“Oh!” Mirwais responded, drying sweaty hands on his pants, images of guillotines and firing squads rushing to mind. At the Moscow State University, he had to study both the French and Russian Revolutions in detail. He was only too aware of the fate of both Royal families and aristocracies. Republics scared him, especially republics run by dictators. During his decade as Prime Minister, General Daoud had been autocratic and short tempered.
“But the king …” Mirwais began.
“Unfortunately, Bachim, in politics there is rarely room for friendships. One does what one can, but there are so many factors to consider,” Mr. Shahir said. After a moment’s thought he added, “I am pleased with the results. No civilians were killed, and His Majesty is safe in Italy.” Mr. Shahir looked up at his son. He looked so young and innocent—so vulnerable. “For the next few days I don’t want you leaving the compound—not for any reason,” he said gently.
“Come here,” Mr. Shahir said, hugging his son. “Had you let me know you were coming home instead of just showing up, I would have told you to join your mother and sisters in India. As a member of the Indian Parliament, should it become necessary, your grandfather could get all of you asylum in India. But what’s done is done.”
Mirwais wasn’t sure if his father was referring to the coup or his returning home.
Mr. Shahir, lost in thought, was silent for so long that Mirwais thought he had forgotten that both he and Abdul Karim were still there. “You know, Bachim, my one regret is not having notified your Uncles Hadee-jan, and Javed-jan, about the coup”—Mr. Shahir referred to his brother and brother-in-law—“but General Daoud was adamant that no one be told.”
Disengaging from his father’s embrace, Mirwais said, “But Daddy-jan, Uncle Hadee-jan is the Minister of Defense—responsible for the safety and security of the country. Uncle Javed-jan, is the Minister of Interior—overseeing all the provincial governors, the police force and the secret service. Surely they should have been told, especially if the plan was to ensure a bloodless coup.”
“My very words to General Daoud, but he was vehement that our plans be kept absolutely secret.”
“But what about my uncles?” Miro’s voice went up an octave. “Surely, not telling them could put their lives in danger.”
“As you can see, Bachim, all is well. The coup was a success, no one has been hurt. You don’t need to worry about your uncles.” Images flashed through Mr. Shahir’s memory, images of a fist-fight in high school, protecting his favorite sibling, his only brother, Hadee, from the school bully. Fast forward—his wedding day, his brother standing next to him. Fast forward—principal of the high school, Hadee his vice principal. Fast forward—Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Hadee his Charge-de-Affairs. Fast forward—Prime Minister, his brother his deputy. It had always been that way, until now. He, always the older brother, the protector; Hadee, in a supportive role, in the shadow.
Confined to the compound with only his father and the servants for company, Mirwais grew restless. He chaffed under his father’s restrictions. Much as he loved playing fetch with Golla and Jolly—training them to obey advanced hand signals, grooming the horses till their coats glistened, or watching his pigeons in their coop, he was bored. The day after the coup he snuck out secure in the knowledge that should his father send for him, it could take a servant a couple of hours to search the mansion and accompanying gardens for him.
Mirwais wandered the streets of Kabul. The sky above was a brilliant blue with only a few wispy clouds floating leisurely across it. He noticed a flock of pigeons wheeling across the sky. As if guided by one mind, they twisted and turned as one entity, the individual subservient and in sync with the group. How symbolic of the Afghan culture, Mirwais thought. Here, too, the individual must flow with the community—the welfare of the community superseding the desires of the individual.
A dry breeze half-heartedly swirled a little dust before dying down again. Beautiful young girls in mini-skirts walked down the sidewalk, laughing and joking with each other. Young men likewise were out strolling and flirting with the girls. Cassette players boomed Bollywood music from the roadside cafes, cinema posters proclaimed the latest American movies.
The city was calm. On street corners in the bazaar, at the barber’s shop, little knots of men gathered to discuss the coup. “Don’t you think it cowardly of the President to have overthrown the monarchy while the King is out of the country and a woman is sitting on the throne?” Another said, “Will life be any better with a President instead of a King? After all, they are still the same family.” No one worried—perhaps they didn’t realize—the coup was but the first step on a journey to hell.
Hurrying back before he was missed, Mirwais spent the rest of the day on the roof with his pigeons. The chiming of the little metal and plastic bells on the pigeon’s feet as they strutted and cooed were a poignant reminder of Anahita, the daughter of his father’s only brother, Hadee. When he acquired his first flock of pigeons, she had given him the bells as a gift.
Though cousins, since early childhood, they had always been very close, like twins, inseparable, each a mirror to the other. While in boarding school in Pakistan, Mirwais had started praying five times a day. When Anahita heard about it, she too, prayed five times a day.
Mirwais had been inconsolable when her parents decided to send her to Washington, DC to attend college.
“I don’t know what you’re so upset about,” Anahita pouted. “You’re not the one going to live with a brother you haven’t seen for the greater part of your life. The last time I saw Lemar was before he left for college. I was only six and he, sixteen. Now, I’m sixteen and he’s twenty-six—”
“I can do the math,” Mirwais snapped.
“For all practical purposes, we’re strangers. What if we don’t get along?”
“Of course, you’ll get along. He’s your brother.” Still cross, Mirwais added, “You’re abandoning me! Don’t you love me?”
“Don’t be silly, I have no say in my parents’ decisions. Why don’t you ask your parents to send you to America, too,” Anahita suggested.
“I’d love to go to America—the land of milk and honey, where anything is possible—to see the desert Southwest where Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Max Brand, set their stories,” Mirwais said, excitedly. “You’re right, I should ask my parents to send me to America.”
