Thursday, March 23, 2006 22:25 IST
KABUL: Sweating slightly in a room overheated for the Kabul spring, twenty-five-year-old Umesh Aryal dreams of chapattis. Light and piping hot, just like his mother in Thane makes them. “The first time I saw their naans, I got scared. They’re so huge!” he laughs.
Umesh is one of the fifty-odd Indians who staff the upmarket Safi Landmark Hotel in Kabul, one of the gleaming new structures mushrooming across the Afghan landscape. “Six of us came together from Mumbai,” says Umesh. “We had hoped to be placed in the Dubai branch of the hotel.” Instead, they ended up sharing a dormitory in Kabul.
The arrangement is fairly typical for Afghanistan’s fledgling hospitality industry. Faced with a shortage of Afghan staff capable of running a large hotel, employers prefer to ‘import’ trained Indian labour, settling them in compounds like the one Umesh lives in. Packages usually include food, accommodation and transport to workplace. Salaries vary over rank; Umesh makes $300 a month, most of which he manages to save. Indians form the largest percentage of the foreign workforce in luxury hotels here.
“In my experience, whenever people here need to start something new, they get in Indians. Once procedures are up and running, they may ask us to leave. And being Indians, we will go quietly,” laughs Mr Bakshi, a Delhi resident and section manager at the five-star Kabul Serena.
For Umesh’s friends, the change in pace from their Mumbai “fast life” has been dramatic. “When people meet here, they spend at least ten minutes greeting each other before getting down to the main business,” says Umesh. “In Mumbai people finish their conversations and move on in that time.” Excursions by the boys have included a visit to an open-air market, catching an old Sanjay Dutt film in a bombed out theatre and Republic Day celebrations at the Indian embassy. Forty-year old Kulkarni, a Thane resident and father figure of the group, has also visited a local temple of a Hindu goddess reputed to be an incarnation of Vaishno Devi.
These encounters with Kabul city, however, have been rare and infrequent. The tendency is to spend off-duty hours behind the compound walls. “There is always an element of risk. Kidnappings happen all the time, even from our area,” says Kulkarni.
It is this feeling that prompts Vandana, a Mumbai resident and staffer at the Kabul Serena, to take a security guard along even when she goes shopping. She has braved Kabul’s arctic winters, loneliness and bomb blasts. “Things have improved a lot now,” she says. “Malls and eating places coming up all over the city. Now the streets are lit up, people are out with their families and women are more relaxed about wearing the scarf.”
Vandana is counting the days to her return to India but admits she will miss Kabul. “It’s not like other places where you can be just a tourist. Here you see bullet marks on the walls, kids with limbs blown off. It really makes you think.”
Umesh and his friends, meanwhile, are discussing the opening of a new branch of their hotel in Herat. “I’m not sure if I want to go there,” he says, “Probably they will get some more people from India to run it”.