as part of a capstone project for Lehigh University, to learn about Afghanistan from the people on the margins of society, those who embody part of its story as a nation.

Readers might balk at my naivety, though I felt incredibly lost and disoriented during my stay; perhaps the perfect way to meet and empathize with people who have been displaced. I had a week to establish myself, while suffering from the same defects that impact my life in Mumbai: I’m a white, awkward, English-speaking male travelling alone.  More problematically, I had almost no Afghan contacts before arriving.  When I had pitched this idea to a committee at Lehigh University, I had told them that I would show up at an Afghan restaurant engaging the waiters and customers.  My vision was a cosmopolitan, Starbucks-like coffee bar, where I imagine ordering an exquisite coffee from the expansive selection of homebrews.  Needless to say, my first encounter with the Lajpat Nagar area was very different.

My assessment of the Afghan Diaspora in Lajpat Nagar happens through a couple of chance encounters.  I meet with Aparna Srivastav, a documentary filmmaker and journalist, and through her I meet two Afghan women and two Afghan teenage girls who reside at a guesthouse in Bhogal. Meanwhile at Kabul Delhi Restaurant, I talk with the manager and a student eating at there. Finally, I meet Jamshed, an Afghan student attending Jamia Millia Islamia.  He plays a vital role as an interpreter between the Afghans in Lajpat Nagar and Bhogal and myself. He also became a good friend and an inspiration for this project.

Why Delhi has attracted the Afghan diaspora

Afghanistan’s turbulent history has brought three levels of Afghans to Delhi.  The first camp is the trader community: the most prominent of whom are carpet sellers, dried fruit vendors, and Naan makers. Afghan traders have established themselves in Delhi as entrepreneurs, and their success finds its apogee in the E-block of Lajpat Nagar, where there are two Afghan restaurants, a bakery and a food supply store within walking distance of each other.

The second group are in search of higher education and professional training, after years of war ravaged Afghanistan’s infrastructure and robbed it of a professional working class. Afghans who Aparna talked with say they choose to come to India because it is close to home, culturally similar and the language is easy to understand.  Close to a thousand Afghans are studying in Delhi’s higher education institutes, I’m told—many pursuing training as doctors, engineers, in finance, commerce and political science.

Finally, there are the many Afghan families who come to India for medical treatment. India’s hospitals are seen as among the best in the world, yet it’s well acknowledged that Afghan families are victims of medical profiteering by Indian hospitals due to language issues. Fittingly, one of the reasons Afghan restaurants in Lajpat Nagar are said to be successful is the fact that Afghan food is less spicy than Indian cuisine and easier for those seeking medical treatment to consume.

Aparna Srivastav: The Indian-Afghan “Expert”

Aparna Srivastav envisioned herself as a documentary filmmaker since she was nine years old, driven by the ability of film to capture the emotion and beauty of people. Currently, Aparna commands an army of fifty fulltime staff members whose training allows them to package and disseminate culture to millions of film and television consumers across the globe.

The film that attracts me to her is Humsaye.  Humsaye—the Persian word for “neighbours”—is a conspicuous attempt to confirm a deep and pervasive cultural alliance between the modern day nation-states of Afghanistan and India through their shared linguistic, architectural and political histories.  The oldest Vedas, which shaped Hinduism and the present day Hindi vernacular, is thought to have originated in Afghanistan.  Similarly, Mumbai’s mega-film industry “Bollywood,” is India’s gift back to Afghanistan, where the melodramatic Hindi soap operas and Bollywood-movie ballads radiate into the homes and imaginations of Afghans.  India and Afghanistan have spent centuries culturally growing up together, claims Aparna, and this link continues to flourish.

I ask Aparna why she starts her film with a scene from Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kabuliwalla. “Every child in India and Afghanistan can tell you the story of Kabuliwalla,” Aparna says, “the story is one that parents continue to read to their children.”  In Humsaye, viewers witness the peddler from Kabul, Rahamat, drop pistachios into the small, excited hands of a Bengali girl, Mini.  There is an exchange of smiles.  Kabuliwalla continues to be the inspiration for the Pathan stereotype in Bollywood classics such as Zanjeer(1973) and Khuda Gawah, according to Aparna: a fierce, headstrong fighter, but ultimately a steadfast and loyal friend.

My evening with Aparna and her husband is informative and relaxing.  I thank them both for their hospitality after we finish a home-cooked meal made by Aparna and depart for Nizamuddin.  Tomorrow is when I venture into Lajpat Nagar.

Ryan Stillwagon is a student at Lehigh University, Pennsylvania.

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[1] I owe a great deal of thanks to a wonderfully written article on Afghan places in Lajpat Nagar by Time Out Delhi.  “Afghan: Kabul, expressed,” Time Out: Delhi. 21. January 07, 2011,

[2]Time Out: Delhi.

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