Afghanistan! The land of the Hindu Kush Mountains, henna bearded Pathans and the romance of Tagore’s Kabuliwala! The Embassy of Afghanistan in New Delhi’s Chanakyapuri, however was more evocative of the war that had ravaged the country for eons. The British, the Russians, the Americans, not to mention the Ancient Greeks had all fought and died in the rarefied poppy fields of the Afghan terrain and the decimated country had little in terms of infrastructure. Roads, bridges, hospitals, and as I was soon to discover, education had been decimated.
“My 12 year old needs to start school. Can you help?” the Afghan embassy official asked plaintively. I was at the Embassy looking for business opportunities that might be emerging after the Taliban war. “I chose to come to Delhi as an embassy officer to get him a good education – in fact the President was surprised by my choice because he wanted me to be the Minister of Defence! I assured him that I would work on Defence matters from New Delhi, on procurement, training, and so forth…” his voice trailed off. “But I really need to get my boy in school!”
I agreed to help. “What class or grade will the boy be entering?” I asked. “Second,” he responded. “Oh, that should not be a problem,” I said, thinking of various schools that would be happy to accept a diplomat’s son. “There is one small problem, however,” he added. “My son is twelve years old”.
“Uh oh,” I thought to myself. “The boy must be a terrible student!” But, as his father explained, keeping his son alive was more important than sending him to school for many years during the war. He had just not been to school for many years.
We lucked out when we met the Principal of a school who was the son of an erstwhile Indian Diplomat in Kabul, and had seen first hand the havoc war had wreaked on the education system there. On compassionate grounds, the child was granted admission and the furniture of class 2 was modified to accommodate the prepubescent young man.
My stature at the Afghan embassy skyrocketed! Soon I was invited to meet an Afghan General with a huge shopping list for uniforms including camouflage fabrics, belts, caps, helmets, epaulettes, as well as a full military band. He explained that these items were needed for the forthcoming National Day celebrations in Kabul – the first after many years of war. And my task was to procure the items from this elaborate shopping list!
We put together a proposal based on quotes from high quality vendors in Ahmedabad, Bombay and other textile powerhouses. “But your…prices are too high Mr. Kapur. We are a very poor country. Please bring the prices down otherwise we will have to go elsewhere,” the General said.
So, onto Plan B. While other items were sourced at the benchmarked prices, the main issue was for fabrics for winter and summer uniforms which constituted the bulk of the order.
Enter “Bauji”. A wizened old gentleman missing a couple of front teeth but dripping with saccharin, sugar and honey happened to be visiting our office from Amritsar and had overheard a conversation between me and a colleague about our conundrum. He appeared to literally be pleading for the business. We handed him the target prices. He called his manager and asked him to provide him the cost of the materials, did some quick mental math, and said “Ho jayga. Tussi fikar na karo ji!”.
We conveyed the news to the General who sounded relieved and excited “KHUB KHUB……TASCHAKOR BARADAR!” He invited us to Kabul for a ceremonial contract signing. As we prepared to depart, I decided to double-check with “Bauji” to re-confirm the prices to ensure he would not let us down once the contract was signed.
“Putar (son) you have to learn how to be confident in business! When things are done don’t ‘UNDONE IT’ with your doubts!! WE STAND BY OUR OFFER — PLEASE GO AND FEARLESSLY SIGN THE CONTRACT.”
Flying in a dilapidated Ariana Aircraft was an adventure in and of itself. The airport was a veritable graveyard of metal – the remnants of aircraft and guns destroyed by laser guided bombs. The drive from the airport was bumpy and slow. Buildings and homes were damaged beyond recognition by ravages of ordnance. We ran into gun toting army personnel armed to the teeth manning concrete reinforced barricades every 200 meters.
We were driven to the posh part of Kabul – Wazir Akbar Khan, (which brought back memories of Khaled Hosseini’s “Kite Runner” set in this location) to a guest house of the Ministry of Defence in a high security zone. Strict instructions were given not to venture out without armed bodyguards and there was a curfew from 6 pm to 6 am. The caretaker was a turbaned Pathan who reminded me of the protagonist of the movie Kabuliwala. He regaled us with the history of wars, where Afghanistan remained undefeated from 4th Century Alexander to George Bush and smiled when I reminded him Raja Ranjit Singh’s little skirmish into Afghanistan!
The contract, heralded as the first contract in post-war Afghanistan, was signed with military pomp and was followed by a feast hosted by the General and top-ranked army officers seated on the floor on dastarkhans in traditional Afghani style. Nuts and raisin-laden Kabuli pulao with large chunks of mutton, manto (dumplings), Chopan lamb with king-sized Afghani naans and borani banjan culminating in a large bowl of fruit including blood red Kandhari pomegranates, 7 dry fruit laden haft mewa and firni, washed down with samovar brewed dry fruit rich tea.
As for payment, the General asked that we trust them since banking was primitive. Payment would be made after delivery. This was fraught with risks but my inner voice prevailed. With a knot in my stomach, I agreed to these terms. National Afghan media heralded the contract so I hoped that they would not renege when we delivered.
Back in Delhi, I called Bauji to share the good news. Several calls went unanswered and when he finally came on the line. He sounded distant for what turned out to be a good reason. “PUTAR PRABLEM HO GAYI” this was followed by a fusillade of choicest Punjabi expletives on his manager who he claimed had made a gross arithmetic error. The revised prices meant we stood to lose about twenty percent! Bauji had left us in the lurch mid-stream, with the sound of a 1000 foot waterfall in front of us! Bauji had let us down but how could we explain that to the General! Failure was not an option.
We went into a sourcing frenzy. Friends, relatives, competitors, customers, vendors, anybody with knowledge of the textile business were contacted. A prospect in Mumbai emerged. I was on the next flight.
There were mills in Thane and Navsari who had fallen on bad days and had to keep production going to show the bankers they were a going concern. These mills could do job work provided we paid in advance. A little calculator punching suggested that we would end up with a 10 percent margin, lots of goodwill, and face saving!
We were invited to the Afghan Military Day parade and as the soldiers marched to the Made–in-Meerut military band in their new, Thane and Navsari sourced uniforms, my pride was intermingled with some concern. We had yet to be paid! Afghanistan had little foreign exchange, and the local currency, the Afghani, had lost most of its value.
The Central Bank requested us to stay in Kabul and collect much devalued Afghanis from the Ministry of Defence, carry them (in sackfuls with armed guards) to the Bank, and get them converted to USD as foreign currency was received.
The twenty days of payment collection allowed for some interesting tourism opportunities, including Babur’s grave, the famed Shahre-naw market for carpets, rugs, lapis lazuli from Badakshan province, antiques, witness the sport of Buzkashi, soaked in the history from Alexander times through the Mauryan, Kushans, the advent of Buddhism to the recent history the rise of Taliban, Tajik and Uzbek warlords.
Perhaps the most important lesson from this little escapade is to make sure your supply chain is ready to meet your commitments to your customer. Before you sign a contract with a customer, sign a bonded contract with your supplier, particularly if they are new vendors. Your supplier could let you down but never ever let down your customer.
Oh, and that 12-year-old class 2 student? He did well! He secured several double promotions and is currently pursuing a Doctorate in International Relations at JNU and his proud father is a dear brother to me! So, show compassion and help another human being in need. It tends to come back and in spades. Karma!
The initial risks paid off and several more business opportunities emerged in Afghanistan for the Indian Kabuliwala.