By Neha Kirpal
Former journalist, editor and author Rashmee Roshan Lall’s book, The Pomegranate Peace (Quercus, INR 599), launched this year in India by Hachette, is a novel about an American diplomat posted to Kabul in 2011, just weeks after the most audacious attack on the US embassy. The protagonist begins to explore the country through the food that an Afghan colleague brings her from home every week.
Working with a New York PR firm to ‘sell’ Afghanistan as a ‘brand’, complete with a catchy tagline and an image for the fridge magnets, she investigates an ambitious poppy-to-pomegranate crop substitution programme in southern Afghanistan, which is run from Canada. As she also discovers the ‘aid and reconstruction Complex’, which pours billions into Afghanistan in an effort to ‘stabilise’ the country, the book brings out the absurdity of the American presence in Afghanistan and the ultimate futility of their efforts to establish democracy and peace.
In this exclusive interview, Dr Lall, who is a Fellow at The Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in UK, and is of dual UK and US citizenship, talks to us about writing the novel from personal experiences of her time spent working as a contractor for the US State Department in Kabul, besides some startling realities that she uncovered during her stint there and how the book throws light on the failure of America’s massive aid and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.
How did you decide to write the book?
I was posted to Afghanistan for a year with my diplomat husband and, having always been a journalist, it was a bit of a departure for me to work for the US government and to not be able to write comment and analysis pieces. For, there was much to say about the American presence in Afghanistan with all its many frustrations and problems. It was a very fraught time for anyone associated with the US in Afghanistan, with bomb attacks on the US embassy complex, where we were based, as well as deadly suicide attacks close by.
This meant that I, along with the thousand or so Americans in the embassy complex, were severely restricted in where we went and who we met. We weren’t allowed off the compound, except for very particular reasons, such as inspecting a project that was being supported by the US government, the so-called “move request” had to be approved by about five levels of officialdom and then you always went in an armoured car, with the darkened windows closed.
This meant that there was no way for American officials to check or know what was really happening with the money being funnelled into Afghanistan and there was also little chance to meet Afghans other than those who worked at the embassy or to whom we gave government grants. 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.”
I couldn’t help but see that the American embassy in Afghanistan was essentially Ameristan; it was Little America and only notionally in Afghanistan. There was material for a story worth telling and I wrote it furiously every evening after work in our little apartment (which, incidentally, had windows that were very high and impossible to look out, for security reasons)!
How much of the novel is drawn from personal experiences of your time spent working as a contractor for the US State Department in Kabul?
This is a novel. It’s about people who never existed, in situations that were not real. It is an absurdist take on the reality of American efforts to re-build Afghanistan. That said, wasn’t it John Lennon who reminded us that reality leaves a lot to the imagination?
Of course, the novel reflects the year I spent in the US embassy in Kabul in the sense that it shows what I learnt about US government grants’ allocation and supervision. And about Afghan food, which I was able to taste from time to time, through the efforts of Afghan colleagues and friends.
What were some of the startling realities that you uncovered during your stint there?
I found a startling combination of isolation and ignorance among Americans about Afghanistan and Afghans. They largely thought Afghanistan was in the Middle East, for instance. There was a massive fear psychosis. And there were huge amounts of money given to grants that weren’t properly monitored.
In the year that I was in Kabul, I actually heard former grantees ask what buzzwords were in fashion in that grant period so that they could write their next grant applications with some surety of success. It was really quite remarkable.
You used fiction to throw light on the failure of America’s massive aid and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. Can you share an example of this from the book?
Though fictional, some of the crazy projects described give you an idea of the absurdity of what an Afghan character in the novel calls the vast Aid and Reconstruction Complex. So, The Pomegranate Peace has a chapter on a very quirky fictional project – finding a fridge magnet image and a tagline to sell Afghanistan as a tourism and investment destination.
The whole premise of an Afghan fridge magnet is an exaggerated example of the attempt to use a Western model of marketing and business development in a very different culture.
Also, the female diplomat who is the main protagonist discovers a very expensive pomegranate-for-poppy crop substitution grant, which has been awarded to an Afghan who is 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 like a scam.
She starts to ask questions, which her senior colleagues at the embassy don’t like very much. She finds out that the grantee had got a girl in Arghandab (where the grant is based) pregnant and the local people hate him. So, he never goes there (can’t go there) and it’s ridiculous for him to have been awarded the grant.
But the diplomat at the embassy who awarded the grant, a man named Grover Huntsman, did it for personal reasons. Huntsman, eventually goes on to run for US president. The female diplomat’s questions about the pomegranate crop substitution grant lead to her tour being cut short, she is sent back to Washington DC, and has a nervous breakdown.
What was the response you received for the book?
It’s interesting that Deborarh Rodriguez, bestselling author of The Kabul Beauty School and several other novels set in Afghanistan, said of The Pomegranate Peace that she “felt like a voyeur being able to glimpse inside one of the world’s biggest and most secure embassies.”
Debbie has actually spent a lot of time in Kabul but even she did not know what really went on inside the embassy at 10-year mark of the US occupation of Afghanistan. I would say that The Pomegranate Peace takes you into a secure zone that very few had access to and only by invitation. It is also a world that no longer exists after the Taliban reconquest of Kabul on August 15, 2021.
The book also features some Afghani recipes. Where did you source these from?
Often from Afghan colleagues, who would very kindly ask their wives and mothers for recipes on my behalf. In fact, I have a recipe titled “Bushra’s Mantu” sitting in my cookbook here in London – it’s on the back of a US government grant monitoring form and was dictated to me by a colleague, who had asked his wife for the recipe in order to relay it to me.
Root beer floats (A taste of home)
Vanilla ice cream
Spoon a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream into a tall glass. Slowly pour root beer into the glass, allowing the foam to rise and then recede before adding more root beer.
Serve with straws and spoons.
Afghan trail mix (Sustenance throughout the adventure)
¼ cup whole shelled unpeeled almonds
¼ cup shelled walnuts
¼ cup shelled pistachios
¼ cup dried mulberries
¼ cup raisins
2 ounce dried apricots
Combine in a bowl.
What are you working on next?
I’m revising a novel about a Hindu-Muslim marriage, set against the backdrop of the fall of the Babri Masjid and worsening relations between the two communities in India. It’s about love, lust, the failures of liberalism, but mostly about a 19-year-old girl who is haunted by the trauma of an abusive relationship and her long journey towards becoming whole again.