by Farhad Zaheer
Shimla, September 20, 2020: The COVID-19 pandemic affected almost everyone, the world over.
For many of us Afghan students privileged at the start of the pandemic to already be attending Himachal Pradesh University in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India, we have been blessed to be able to complete our final semester without too much disruption.
It’s true that our daily schedules in fourth semester were postponed.
But as a general group, we were determined to finish our degrees and not return home to Afghanistan emptyhanded.
One of our representatives, Farooq Akmal, on behalf of all of us wrote an application to the Vice Chancellor of Himachal Pradesh University to take a special exam from all the students of Afghanistan in Shimla.
They generously accepted our request and we were able to take the exam separately and earlier than our fellow Indian students.
Usually, results are announced sometime later, but for our sake, they made an exception and then showed us even more generosity by forgoing the usual provisional degrees and awarding us our original degrees without delay.
We could hardly adequately express our gratitude to the entire Himachal Pradesh University faculty, staff and administration for their love and kindness towards their international students.
Today, recognizing all the knowledge that we have amassed on the subject of literature – whether drama, the novel, poetry, history of English literature, linguistics, literary theory, or literary criticism – we owe it all to the English Department of Himachal Pradesh University.
We came from Afghanistan with little English background, but we return with knowledge we never dreamt of.
I, myself, am a student in the English Department, where I completed my MA English course over the past two years.
I consider myself blessed that in our department, all our professors happened to be women, the kindest and most generous of God’s creations.
The entire staff endeavored to be tremendously kind, helpful and instrumental in our education.
They went above and beyond by asking all our fellow Indian students and scholars to care for us because we were international students and their guests in India.
They always pressed and motivated us to study harder, believe in ourselves, and acquire more and more knowledge.
I must express my sincerest gratitude to Chairperson Dr. Sanjana Shamshery, Prof. Pankaj K. Singh, Prof. V.P. Sharma, Prof. Girija Sharma and former chairpersons Prof. Rekha Sharma and Prof. Neelima Kanwar, for their thoughtfulness and overwhelming support throughout the course of this program, and special thanks to Professor Daisy Verma, whose help with my research project was inestimable.
I always strive for my beautiful Afghanistan’s sake to represent my country well and to leave behind a beautiful impression of my nation.
Once, an Indian friend phoned me and asked, Where are you? I replied, I am in a Halal Muslim restaurant, where I am having non-vegetarian food. I asked him, Are you veg or non-veg? To which he replied, I am veg. I asked him to forgive me, and I apologized repeatedly for my unintended faux pas.
Rather than being angry with me, he said that I was a thoughtful man, and that his imagined picture of the people of Afghanistan since childhood would be different now.
I replied that I, too, had grown up in Afghanistan occasionally hearing inappropriate things about Indians, since childhood; but when I came to know the kindest Indian professors, humanitarians, social activists and doctors of India, my mentality about the people of India likewise changed forever.
Last year, my Indian counterpart in humanitarian work, Sipra Narula, and I worked together to save Afghan children, especially those suffering from heart defects, and the many Afghan immigrants living in New Delhi with UNHCR registered cards, in great need of help.
I cannot strongly enough commend Sipra, who tirelessly helped those neediest of Afghans with medicines, surgeries and verious food rations.
Once, she invited me to lunch with her and her kind husband, Harpal Singh where they came from Gurgaon to Solan.
I, unfortunately, had to inform her that I was observing the Ramadan fast, so she asked me to instead break my daily fast with them in the evening at dinner.
I arrived at their home at 6:30 pm.
Narula asked me the exact time of evening when we could break our fast.
At precisely 7:15 pm, as indicated, they laid out the banquet before us, and my Afghan friend Ahmad Khalid and I broke our fast, and they dined together with us.
Their kindness and respect, irrespective of our differing faiths and rituals, inspired me greatly.
I also thank the Indian Council for Culture Relations for providing my fellow Afghan students and I generous scholarships, particularly for the 2018 to 2020 sessions.
I thank once again the entire Himachal Pradesh University staff, and special thanks to the English Department for helping us over the past years to grow professionally, academically, and personally.
Yours is a beautiful land and it is no exaggeration if I say that Shimla is a Paradise on Earth.
Here, I learnt cooking, driving, meditation and morning exercises, besides completing a two-year Master of Arts in English course.
The hills, the greenery, the wonderful weather and the generous and kind people of Shimla will never be forgotten by us.
You will endure forever in our hearts.
Long live the friendship between Afghanistan and India!
by Farhad Zaheer