I got my first camera c. 2005. It was the Canon S2 with 12x optical zoom and 5 MP sensor and could support a 1 GB memory card. By today’s standards these specs look very primitive, but this is almost 18 years ago. I have taken several thousand pictures with that camera, resetting the image counter two times. About 2015 the camera sensor gave up, and they could not repair it. The camera, had super zoom for those days, but its macro function was excellent in terms of focusing very well on the macro subjects. Then I got my hands on DSLRs the Sony Alpha 350 and then finally a Nikon D300 with excellent selection of prime lenses. But this post is not about the cameras per se, but the photographs.
Among all the photos that I have taken some just stand out from the rest. The light, the focus, the exposure and the framing is just perfect. I don’t know how to explain this aesthetic appeal of these photographs. But in these photos, even amongst a batch of hundreds taken in the same setting or with same subjects, some photos just come out extraordinary as compared to the rest. As a photographer you might have experienced this too.
I am a very visual oriented person. Ever since I remember from my childhood, I have been always attracted to images and visual depictions. This is what led to me reading comics. The visual impact. Also, in my house there were always art projects my mother did such as embroidery, paintings among other things. And I was fascinated by colours and drawings. Though I am not very good at drawing, I can certainly appreciate good ones.
But coming to photos, some photos make a connection with your very being, inner-self of you. I cannot explain it. But you can experience the photo at some deeper level than the perceptual one. From what I have gathered talking to other people “seeing” the same image, but this experience might be unique, as not every one feels this special connection. You have your favourite photographs, they are really powerful when they speak to you directly transcending the boundaries of space and time.
I don’t know if there is a cognitive theory that will explain this in terms of our earlier experiences with images or social interactions with media. But this connection that you feel is real and I can’t put it in exact words…
I have visited Kabul in Afghanistan twice. Once in summer (August) and once during winter (February). Mountains and hills are all around Kabul, you cannot miss them from any point in the city. A lot of houses in the city are on the small hills at the periphery and at the centre as I could see.
At the time of my visit (c. 2018-19) Afghanistan was Governed by the Ghani government and it was relatively peaceful. There were a lot of apprehensions about our security during our visit to Kabul for about 3 weeks. Not so much about the attacks by the militants, but the kidnappings of foreign nationals for ransom within the city by mafia. I was going alone, the first one to reach there, with one of my colleagues joining me several hours later. We were given a bullet/explosion proof land cruiser for our journey across the city. Each day and each journey was a new route through new neighbourhoods. This way I explored Kabul a little, though through sitting inside a vehicle. All the photos I collected are through our vehicle, resulting in mostly street photography. Thus my experience as a traveller in Kabul was fully “insulated”.
The visa was given gratis from the Afghan embassy in Mumbai situated in a bungalow on Walkeshwar Road. Anyways, after an uneventful flight from Delhi, with stunning views of Hindu Kush on the way, I was finally in Kabul. The airport luggage collection was a huge mess, as Kabul airport is not very big. The rush there was immense, but I could get to my bags. I could not get the FRO registration done at the airport as the officer was not there, for which I had to go to another day to an police office in the city (but that is another story).
I saw some very humane and amazing murals with messages on the walls. I think they must have been removed by now
As Indians, wherever little we went, there was a genuine warmth and respect shown by the Afghans from all walks of life. They really considered India and Indians as their true friends. Hindi/Urdu was spoken by almost all, an influence of the Bollywood and Indian soap operas. My students knew that (Tulsi Virani was the MHRD Minister of India!). My heart goes out to the teachers who attended our courses, and I hope that they are safe and doing well. It would be great to know how they are doing now…
A snowy experience
The snow in Kabul is a very regular. They told me that it is often used as phrase to say something is very regular “as regular as the snow in Kabul”. Kabul in winter was like a dreamscape. I had never seen snow in person in real life. So this was my first snowfall! It really makes the landscape so beautiful and serene. Some of the scenes, especially of a early morning snow covering everything I recall everytime I think of Kabul. You can see the fort of Kolola Pushta in the background.
