Manuscript help, book reviews and author interviews
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a journalist who has lived and worked in six countries in the last seven years. Her e-novel, ‘The Pomegranate Peace’, is a comment on the absurdity of American efforts in Afghanistan and reflects the year she spent in the US embassy in Kabul.
tgbc: You were posted in Kabul for sometime. Tell us about that time.
Rashmee: Yes, I was in Afghanistan for a year. My husband, who’s with the State Department, was posted there. A spouse was allowed to accompany the diplomat, even to a place that was practically a warzone, so long as they undertook to work for the US government for that period. So, I worked for the US Embassy’s Public Affairs Section during the time I was in Afghanistan. It was a bit of a departure for me as you can imagine, having always been a journalist.
What was it like you ask? Well, it was a fairly stressful period.
Just to give you some idea of how it was, we arrived in Kabul just a couple of days after the dreadful attack on former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose house was in the heart of the diplomatic district and really very very close to the US embassy. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Rabbani killing came just a week or so after the US embassy itself suffered the most audacious attack in the decade since America had invaded Afghanistan. Militants had holed up in an unfinished high-rise building overlooking the embassy and for 20 hours or thereabouts they fired into the compound. Grenades rained down on the compound, a rocket hit the consular section’s front door, diplomats walking back to their offices from the cafeteria after lunch had found themselves suddenly under fire and had to take what cover they could. About two weeks after the siege, an Afghan guard employed at the embassy opened fire on a CIA office, killing one contractor. And so it went on. Without wishing to overstate things, it was a very fraught period for anyone associated with the US in Afghanistan.
While we were there, there was another militant attack on the diplomatic quarter but that siege lasted just a few hours. When you’re in the underground bomb shelter, which was basically a long tunnel, and you can feel the hot rush of air when a bomb goes off somewhere above, you get a pretty good sense of the joy of simply being alive.
tgbc: What was the inspiration for ‘The Pomegranate Peace’?
Rashmee: Well I couldn’t help but see that the American embassy in Afghanistan was essentially Ameristan; it was Little America and only notionally in Afghanistan. Security restrictions meant that Americans weren’t allowed to go out and about and meet Afghans. So they only met Afghans they worked with at the embassy or to whom they gave government grants. Anytime you needed to go anywhere – to inspect a project being supported by the US government or whatever – you had to put in a “move request”, which had to be approved by about five levels of officialdom and then you had an armoured car – the windows were never allowed to be rolled down. This meant there was no way for American officials to check or know what was really happening with the money generously being funneled into Afghanistan. So, 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, do for fun.”
tgbc: You have viewed Afghanistan through the eyes of a journalist. Where do facts end and fiction begin in the book?
Rashmee: This is a novel. It’s about people who never existed, in situations that were not real. That said, wasn’t it Lennon who said, reality leaves a lot to the imagination? So, ‘The Pomegranate Peace’ is, I suppose, my comment on the absurdity of American efforts to re-build Afghanistan and of course, it reflects the year I spent in the US embassy in Kabul. I learnt a great deal – about government grants – their allocation, management, supervision and so on. And I also learnt about the sneaky ways some grantees try and distract the grants officer from problems with their project. And I also learnt about how ludicrous some of the projects can be. But this is, emphatically, a novel.
tgbc: I thought the book raised some serious issues – would you elaborate on those? That often grants are not given to natives and locals, who would add most value to the initiative. That there seems to be a concerted effort to hide the real facts from the larger public.
Rashmee: Grants are given to locals, often enough. In any case, there’s always a local partner for a project. I think what’s most interesting though is the whole aid and reconstruction complex. In the book, Mr Mirwais Khayber Ahmad, that long-serving Afghan civil servant, who was at work before the Taliban, during the Taliban and after the Taliban (there is such a person by the way, though with a different name and a different job), identifies this correctly as one of the main problems. He says it’s one of the main reasons that all the foreign money that went to Afghanistan didn’t really enrich its peoples’ lives. “At the moment, we’re not a real country, just an acting one. We’re pretending to be normal. It suits the foreigners to join in the game,” he says. “All the research consultants, security experts, technical advisors, nGo heads. The aid juggernaut. It’s so well divided up this aid business – the foreigners propose and receive a grant; they sub-contract it to the locals, everyone gets a cut. And though you can’t trace your money, you get a good report and good-looking numbers out of it”.
And he quotes Saadi, a poet popular with Afghans, to explain the inconstancy and ultimate irrelevance of foreign aid efforts.
