Rashmee Roshan Lall traces the American experiment in Afghanistan in her novel ‘The Pomegranate Peace’
The book is set in Afghanistan, but only notionally. Actually, it’s “Ameristan”, as Rashmee Roshan Lall, author of The Pomegranate Peace, calls the US Embassy complex in Kabul, “which is as far from Afghanistan mentally as possible”.
The novel is about a young American diplomat who is assigned to the embassy in 2011, in the wake of several attacks taking place in the high-security area in Kabul. The diplomat is excited to get to Afghanistan — she wants to experience life there, but finds that every little thing in the embassy is brought from abroad and even the simplest acts are prohibited for safety concerns. Written in first person, the book brings out the unnamed diplomat’s frustration on being barred from basic things “Like getting a haircut anywhere decent. Like walking down a street. Like speaking to anyone who was not American… Like striking a bargain for watermelons…”
In fact, the only Afghans she gets to meet are the locally engaged staff, who work with her. One of them, Najim, starts to bring her, every Thursday — the start of the weekend in Afghanistan — a small box of food from home. The food is cooked by his mother, Asman. By tasting Asman’s food, the American woman begins to discern the emotions of the cook. In the stories Najim tells her and in the flavour of the chakah (the Afghan sour cream), the American starts to feel the soul of ordinary Afghans.
As part of her assignment, she is also engaged to find a tagline to sell Afghanistan as a tourist idea, or an attractive investment destination. A big American public relations company is paid millions to come up with something savvy. Eventually, the diplomat also discovers a very expensive pomegranate-for-poppy crop substitution grant, awarded to an Afghan based in Canada. She realises that the grant is not really bringing about change, nor is there any real, substantive activity on it. In other words, it’s a scam. When she starts to ask questions, her tour is cut short and she is sent back to Washington DC, where she has a nervous breakdown. Months later, as she recovers, she wonders what to do with her life next.
Former journalist and now a visiting academic, Lall’s novel uncovers the absurdities of America’s “aid and reconstruction” project in Afghanistan and the futility of US’s efforts to establish democracy and peace. As the main protagonist in the novel says, “We don’t even know the price of bread in Kabul, how much a taxi ride costs or what the average Afghan likes to eat, buy, or do for fun.”
Originally published at https://indianexpress.com on October 22, 2022.