WAYANAD, Kerala — Though they never met, Sushmita Bandhopadhyay and Dhanya Raveendran had one thing in common. Married to Afghan nationals, they were Indian women who had lived under the fundamentalist thump of the Taliban in Afghanistan after they toppled the government of Burhanuddin Rabbani in 1996 and usurped power for the first time as part of its larger plan to establish an Islamic caliphate in which women would be stripped of basic human rights.
While Sushmitha converted to Islam and became a global celebrity by remaining vocal about the situation of women in Afghanistan, Dhanya remained an unknown Hindu Nair woman in Kabul for five years, living behind four walls and using the name Mariyam. When it was time for her to give birth, she could not go to a hospital. Her children Naveen and Mallika were born at home. She secretly instructed them and the children in her neighborhood in English and mathematics.
Born to a Bengali Brahmin family, Sushmitha married Afghan national Janbaz Khan and went to Paktika province in the eastern part of the country soon after her marriage in July 1988. Her escape later to Kolkata in August 1995 and publishing the autobiography Kabuliwalar Bangali Bou won enormous public admiration. The autobiography had inspired a Hindi film named Escape from Taliban. Susmitha returned to Afghanistan in January 2013 to join her husband’s family. She worked as a health worker and made short films on the lives of local women. Though they were out of power in 2013, Taliban fighters descended one morning on Sushmitha’s house in Paktika, tied up her husband and other family members before dragging her out and pumping several bullets into her from close range. Her story of extreme courage and determination to fight against adversities lives on.
Dhanya, who hails from Pozhuthana in Kerala’s Wayanad district, married Afghan national Homayon Khoram in January 1997. The Malayalee woman is now 49 and a senior officer with the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome. Her son Naveen is preparing for post-graduation after studying economics in London. Her daughter Mallika is studying law in Edinburgh.
Dhanya left Kabul along with Khoram and her children in January 2003, 13 months after the Taliban lost power in December 2001 following the US invasion of Afghanistan. Even though she only left her house three times when the Taliban was in power, Dhanya still loves the war-torn country that she chose to live in to be close to her husband. Until the Taliban returned to power in August this year, she had lingering thoughts about growing old in Kabul.
“The five years in Kabul were a life in secret, but I experienced the land through the warmth of Khoram’s family and friends and through the food.”
In light of the Taliban recapturing power in Afghanistan, 20 years after they were beaten back by the U.S. and coalition forces, we spoke with Dhanya about how she survived under the brutal regime.
In the nineties, women could not work or get an education in Afghanistan. They could only leave the house with a male family member and had to be covered from head to toe. Those who broke the rules were publicly flogged. So far, the Taliban’s claims about how they are different and more inclusive now, and how things would be different for women, have turned out to be untrue. They have banned girls from secondary education in Afghanistan.
Recalling the years that she spent in Kabul, Dhanya said that what the Taliban wanted most was to invisiblize women. And so, as long as they were inside the house, hidden from public view, they were of little consequence.
“I felt that women had no existence. We did not matter,” she said.
Dhanya’s husband, Khoram, who holds an Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) card and lives in Kerala with her parents, said that even after the Taliban had melted away by the end of 2001, he had a nagging feeling that they were not a thing of the past.
The 56-year-old, who studied to be an engineer in Russia, and calls himself a “secular liberal” decided to live in India, helping his wife’s family in running their tourism business.
Khoram is now managing an eco-friendly homestay facility in Pozhuthana, a picturesque part of the Western Ghats.
“I will not take my family anymore to Afghanistan even if the Taliban is losing power for another round. I am always against taking risks. I am staying away from my troubled country,” he said.
Khoram’s family in Kabul are traders of vehicle spare parts. His mother died two years ago following geriatric-related illnesses. His father and five brothers are now struggling hard to survive in Kabul after the Taliban takeover. The last time that he spoke with relatives was in July. Khoram said that they told him to stay in India as the situation was very bad in Afghanistan.
Khoram said that his family was mentally prepared to adjust to the new regime and wait for better days in the future. He said that his heart was heavy, but there was not a lot that he could do without putting his own family at risk.
“I do hope they will survive. I am not foreseeing an end to the Taliban rule soon,” said Khoram.
