In 1980, shortly before my eleventh birthday, I wrote my first essay in English. The subject was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—or the Soviet “intervention,” as I termed it, in a “fraternal Communist country threatened by imperialism.” I had followed events in Afghanistan anxiously if somewhat fitfully; we had no television, and the newspapers, arriving in Jhansi, our small Indian town, from Delhi a day late, reported American threats to boycott the Moscow Olympics but said little about what was going on inside Afghanistan. Nevertheless, I boldly predicted that the Soviets would modernize a backward and feudal country, revolutionize its relations of production, and set it on the path of prosperity and peace, inflicting, in the process, another crushing defeat on the forces of reaction and imperialism.
In December 2004, I traveled on the road from Uzbekistan across the Oxus River on which the first Soviet convoys had rolled into Afghanistan twenty-five years before. Fearful of ambushes, the Soviets had mined the surrounding desert right up to the verges; and venturing out of the car for a pee I walked into a minefield—one of the many across Afghanistan that had killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of people—and then had to learn, for some long minutes, how hard it is literally to retrace one’s steps.
What goes around comes around, even if the intense fear of losing one’s life, or a limb or two, seems a very severe karmic punishment for some youthful cliché-mongering. Later that evening, drinking alone and hard in my gloomy hotel room in Mazar-i-Sharif, for the first time in many years I remembered my essay, and I couldn’t help but wonder: What the hell had I been thinking? Perhaps I was no more deluded than people in Europe and America who thought that the Soviets wanted to conquer the world and who had made elaborate plans to fight, and survive, a nuclear war. At least I’d had the excuse of being 10 years old. But it was still odd to remember how during my childhood and adolescence I was an admirer and supporter—unpaid and thus very sincere—of the Soviet Union. For much of this time, I wasn’t quite sure what such words as socialism, capitalism, reaction, and imperialism really meant; but I was ready to believe in the superiority of socialism over capitalism simply because this was the official ideology of the Soviet Union. A framed photograph of Lenin stood on my desk, and I possessed, if I did not actually work my way through, the complete works of Plekhanov. And self-consciously I’d prepared myself for adult life in the Soviet Union.
This was by no means a merely natural consequence of my straitened lower-middle-class circumstances. Genteel poverty of the kind we knew had drawn most people in my Brahmin family closer to the Hindu nationalists and to a politics of resentment. My father denounced as hypocrites and frauds the Communists he encountered in his work as a trade unionist in Indian Railways, and he took a skeptical view of my Sovietophilia. But he had grown up in another time. For boys like me, in North Indian railway towns in the ’70s and ’80s, where nothing much happened apart from the arrival and departure of trains from big cities, the Soviet Union alone appeared to promise an escape from our limited, dusty world.
It is hard now, in these days of visual excess, to recall the sensuous poverty of the towns I lived in: the white light falling all day from the sky upon a flat land only slightly relieved by bare rock and the occasional tree, and houses of mud or grimy brick, among which any trace of color—shop signs, painted government posters for family planning, or garish posters for Bollywood films—could provoke a sense of wonder. It explains the eagerness with which I awaited Soviet Life, the first magazine I subscribed to, which was really an illustrated press release boasting of Soviet achievements in science, agriculture, industrial production, sports, and literature.