All eyes on the screen: local residents watch a Bollywood film in an ice cream parlour in Paktia Province. (Photos: H Masoodzai)
A man puffs a cigarette in the corner of the ice cream parlour, his smoke drifting across the room. In the other corner, four teenaged boys sit with their eyes glued to the TV screen, voices rising occasionally at critical junctures of the Bollywood movie playing for the customers. Some children sit too, empty bowls on the table in front of them, their gesticulations reflected in the wall mirrors as they watch the 1996 wrestling action thriller "Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi" (Player of Players), starring Indian actor Akshay Kumar and World Wrestling Federation wrestlers "Crush" and Brian Lee.
Why this is the choice of viewing today, I don’t know, but I can see how thrilled everyone else is. And this is quite simply the ice cream parlour culture that is rapidly evolving in Gardez, the provincial capital of Paktia.
Because of electricity shortages in homes, young local children and youths hang out here, often ducking out of class or home chores to catch the latest glitzy offerings or classics of the Indian movie industry.
Pull of big screen too big for school
I take a seat next to a young man and strike up a conversation. As is the case for many Afghans, watching Bollywood movies is a hobby for 19-year-old Wahidullah. Asked why he prefers watching a movie in an ice cream shop, he replies: “We don’t have a TV at home.”
But the ice cream parlour also offers a respite from life’s pressures. “Due to daily problems I often end up spending my day here,” says Wahidullah, who.has been coming here for more than two years. Economic problems in his family have stopped him from going to school and getting an education. Bollywood and other movies are showing offer him an escape, a brief glimpse at another life. “And when I go home in the evening I feel nostalgic,” he adds.
He claims to be discerning about his viewing, and says that if a movie does not convey a social lesson, he leaves the ice cream shop and does something else. But I’m not so convinced.
The ice cream parlour seen from the outside.
Others come here because although they have a television at home, their families do not allow them to spend hours in front of it. Then again, the sisters and mothers of some of the youths who gather here have not even seen a television.
At a nearby table sits a 12-year-old boy called Noorwali. His eyes are also glued to the TV set. He is playing truant from school today. “I like action movies and would like to learn how to fight,” he says.
It’s a questionable cross-section of motives for being here. And it all takes place against a backdrop of general disapproval for television in the local culture, and especially this kind of viewing fare.
Then again, who is to say these little parlours aren’t themselves a vehicle for social transformation? If there is no electricity, no public awareness about the benefits of TV beyond mere shallow entertainment, then perhaps we will miss out on one of the biggest innovations in modern history. Or perhaps it is just a means of getting out of more responsible choices and activities, if the inaction of the clients in the parlours is anything to go by.
That the ice cream parlour culture is flourishing may also be a clear indication that the authorities are heavily lacking in the provision of electricity and other basics. But perhaps a spinoff consequence will be stirrings of modest discussion about how we live and will live in the future. So get your portion of vanilla whip, take a seat and watch this space!