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Karan Thapar

A happy childhood in 1960s Kabul

Mohammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, in Kabul in 1972. Anwar Hussein/Getty Images

Mid-1960s Kabul, where I spent my formative childhood years, was a “happy city”, says Indian journalist Karan Thapar in The Spectator. “Of course, it was poor, conservative and hierarchical but people were always smiling.” When my mother took me out, “shopkeepers would slip Hershey’s chocolates or spearmint gum into my hands and then seal my lips with their fingers”. On Pashtunistan Square was the Khyber restaurant, “famous for its beef steaks and lemon meringue pies”. A Swiss hotel called Spinzar sold “delectable” pastries.

On Fridays we’d drive out of the city to the summer homes of the aristocracy and royal family. (They were eventually deposed in 1973, after 47 years.) “Society, in the Victorian sense, was small but sophisticated. The upper classes spoke better French than English, but they all warmed to Indian classical music.” They also adored Hindi films. Within the high-walled compounds of the rich, women swapped burkas for Chanel dresses and high-heeled shoes, and smoked American cigarettes with carefully manicured fingers.

“Much of today’s Kabul didn’t exist.” The present-day US compound was scrubland where my father taught me to drive. After my voice acquired a “twang” from the American School, my mother shipped me off to be educated in India. But I have peanut butter every day at breakfast, and I’m reminded of my old Afghan home. “Unlike Robert Graves, I cannot say ‘Goodbye to all that’.”