How they met
Dhanya’s was a love affair that unfolded against the backdrop of the “Great Game” played out in Afghanistan by the Soviets and the Americans. She met Khoram at the Civil and Architecture Institute (CAI) in Leningrad in the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1987. Leningrad is now St Petersburg and the CAI is called the St Petersburg State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering.
Dhanya’s father, K Raveendran, a retired general manager of a tire manufacturing company, and an eco-tourism entrepreneur, said that it was a matter of prestige for Malayali families to send their children to the Soviet Union for higher education even in the last leg of the 1980s. His was a generation inspired by Soviet literature and the ideology of equality that the country cherished.
“There was another thrill, a very personal one of moving out of India and studying abroad, but I never thought that this decision would change my life forever,” he said.
Before Dhanya completed her course in 1992, the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991. Her father said that it came as a shock.
“When I decided to send Dhanya to Leningrad to study engineering, there was not even an iota of thought that the Soviet Union would be dismantled. My wife and I were very worried during the disintegration days as Dhanya was unavailable on the phone due to the disruption of the communication facilities. We had no communication with her for over eight months in those days,” recalled Raveendran.
It was at the CAI that Dhanya met Khoram, her senior. Khoram was from President Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai’s Afghanistan, which had close ties with the Soviet Union. Najibullah was brutally murdered by the Taliban after it came to power in 1996.
Hailing from an upper-middle-class trader family, Khoram had a penchant for academics but engineering was his chosen profession. Inside the campus, Khoram was the only student who owned a car. Kind and affectionate, Dhanya said that he was a friend to all.
Khoram was a big support for Dhanya when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and she could not contact her family in Wayanad. Both of them shared dreams of social work, philanthropy, and traveling. It didn’t take long for them to fall in love.
“It’s not the matching of horoscopes, but of wavelengths that decides how love evolves, I learned,” she said.
Dhanya returned with Khoram to Kerala in February 1996 after their families agreed to their marriage. Both of them had expected their families to object, but no one did. They were married in January 1997 in Wayanad as per Hindu traditions. Although his family could not attend, they gave their blessings through ISD (international) calls. Ten years later, in 2006, his parents and brothers visited Wayanad and stayed for three months.
Dhanya described Khoram as a “true secularist.” She said they both lived in the USSR for five years without religion ever coming up. When her family wanted the marriage as per Hindu customs, Dhanya said that he had no objection. When they were in Kabul, she said that his family respected her independence.
“We were just two people in love,” Dhanya said. “There were no attempts to add an ideological twist to our love story. It was a different time. Cross-cultural relations were high. Communalists and close-minded people did not have a say.”
Leaving for Afghanistan
The Taliban had emerged as one of the prominent factions in the Afghan Civil War by 1994 and it largely consisted of religious students (Talib) from the Pashtun areas of eastern and southern Afghanistan who had been educated in traditional Islamic schools and fought during the Soviet-Afghan War. Under the leadership of Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban movement spread throughout most of Afghanistan, shifting power away from the Mujahideen warlords. By the end of 1996, it was able to establish the totalitarian Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and to transfer the Afghan capital to Kandahar, their stronghold.
Dhanya was in Wayanad when the Taliban captured Kabul in December 1996. After getting married in January 1997, they stayed at Dhanya’s home for six months, and then Khoram returned to Kabul in July 1997.
Although the Taliban were already in power, Khoram said that he wanted to work as an engineer in Kabul, but he failed to gauge how life would be under the Taliban. He did not anticipate that air travel would be restricted and the choice of profession would be so severely curtailed. There was a freeze on construction. And so, Khoram ended up helping with the family business of selling spare vehicle parts to make a living.
At the time, Dhanya said, she did not fully grasp how political and religious forces could change the flow of one’s personal life. All she wanted to do was to join her husband in his country.
Despite all the pleas, including Khoram’s, to wait and see, Dhanya decided to go to Afghanistan. An Indian Airlines flight from Amritsar took her to Kabul on January 18, 1998.
After landing in Kabul, the Indian flight crew told her to cover her head with a big shawl before leaving the plane. At Kabul airport, Dhanya noticed that the ground staff were bearded religious men. They told her to destroy all audio cassettes, photographs, and handicrafts purchased from India. But she got lucky, very lucky. They did not ask her about her religion.
