An Indian official in Kabul receives an abrupt phone call demanding to know why his radio is off, leading to anxiety and speculation about potential danger. Kabul is on red alert, and he must be ready to leave at the drop of a hat. In a warzone, everything can end in a moment.

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June 08, 2024 02:59 EDT

An intimidating call wakes me up at an inopportune moment of a Friday morning. ‘Why is your radio switched off?’ A sharp voice on my cell phone pierces my ear. The abruptness of the verbal blow, that too without any initial introductory remark, catches me unawares and makes me jittery.

‘Probably requires recharging,’ I mumble, in quick defence.

The caller is not satisfied with this. He continues bombarding me with more questions. 

‘You have been reminded time and again not to ever switch off your VHF (Very High Frequency) radio, even when it is plugged in for recharging the battery. When have you last got it recharged?’

Somehow, having been able to dodge the first blow, I now feel fully awake underneath the quilt and somewhat capable of uttering lies nonchalantly.

‘I got it recharged last night as well’, I mutter, without a trace of hesitation.

The voice on the other side appears to tone down. ‘It shouldn’t have got drained so fast in that case. You all are supposed to remain in constant touch with the Radio Maintenance Department.’

Suddenly it dawns on me that in such a situation if I politely say ‘Sorry’ once, the matter ends there, and I attempt to do so. It is seven o’clock in the morning.

The harshness of the voice appears to have diminished and the tone sounds gentler this time.

‘Is your evacuation bag ready?’

I get a big jolt of dismay. My heart is already in my mouth. The imaginary consequence of unforeseen devastation instantly engulfs my thought process and channels it towards gloom and despondency. No mirror is required to gauge that my face, if not red, has at least turned purple with anxiety.

The tips of my ears tingle with a rush of heat. Many a worrisome possibility crowd in. Has any bad news arrived from back home? Has one of my colleagues suddenly taken ill? Has anybody met with an accident? Instantly I realise, a mishap in this land often means shaking hands with death. Or, is it that the internal security situation of this country has become so unstable that foreign experts like us are no longer safe here?

As my mind constantly veers from one heart-breaking possibility to another, comes the authoritative instruction from the powerful voice on the other side of the cell phone. ‘Keep your evacuation bag ready. A vehicle is arriving shortly. Don’t make a move out of the guest house till the car arrives.’

‘If the driver of my official vehicle is alerted he can come with the car at once’, I try to say.

My intention is to inform the caller about the existence of my official car and that he should not bother deploying another motorcar and driver for me. The caller seems not at all in a compromising mood. He is rather, a bit annoyed. At least the tone of his voice suggests so.

‘Red Alert has been declared in the city of Kabul since this morning. So, at any moment you may be escorted out of the city. Listen carefully! This is not a security instruction, but an order. Oh yes, you have not yet switched on the radio.’

Indeed the connection snaps this time. How long can such a tiny device withstand such high decibel verbal onslaught! I have no other option but obey the order; hence the VHF radio comes to life. It immediately starts breaking the peace and quiet of the room with a continuous ripple of roaring and crackling. Breaking through the monotonous and noisy sound waves, words like ‘Charlie’, ‘Roger’ or ‘Kilo Delta’ surface rather abruptly.

I lower the volume of the radio but dare not switch it off again. Feeling lonely under the quilt and having been intimidated sufficiently, I now realise the importance of the companionship, unfathomable by any stretch of imagination earlier, of this otherwise irritating stream of noise. Counting every unbearable moment of compulsory waiting time stretching on endlessly till the security vehicle finally reports and the fear and anxiety of an unknown imminent danger has taken firm grip, I soothe my strained nerves by listening to the varying tones of different fascinating rasping sounds from the radio.

Another constant companion is the cell-phone. I am so not well-conversant with the multiple functional options of this device that it always attracts a nervous glance from me! The layout of the keypad of my cell phone is a flat one, individual keys are not separable by touch from the base of the keypad. Hence I use the keypad with great caution lest I end up pressing the wrong key. However, with very little practical experience of handling it, I try to connect some numbers with which I am comparatively more familiar, but in vain. I continue trying to connect to some other numbers. Every attempt is unsuccessful; the tiny device fetches no other response than a faint ‘ding-dong’ and a dark screen. At this point, I find that on the signal indicator sign there is a red cross-mark. It means the jammer is active and hence all cell phone users are blocked from transmitting or receiving any call.

It’s Friday, the weekly holiday. Without any further security related instructions, I come out of bed around eight, wash and prepare to have a look outside. Though the central heating system is in full swing and one feels comfortable under the quilt with a few layers of clothing, one has to be careful nevertheless, while opening the front door. Covering myself with more warm clothes and pulling on my socks and shoes I venture out with anxiety writ large on my face. Before stepping out I check on TV the morning temperature of Kabul. It is (-)29˚C.

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Kabulnama, Amitabha Ray, Niyogi Books, 2013.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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