“whoever had come had built a new edifice.
he departed and left the place to another
and that other one concocted the same futile schemes
and this edifice was not completed by anyone.”
Just to deal with the second part of your question, I don’t think there’s actually a concerted effort to hide the facts. In fact, people might be surprised to know that most of the American grants process is hugely transparent – it’s all public information, pretty much available to anyone who wants to look for it, much of everything is a matter of public record. But it is also true that most people, whether they’re in government, or have received a grant, or are running a private company, will try and put the best gloss on numbers, results and so on. That may sound trite, but it can be the stuff of a lot of interesting stories and unwittingly funny ones. In a sad way, of course.
tgbc: The book gives a feeling of helplessness. For a wasted war effort, for peace that will elude the country it is supposed to help, and billions/trillions of dollars wasted. What is the way out?
Rashmee: I suppose to some extent the way out has already been taken – all but 9,500 American troops are out of the country. And with America’s war in Afghanistan officially over, it’s inevitable that there will be less money available to throw at projects in Afghanistan. It’s just sad, I guess that when there was the money and the chance, so little was managed well. This is not to say that nothing has improved – girls are at school, healthcare is better, there’s mobile telephony and so on, but more could have been done with that huge stash of cash.
tgbc: While in Kabul, did you manage to taste authentic Afghani food?
Rashmee: Yes, thank god. A friend visiting from Britain (he was running a charity that had projects in Afghanistan) brought Afghan kebab and naan from a highly recommended street place and shared it with us in our little apartment on the embassy grounds. That was my first taste of the cubes of fat that’s often left in, to flavor Afghan kebab. The protagonist in the novel feels sick after she chews on one of those cubes of fat. They are really pretty awful.
Also, our Afghan colleagues would buy food for us sometimes, and sometimes, they’d give us a taste of the cooking in their homes. And finally, I ate some highly evolved and delicious authentic Afghan food at the Kabul home of a man who owned many media outlets.
tgbc: What is your favorite Afghani dish? Would you share a recipe not given in the book?
Rashmee: I think it would have to be a dish that’s as Persian as it is found in Afghanistan. Tahdig. The word is Persian, meaning “bottom of the pot” and it’s a layer of crispy rice that develops on the bottom of the pot while the rice is cooking. It’s crunchy, delicious, and considered the best part of any rice dish. I’ve read and heard of a lot of recipes for Tahdig but the one that’s considered a classic is that of the cook employed by that media tycoon I mentioned. Boil the rice (with or without whole spices) and then mix water, saffron and oil into a pan on medium heat. Add rice, poke holes with a spoon into the mound, cook on medium for 10 minutes, till the steam comes out. The pan will already be covered but now is the time to drape a dishtowel over it. Allow to cook for another 35 minutes. When it’s done, you should hear a crackling sound. Serve by carefully inverting the pan so that the crispy bottom is on the top. Or scoop out the fluffy cooked rice, pile on a platter, break up the Tahdig and scatter around the edges.
I’ve only ever made this in the oven by the way. And when I made it, I used a recipe that had the rice sit in a mix of saffron milk, yoghurt, egg yolks and orange blossom water. The Tahdig that you get is subtly fragrant, melt-in-your-mouth and crisp, if that’s not too much of a paradox.
tgbc: Who are your book mentors?
Rashmee: It would have to be my husband, Michael Macy, most of all. In this and everything. My agent and friend Piers Russell-Cobb was brilliant too – he believed in the book and patiently worked through it with me to iron out problems.
tgbc: Are you working on your next book now?
Rashmee: Yes indeed. But I’m not doing it as quickly as I would like. It’s a thriller set in Delhi and has a working title ‘A Death in Delhi’. It is about an American diplomat who is suddenly and unexpectedly called to Delhi from Malta (where he is posted) because a State Department colleague in India has died in a traffic accident and unaccountably named him his next of kin. When the diplomat, Jim Buckley, arrives in Delhi, he meets a friend of the dead man, journalist Priya Kapoor, who casts doubt on the road accident and insists there was foul play. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that a high-stakes political game is underway, one that involves India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, US policy on South Asia and the designs of a right-wing Hindu exclusivist party, which is led by a charming and urbane character named Luv Dickens.
tgbc: How do you balance between journalism and writing?
Rashmee: It’s hard to switch between journalism and creative writing – after all, one is trained not to imagine the facts! But here’s the thing. It is so liberating in all sorts of ways to live through an event (by means of your character) rather than simply report it or analyse it.