Khoram was waiting for her outside the airport along with two of his women relatives clad in burqas. He handed her a burqa.
Dhanya said that she went to Afghanistan because she was determined to live with the man that she loved in his city, imbibing his culture. For this, she was mentally prepared to undergo any difficulty, but she never imagined living as a mute spectator of the Taliban’s cruelty towards women. She did not anticipate that she would be confined to live within four walls. She did not realize that she would have to say goodbye to having a career for five years.
“But the most painful thing about living in Afghanistan was not having any communication with my parents,” she said.
Dhanya said that she had freedom inside her husband’s house, but she never saw the city in which she lived. Burqas were available at home and there was no need to visit any clothing store. She never heard music or bought new books. She read and re-read Maxim Gorky’s novel, Mother.
The only three times that she recalled stepping out was to visit a close relative, have ice cream at a shop of a family friend in secret, and attend the funeral of a relative.
Was she scared that the Taliban would discover that a Hindu woman was using a pseudonym and living in Afghanistan, we asked her.
“The Taliban was only concerned about women not moving into public places. Women confined to homes were not their concern. So, I felt no security issue. I lived as one of the thousands of faceless and identity-less women,” she said.
Dhanya channeled her energy into keeping her family safe at home. When it was time for her to give birth, Khoram’s family asked a gynecologist they knew to help her deliver at home.
“In Kabul, I found that my world had changed completely. I found happiness in little things and adjusted myself with the safety and freedom available inside Khoram’s home. In the meantime, I had become a mother. I had to teach them in secret,” she said.
In addition to teaching her own children, Dhanya conducted secret English and maths classes for girls and boys in her neighborhood.
“I was scared of getting caught, but I wanted to do something productive. The neighborhood protected me,” she said.
Khoram has managed to hide the fact that his wife was a Hindu woman from India, but the fact that he was an engineering graduate from Russia meant that he was under surveillance by the Taliban. That was a time when the Taliban was hellbent on burning Russian literature seized from households in Afghanistan. His friends told them to travel to Dubai via Pakistan by using fake passports, but they thought that it would be too risky.
“I felt helpless. I was always worried. Other than giving my wife a Muslim name and a burqa, what else could I do?” he said.
Just when Dhanya was sure that there would be no escaping Kabul, American fighter jets appeared on the horizon in November 2001, she recalled. She remembers that many people in her neighborhood were killed in attacks and counter-attacks. As the civilian casualties mounted, she stayed indoors with her children and husband.
Flights between India and Afghanistan resumed in 2002. They took the Air India flight from Kabul to Kozhikode via Mumbai on January 3, 2003, and drove home to Wayanad.
“When I met my parents, the reunion was a rebirth,” she said.
After spending two years in Wayanad, Dhanya and Khoram returned to Kabul in 2004, where the United Nations had offered them jobs. Their proficiency in English proved to be an advantage.
In January 2004, Afghanistan adopted a new Constitution, guaranteeing equal rights to women and men. In October 2004, Hamid Karzai became the first elected president of Afghanistan. In those early years, Dhanya and Khoram thought that the support of the US to Afghanistan would be an enduring one and that the UN jobs would give them a new identity.
“It was not just money. We always shared the dream to work for society. The UN jobs provided an opportunity to serve the people with government support,’’ said Dhanya.
After a few years, Dhanya got a promotion and transferred to Rome as a World Food Programme (WFP) senior officer. At the time, Khoram continued as a communications officer with the Kabul office of the UN, but as the bombings and killings escalated year after year, he started worrying about a Taliban resurgence and the future of the country.
Eventually, Khoram became an admirer of the weather in Wayanad and moved back to live with his children and in-laws in 2012.
Looking back at the decisions that she made in the backdrop of world events like the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise and fall of the Taliban, Dhanya said, “Nothing was planned. I was neither ambitious nor calculative. I just wanted to be with my husband in the initial phase of marriage. Now, we are living in different countries and watching the developments in Afghanistan like you. For us, it is now a different country,’’ she said.
Khoram said, “Kerala is now home.”