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As Afghanistan boils, a look at the Kabuliwallahs of Kolkata

A still from Tapan Sinha’s 1957 adaptation of Tagore’s Kabuliwala.   | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The first impression of the Kabuliwallah emerges out of the shadows of most children born in Bengal. Right from an impressionable age, children are made to believe that these merchants from Kabul trafficked small children and had wild animals such as elephants and lions in their ‘jholas’ and, therefore, one had to be wary of them. The fear of the Kabuliwallah is deep-rooted in the minds of Kolkata people, which defined their children’s first whiffs and brushes with the image of the Kabuliwallah.

Typically dressed in a long, overflowing pathan suit, an ill-fitting turban and sporting unkempt mehendi dyed hair and a beard, the Kabuliwallahs are primarily traders, moneylenders and sellers of exotic dry fruits and attars (perfumes) from Afghanistan, who have been living in Kolkata for decades. The slow, reluctant inertia of their walk and their far-reaching cries to sell their wares have reverberated in every by-lane in the city.

At a time when Afghanistan is torn by war, conflict, displacement and terror, the figure of the Kabuliwallah emerges not from the hardcovers of books, but from between the pages, as memorialised by Rabindranath Tagore in his short story Kabuliwala.

In the story, Rahmat, a Kabuliwallah, roams the hinterlands of the city to sell his wares. Mini, the five-year-old protagonist of the story, calls out to the merchant from her window, “Kabuliwallah! O Kabuliwallah!,” and then shies away.

The five-year-old Mini reminds Rahmat of his young daughter back home in Kabul, whose fading handprint he carries in his pocket.

As the story unfurls, an unlikely bond develops between the kind-hearted Afghan and the young Mini. Tagore used his short story to comprehensively deconstruct the xenophobia associated with the Afghan merchants. However, in the story, the Kabuliwallah is wronged, abused and had to serve a sentence in jail, which transformed the figure of the Afghan into a classic tragic hero.

Further, Tapan Sinha’s 1957 adaptation of the short story brought Tagore’s master storytelling to the celluloid and touched audiences in a visceral way. The black-and-white film starring Chhabi Biswas as the Kabuliwallah and Tinku Tagore as the five-year-old Mini is profound in its simplicity. The film takes us impersonally into the life of Rahmat, who is also a father to a girl like Mini, thereby humanising the figure of the much-feared Kabuliwallah.

In Hemen Gupta’s Kabuliwala (1961), the role of the upright Afghan migrant was played by Balraj Sahni. In recent times, the 2017 film Bioscopewala tells the story of Tagore’s Kabuliwala, but in a much different light. The merchant from Kabul is played by Danny Denzongpa.

Of late, the Kabuliwallahs of Kolkata have taken to opening tailoring shops and other enterprises. Their frequent haunts are the biryani and mughlai joints of the city. With the passage of time, the Kabuliwallahs have seamlessly integrated into Indian society. The prejudice and fear associated with these merchants have also dissipated.


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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 12:54:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/as-afghanistan-boils-a-look-at-the-kabuliwallahs-of-kolkata/article36199518.ece

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