Before Mirwais could summon enough courage to approach his father, Mr. Shahir announced, “Bachim, I’ve decided to send you to Moscow State University.”
“But Daddy-jan, I don’t want to go to Russia, a communist country.”
“That’s irrelevant,” Mr. Shahir said with a wave of his hand. “I have talked with the Soviet Ambassador, you leave in two weeks. With Lemar and soon Anno studying in America, it is prudent that at least one Shahir study in the Soviet Union. We must appear to be neutral.”
The next day, in tears, Mirwais confided in Anahita, “Daddy-jan has decided that I should attend the Moscow State University. Who’ll take care of the animals?”
Anahita hugged him. “You’re funny, Miro. Of course the servants will take care of them, like they did while you were in Pakistan.”
“And you’ll be in America. I wish you weren’t going so very far away.”
Hiding her own desperation, Anahita reassured Mirwais. “It’s not like I’m going to another planet, just to America.”
“It might as well be another planet,” Mirwais responded.
“Let’s make a vow,” Anahita excitedly said, “once we’re adults, we won’t let anyone make decisions for us. We’ll be in charge of our own lives.”
“I promise,” Mirwais said, cheering up.
The evening before Anahita left for the States, Mirwais went to her home to say goodbye. He wanted to see her without her many friends surrounding her as they were bound to do at the airport. He found her alone in her room finalizing her packing. He sat on the edge of her bed and the two talked for hours about what the future may hold for them.
“Promise you’ll write every week,” Anahita pleaded. “Tell me all that is going on in your life. I’ll do the same.”
“Promise!” As he turned to leave, she held out her hand. In the center of her palm rested a little brown stone.
“What is it?” He took the stone and examined it. “It’s beautiful, shaped just like a little bird, so smooth and shiney.”
“It is, isn’t it?” she asked. “I found it five years ago, the year you went to boarding school in Pakistan. It wasn’t so shiney then. I’ve kept it in my pocket all these years as a reminder of you and your love of birds.”
Their eyes met and held as he handed it back.
“No, keep it,” she said shyly, “to remember me.”
“I’ll never forget you.” On impulse, he hugged her and then gently kissed her on her lips, immediately pulling away. They stood facing each other, embarrassed. Then he rushed out of the room.
“I’ll always love you, Miro,” she whispered, but he was already gone.
Now, back in Kabul, Mirwais fervently wished Anahita were home, sharing in this new adventure. Being prisoner in his own home wouldn’t be so intolerable with Anahita by his side.
Mirwais also missed his mother. Particularly those rare occasions when she cooked, in the upstairs kitchen—the family kitchen—and he served as sous chef. She never cooked in the big kitchen downstairs, where the servants congregated, that was the chef’s domain.
Bored, Mirwais took over the supervision of their fifteen Holstein and six Jersey milch cows, over eight hundred White Leghorn and Rhode Island Red hens, and the odd assortment of other creatures he had accumulated over the years—most rescued from certain death—a golden eagle with a broken wing, two gazelles whose mother had been shot by a hunter friend of his father’s, and an orphaned four-horned ram. Of course, the servants did all the manual work.
With most of the family in India, meals were taken in the library instead of the cavernous dining room and, to Mirwais’ relief, were relatively silent affairs. They did, however, give him an opportunity to covertly observe his father, whose anxiety level grew by the day. Fair-skinned like their Aryan ancestors, Mr. Shahir spent most of his time sitting by the telephone. Occasionally, he’d pick up the receiver, listening for a dial tone. Satisfied that the phone was working, he’d hang up. At other times he started to dial a number without completing the call.
One day, mustering his courage, Mirwais asked, “Daddy-jan, is something wrong?”
“Huh, Bachim? Did you say something?”
“I was wondering if, perhaps, something is bothering you? You seem upset. I’ve never seen you like this before.” Mirwais wasn’t sure how his father would respond. Normally, he didn’t tolerate anyone questioning his actions.
“It’s been ten days since the coup and the President hasn’t called to thank me for my help.”
“Perhaps he’s busy consolidating his power?”
“No, that can’t be it. There’s been no opposition.”
“Have you called to congratulate him on becoming President?” Mirwais asked softly.
“Me? Call him? Of course not! He should call and thank me for helping him become President.” And so the days passed. The King recognized the republic, and the Queen and the Royal family were allowed to leave Afghanistan and join the King in Italy, and tension continued to mount in the Shahir house.
Tentatively, Mirwais suggested that until his mother returned, he should stay in Kabul to supervise the farm and help his father in whatever way necessary.
“No, Bachim, there’s nothing more important than your education. However, in light of current events, I think it best that you join your mother and sisters in Bombay and continue your education there.” With a smile he added, “I think with our twelve servants I can manage to run the place.”
“But Daddy-jan, why can’t I just go back to Moscow?”
“Because I say so.” Mr. Shahir didn’t explain that with the President’s close ties to Moscow, Mirwais would be in easy reach of the President’s grasp—a ready hostage whom the President could and would use. Mr. Shahir didn’t want his son to live in daily fear of what could happen, constantly looking over his shoulder, scared of his own shadow.
“But that means starting all over again, applying to colleges, waiting for admissions, I could lose a whole year.”
“Better to lose a year of college—” Mr. Shahir hesitated. Should he confide his fears to his son? He was seventeen, almost a man “—than to lose your life. I’ll make arrangements for you to leave by Friday.” Before Mirwais could protest, Mr. Shahir added, “And this time, young man, make sure you don’t return without my express permission.”
Mirwais swallowed hard. “Yes, sir!”