The same view in Summer
Though due to our security concerns we could not visit the market areas or restaurants of city per se, we could not visit city at large though I wanted to. We stayed in a very secure compound in the heart of Kabul in the area of Shahr-e-Naw very close to a fine departmental store Finest Supermarket. I did all my shopping there, though my desire to wander and shop through the bazaars of Kabul remains.
Something about the food
They say the best way to experience a new culture is to experience their food. I did, but in a limited way. Our personal Afghan cook at did cook us a variety of delicacies for us everyday. Though the bread/naan is always from the neighbourhood bakery called the naanbai. This was a revealation for Ajayji who had read about them but had never seen them. Across Kabul whereever we went there were two shops ever present: a naanbai and a meat shop. Vegetable shops were there but they were not that common, though I saw a few bazaars for vegetables and fruits. Everywhere we went there were roadside stalls selling fruits and dryfruits.
A bucket list item!
On our compound there were several fruit trees including pears, peaches, pomegranates, grape vines and apples . During my summer visit, I could tick off one item from by bucket list. To pluck an apple from an apple tree and eat it. Though it was not fully ripe, the tick off was done!
Afghanistan is famously known for its dry fruits. Almonds, raisins, apricots, pistachio, prunes, cherries figs among other things. I got a few of them at the Finest departmental store, though I would have definitely liked to visit the Kabul’s dry fruit markets. Other thing that has been grown, suited to climate of Afghanistan is saffron. I got some Saffron grown in Herat as a gift and I purchased some of it. Saffron is quite cheap as compared to India (~ 500 INR for 5 grams). Again I regret not taking photos of dry fruit stores in the market filled to the ceilings with variety of dry fruits.
The other dry fruit worth mentioning, primarily I have not found it anywhere else, is the dried mulberry. The Afghans call it tut, perhaps after shahtut the urdu/persian word for mulberries. The dried mulberry comes in two varieties white and black (the white one being slightly expensive). This has a very different and subtle taste profile, the sweetness the melts in your mouth.
I was gifted the mamra almonds by one of the students from his farm. He came from a Northern province on Tajik border. But otherwise too the almonds are quite cheap. The raisins are in a variety and quality that we don’t get in India. They also have the grapes preserved inside a mud container which creates a unique flavour, though I saw these at Finest but did not puchase them. I came to know about them only later.
The peach of Kabul
Just like the dry fruits, there are lot of options for fresh fruits as well. The road-side stalls as well as early morning transport of fruits to distant parts of the city was testimony to this.
But the pinnacle of my trip to Kabul which will remain in my memory as long as I live is a peach that I ate there. We had a personal cook for us who would cook our breakfast and dinner in the compound. I like to eat fruits a lot, so on our request he used to keep fruits for us to eat in the pantry. During my summer visit on one of the occasions our cook brought peaches along with usual apples and tangerines. Now this peach was almost size of my fist, the peaches you get in India are almost half the size. And it had a pretty pink-red-orange-yellow colour. When I sniffed it, an absolutely fantastic aroma indicating the fruit was ripe and ready to eat. As I cut the fruit with my trusted Swiss knife of several years, the juices seeped through the cuts in its peach coloured flesh. As I cut close to the seed lodged in the middle, there was a colour change. A deep deep red emanating from the seed spread to the peach coloured flesh of the fruit. These dark colours the peach and the red were an absolute contrast and a sight to behold. It was as if I was looking at a work of art.
As I took the first bite of that fleshy peach, I was thrown total aback. The taste of the peach when it hit my taste buds, it gave me sensations that cannot be described in words. Its almost after five years that I am writing this, but the taste of that peach is still very much with me. The peach exploded flavours in my mouth which I had never experienced in my life. This was along with that sweet aroma that comes from perfectly ripe fruits. My body had a sensory overflow just from that one bite! I almost had an orgasm (foodgasm!?¿) after that first bite! Oooff! That was some taste. I tasted that peach leisurely extracting flavours, tastes and textures. I never knew something could taste that good…
We asked the cook to get more peaches like these. He got us peaches the next few days, but they were never as good as the first one. I am not sure given the current situation in Afghanistan that I would be able to visit it anytime soon. But I am still looking for that tasty peach, my senses still searching for that aroma and juices and taste. Perhaps one day, I will be able to go back to Kabul and relish that taste again…