Kolkata’s Kabuliwala

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By Priyan R. Naik

This is the 160th birth anniversary of India’s revered poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore (known by the sobriquet Gurudev) and there are a spurt of celebrations to remember him. I was invited to one such event, a play based on his famous story The Kabuliwala, meaning a resident of Kabul in Afghanistan, written by him and published in 1892, almost twenty years before he received the Nobel Prize for literature. 

The story itself is very short and barely takes fifteen minutes to narrate, but it went on to become one of Gurudev’s most loved, most cited and most translated works in prose. The deep bonds that spontaneously develop between a five-year-old child from Kolkata and a grown-up stranger from Kabul, representing two entirely different cultures become a testament to the basic goodness all of us human beings carry deep within us. Humans, no matter what their nationality or background, are all the same everywhere and are capable of demonstrating filial affection – a love that a father has for his children. In the story, this affection is depicted in three different ways – between the narrator and his daughter Mini, the Kabuliwala ‘Rahmat’ and his daughter in Afghanistan, and Rahmat and Mini.

This story is regularly adapted in several different languages both for the screen as also the stage. Each adaptation takes the liberty to expand the script beyond the simplicity of the original story and both Mini, the little girl and Rahmat Sheikh, the Kabuliwala invariably get sprinkled with a variety of details duly changed to suit either the plot or the location or the characters themselves.   

Essentially a fruit seller, a Pathan tribesman from Kabul in Afghanistan visits Kolkata (then Calcutta) every year to sell dry fruits. While in India, he develops a parental affection for a five-year-old girl, Mini, from a middle-class aristocratic family, which reminds him of his own daughter back home in Afghanistan. Staying at a boarding house with his countrymen, spending his time peddling dry fruits on Kolkata’s streets, Rahmat Sheikh with his heavily accented voice, is hardly trusted by anybody, particularly Mini’s mother. As a matter of fact, his stout physique and rugged face actually frightens children. Nevertheless, little Mini trusts him and their friendship blossoms.  

One day, Rahmat receives a letter with news of his daughter’s illness and he decides to return to his country. Being short of money, he increases his business by selling goods on credit. Subsequently, when he goes to collect his dues, one of his customers abuses him. In a fight that ensues, Rahmat warns the offender before stabbing the guy when he does not listen.

In the Court, Rahmat’s lawyer tries to obfuscate the facts, but in his characteristic and simple fashion, Rahmat states the truth in a matter-of-fact way. The Judge is pleased with his honesty and gives him ‘10 years rigorous imprisonment’ instead of a death sentence.

On the day of his release, he goes to meet Mini and discovers that she has blossomed into a teenage girl who is about to get married. Mini does not even recognise the aged Rahmat, who realises that his daughter too must have forgotten him. Mini’s father advises him to return to his homeland, while Mini’s mother gives him some money for travel and gifts for his daughter. The time Mini spent with the Kabuliwala has become a distant memory for her and all that Rahmat can do is give Mini a packet with raisins wrapped in paper imprinted with prints of his daughter’s hand as a wedding gift. 

The homesick man from Kabul with his sack full of goodies has been immortalised by Gurdev with several Bengali children having grown up reading about him as part of their school curriculum. The words of the five-year-old Mini asking the trader from Afghanistan “O Kabuliwala, Kabuliwala, what have you got in your bag?”, is etched in the minds of several grown-ups as well. Yet, others have watched films based on this story that has been inspiring several filmmakers, dramatists and storytellers for decades. First, there was Tapan Sinha’s famous adaptation of the tragic tale of the Kabuliwala in 1957. Later, it was remade in Hindi, this time directed by Hemen Gupta in 1961, in which Balraj Sahni played the role of the man from Kabul. In 2006, Bangladeshi director, Kazi Hayat made yet another adaptation of Rahmat, the Kabuliwala.

Gurudev’s iconic story has only romanticised the image of the Afghan people, roughly 7,000 of them living a sheltered and secluded life in Kolkata today. Although the itinerant Afghan continues to practise the vocation be it a Kabuliwala, a kebab seller, a dry-fruit seller, or a moneylender in India, his living condition has not changed much since the Tagore story of the 1800s. Torn, displaced, confused, the man from Kabul remains even today, mired in uncertainty. Popularly known as ‘Khan log,’ the city is ‘home’ to them despite being thousands of kilometres away from Kabul, their actual place of residence. The name from Tagore’s story however continues to be used and the people of Afghanistan residing in Kolkata are still labelled as Kabuliwalas.   

The men have typical distinctive features – piercing eyes and rugged faces. Dressed in their traditional attire, they seem at home in Kolkata where they carry with them their distinct tradition. Coming since the 1840s to sell spices, dry fruits, attar and hing (asafoetida) they have been going about door-to-door selling their wares over decades. Several Kabuliwalas have moved to other businesses including tailoring shops, selling clothes and Pathani suits, while others have got into the business of lending money. 

Easy to identify them with their quintessential Afghan traits, silk Pathani suits and burly figure, their drawing-rooms have large red mattresses with pillows against the wall. Closely knit, they like to stay with other members and spend their evenings enjoying a cup of tea together, chatting away. They are proud of their Afghan identity and are rooted in their age-old customs and traditions, which link generations after generations, while they have blended into the ethos of Kolkata. 

As with other adaptations of the Kabuliwala’s tale, the play I witnessed went way beyond the original. The Kabuliwala story was narrated by the Kabuliwala’s of Kolkata themselves. Importantly, the chatterbox Mini was kept silent throughout the play, thereby enhancing the bond between the two protagonists. Despite this, she was expressive in her own way, while living in a world of her own.

While the grown-up version of Mini did not recognise Rahmat Khan, after his return from prison, the Kabuliwala will always be a part of us, an immortal character of Tagore’s short story. Childhood memories are shaped by the books we read and the Kabuliwala from Afghanistan holds a special place, capturing as he does the essence of a wonderful friendship built against the backdrop of hardship. 

About the author:

Priyan R. Naik is a columnist and a freelance journalist living in Bengaluru, India. He appears in the Deccan Herald, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Hindu Business Line, Times of India, Navhind Times, Daily Star of Dhaka and on various on-line websites. E-mail: [email protected]  Twitter: @priyannaik