A day after the fall of Kabul, I ran into Mahdi Hussain, a Hazara Shia, at New Delhi’s Afghan Darbar, known for its exquisite food and ambience. We were seated opposite each other in a packed hall and he flashed a warm, gentlemanly smile that I reciprocated.
As the waiter placed his tandoori chicken on the table, Mahdi invited me to join him. I could clearly sense that it wasn’t a mere token invite. He genuinely meant it. I thanked him as I placed my order.
I thought, like many other Afghans, he too had fled in the wake of Taliban sweeping across the country. He said he had come a couple of months back. He has had a kidney transplant done and is recuperating.
We talked about Afghanistan and the potential fallouts of Taliban takeover.
Mahdi is one of those people who exude instant warmth and positive vibes.
As he was done with his lunch, Mahdi got up only to come back a couple of minutes later to tell me that he had cleared my bill as well. I was embarrassed and equally moved by this act of generosity by a stranger. We kept talking for a few more minutes after lunch.
Friendship and broken English
He spoke broken English, but discernible enough for me to get the gist.
Growing up in Afghanistan in the tumultuous nineties, he had to drop out of primary school to help his father at their shop. But I found him pretty refined for an almost unlettered person.
Mahdi’s demeanour and warmth left me mightily impressed as we exchanged phone numbers. We hit it off so well straight away and I knew we were going to meet again.
In the coming few days, we kept exchanging pleasantries on WhatsApp. And a day or two later we decided to catch up. He had a few more Afghan friends to introduce to me. One of them was Khalid, a Pashtoon who could communicate in English and Urdu without much difficulty.
We kept meeting every other day and with Khalid’s presence, communication became much easier and clearer. Now if Mahdi had any difficulty in putting across a point, he would talk to Khalid in Dari who would translate it for me. Or translate for Mahdi what I said.
I also noticed that while Mahdi, despite his limitations, was confident talking to me when just the two of us met, he suddenly became wary in Khalid’s presence, forgetting whatever little English or Urdu he knew.
Mastering the language
But Mahdi is hardworking, intelligent and focused and I think that is why despite his humble beginning, he has established himself as an affluent businessman today.
Whenever I say a word that he hasn’t heard before, he quickly asks me to WhatsApp it to him with meaning. Over the last couple of weeks, he is singularly focused on mastering the language. He has started reading tenses and is constantly working on building his vocabulary. And it’s paying off.
As we spend more time together, his inhibitions to speak in Khalid’s presence are vanishing. Mahdi is sharp and has a very good memory. Every time he comes across a new word, he notes it down and makes it a point to use it. I find it so inspiring.
I am equally impressed by the way he quickly built a strong grip over grammar which is pivotal to any language. He is confident enough now to crack an occasional bawdy joke in English, often at Khalid’s expense who responds with a gleeful laugh.
Mahdi’s younger brother Hadi, who is also in Delhi, hardly spoke to me when we first met. All he did was smile and serve me dry fruits and the soothing chai sabz — the green tea that Afghans are so fond of. But seeing his brother’s improvement, Hadi has also gained confidence and has started talking in short sentences and I can foresee him doing better.
Mahdi’s drastic transformation into a confident speaker in just over a month is amazing but, as they say, where there is a will, there is a way.
Shabir Hussain is a senior journalist based in India