There’s a problem with Kabuliwala. The Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali realised it on his way to Kabul in 1927. Ali, who had been a student at Santiniketan under Rabindranath Tagore, had accepted a teaching job in Kabul. Tagore’s touching short story, Kabuliwala, about the unlikely friendship between Rahmat, a trader from Afghanistan, and Mini, a little Bengal girl, was already famous.
But Sardarji, the driver of the bus from Peshawar to Kabul, was perplexed when Ali mentioned the Kabuliwalas of Calcutta (now Kolkata). “Why did you say Kabuliwala? The inhabitants of the city should be called either Kabuli or Kabulwala. So why this business of Kabuliwala?” Ali was abashed. Tagore had called them Kabuliwalas and Kabuliwalas is what they have remained. But there was another problem as well. The Kabuliwalas who roamed the streets of Calcutta selling dried fruits and walnuts, running moneylending businesses, were not from Kabul at all. “They are almost all from two particular provinces in the south of Afghanistan,” says Nazes Afroz, who translated Ali’s travel memoir, Deshe Bideshe, into In A Land Far From Home: A Bengali In Afghanistan. “Paktia and Paktitka are close to the border with Pakistan, far away from Kabul.” Before air travel via Kabul, they would come to Calcutta through cities like Quetta and Peshawar, travelling along the Grand Trunk Road. Afroz says most of the so-called Kabuliwalas had never visited Kabul at all. Sardarji, Ali’s bus driver, would not have been surprised. “A true Kabuli never leaves Kabul,” he told Ali. Afroz thinks the people in these border provinces were exposed to Indians when the British army passed through the region during the Anglo-Afghan war, and, being enterprising people, they sensed a business opportunity in far-off, bustling Calcutta.
Tagore describes Rahmat’s homeland as a landscape of barren, towering mountains. “That is a description of southern Afghanistan,” says Afroz. “Kabul is a valley and much greener.” He thinks that when Tagore published the story in 1892, Kabul was perhaps better known to Bengalis than the political entity of Afghanistan. Perhaps it had a more exotic ring for Tagore, who had this rather regal habit of naming people. “Named by Rabindranath” was the ultimate status symbol for the Bengali intelligentsia of the time but who knows what the Kabuliwalas thought, especially when decades later they came to be personified by the very Bengali Chhabi Biswas in the 1957 film by Tapan Sinha and then by Balraj Sahni in 1961 (Sahni at least hailed from Rawalpindi, closer to Kabul than Kolkata).
Bad grammar, misplaced geography and iffy casting. In keeping with the culture of our times, should we cancel “Kabuliwala”? Afroz does not think so. He met many Afghan immigrants in Kolkata for a 2015 photography project with Moska Najib called “From Kabul To Kolkata”, which documented the world of the modern Kabuliwalas of Kolkata. The exhibit went beyond the Mini-Rahmat trope. In the world of real-life Kabuliwalas, Afroz found women were invisible and remained so even in the photographs. Though many Afghans were born in India, and often married Indian women, they described their nationality as being from Pashtunistan, a land that no nation state recognises. He calls them people in a “limbo”, living between worlds.
Tagore’s story could not capture all that complexity. And much has happened in Afghanistan since he wrote his short story. Kings have been deposed. Foreign powers have invaded. The Taliban have risen, fallen and risen again. Waves of Afghans have come to India. Many have now been here several generations. But the Kabuliwala image in the popular imagination has remained frozen in Tagore’s wistful romanticism. They are still rugged, turbaned bearded men carrying big sacks.“What’s in your sack?” little Mini had asked the Kabuliwala. “An elephant,” he replied to her squeals of disbelief.
Afroz found that most of the Afghans he met in Kolkata harboured only the warmest feelings towards Tagore and his story. “I think they are indebted to Rabindranath because his image of Kabuliwala was a very humane one. It created a favourable image of them. People had always been afraid of them, thinking they were fierce martial people who did not think twice before killing someone.”
Years later, the story was taken forward to the Taliban age in Bioscopewala, a 2017 film where Danny Denzongpa played the man from Afghanistan, no longer a dry fruits seller but a man who showed films to children on his bioscope. In that film, Minnie grows up and the Kabuliwala is stricken with Alzheimer’s. But the plea for tolerance and humanity is undimmed, if anything more urgent at a time when history seems to be repeating itself.
When Ali went to Kabul in the 1920s, Amanullah Khan was the ruler. The Western lifestyle at his court, his modernising reforms, like discouraging the veil for women and traditional dress for men in public, upset tribal leaders. In 1927, Khan’s palace in Jalalabad was looted by mobs while he was on a seven-month Europe tour. He fled to Kandahar in his Rolls-Royce, tried unsuccessfully to rally his own clan and eventually went to Italy, where he died. Brigand leader Bacha-e-Sagao usurped the throne. “It was absolutely identical to the way Ashraf Ghani left,” says Afroz. “The way people thought he would at least be able to defend Kabul, the way his army melted away.” Afghanistan remains trapped in the cliches of The Great Game and the Graveyard of Empires which President Joe Biden invoked to justify the American pull-out, as if to suggest that modernity and liberal democracy were hopeless projects in a medieval country of warring tribes.
The Kabuliwala stands out as a human being in the midst of these Great Games of foreign powers. Long before immigrant fiction became a genre, the Kabuliwala personified the wistfulness of the migrant, stealing snatches of home in unfamiliar geographies. In some sense he was not that different from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Ashima Ganguli in The Namesake combining Rice Krispies and Planters peanuts and chopped red onion in a bowl, trying to recreate the taste of home while pregnant. “Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.” I think Rahmat would have understood.
Kolkata is not as far as Ashima’s Massachusetts but the Kabuliwala is very much the other in Tagore’s story. However, it becomes a universal story of fatherhood rather than foreignness, gently tracing the bonds of affection between Mini and her father, Rahmat and his unseen daughter, and between Mini and Rahmat—a bond that is not really recognised by society and is all the more touching for that reason. When the Kabuliwala, after being released from prison, meets not-so-little Mini on her wedding day, his heart breaks as he realises his own daughter in faraway Afghanistan must be just as old and by now just as much a stranger. Even in our cynical times, it’s hard not to get a lump in the throat.
At the end of In A Land Far From Home, as Syed Mujtaba Ali gets ready to leave Afghanistan, his manservant, Abdur Rahman, begs Ali to take him to India with him. Ali regrets telling him the story of Kabuliwala because Rahman says that if little Mini could love an unknown Kabuli, why would Ali’s nephews and nieces not love him? Much like Mini’s father in the Tagore story, Ali tells Rahman to go back to his own home and family in Panjshir. A dejected Rahman replies, “Then Sahib will never come back to Kabul?” Ali writes, “The readers should be kind enough not to ask what I said that day.”
For a moment, one forgets which one is reality and which one, fiction. At a time of such tragedy unfolding yet again in Afghanistan, when Afghan lives feel expendable in the great game of realpolitik, this touch of human connection, however fleeting, feels all the more precious.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.