At home in Kolkata

Amir Khan, the leader of the clan, was born in India. Although a third generation Kabuliwala, he is deeply tied to his heritage. Photo: Nazes Afroz and Moska Najib  

For Amir Khan, home means Kolkata. Although he hopes to go to his true home — Afghanistan — one day. The third-generation Afghan national — whose forefathers settled here almost a century ago — rues not having visited his homeland even once, like many others of his community living in the City of Joy. Although there’s a sizeable Afghan population in Mumbai, he says he feels at home in Kolkata.

“Many of the older generation settled in Kolkata want to go to Afghanistan to visit relatives that they left behind. Many of us still don’t have Indian passports, although we have other valid Indian identity proofs. I would like to visit Afghanistan to apologise to my relatives for not visiting my homeland. Some of us keep in touch through letters or phone,” he says.

Bengalis refer to people like Amir Khan as ‘Kabuliwalas’ (those hailing from Kabul, Afghanistan). These burly money lenders and traders of dry fruits, dressed in loose ‘Khan dresses’, were immortalised by Rabindranath Tagore in Kabuliwala (1892). This short story depicted an unusual friendship between a Kabuliwala and a little girl who reminded him of his daughter in Afghanistan.

( Money lending is a lucrative trade. Photo: Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz)

During a photo-exhibition — From Kabul to Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories and Identity, in Kolkata by photo journalists Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz — at the Harrington Arts Centre, Amir Khan spoke to journalists about how the Kabuliwalas came to accept Kolkata as their home, despite being rooted in their traditions. The photo exhibition was supported by the India-Afghanistan Foundation and the Goethe-Institut South Asia (Max Mueller Bhavan). The three-year-long project offered a peek into the lives of the Afghan nationals and the social transformations within the community.

Although settled thousands of miles away from their homeland, the Kabuliwalas have deep-rooted links with their traditions. As Najib pointed out, the Afghans are still conservative in their outlook towards women and she faced opposition when she wanted to photograph their women, despite being a Pashtun herself.

(Rooted in tradition. Photo: Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz)

“The wind of Afghanistan still blows among us. Our ladies still observe the purdah and cannot be exposed. Norms are followed with great discipline during wedding festivities. Girls wear the burqa when stepping out of their homes. However, things are changing. About 70 per cent of our girls attend schools now. It is a matter of great pride that Najib is one of us and is excelling in her work,” Amir Khan said.

Now an Indian citizen, Najib — the daughter of Mohammad Najibullah, former Afghan president — joked that her lack of knowledge of Pashto and Hindi and her vegetarian lifestyle led to Amir Khan doubting her Afghan lineage.

The community has held on to Pashto with utmost sincerity. People adept at the language tutor children for free in the evenings at their homes, said Yakub Khan, a third-generation Afghan residing in Kolkata. “We wear our dress with great pride. We may not wear it when we go to work but we wear it on Fridays and on special days. The younger generation may prefer Bengali cuisine to their own but we still wear our dress when attending festivities.”

(Afghans gather at the Maidan in Victoria Memorial. Photo: Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz)

Although many decades ago, they roamed the streets as money lenders; they have now opted for other professions. Many still trade in dry fruits but others have established their own business, mostly as cloth traders. Almost half have given up the traditional money-lending business.

Recounting his experience in the initial phase, Afroz said Khan had asked how his community would benefit from the photographs. Though Tagore’s much-loved short story was later made into a film, that was perhaps the Bengalis’ last association with Kabuliwalas, Afroz said.

But, says Yakub Khan, Kolkata has given them a love that no other city has offered. “My grandfather fled to Pakistan from Afghanistan and finally came to Kolkata after a brief stint in Peshawar more than 100 years ago. We enjoy all the benefits and privileges here. We are grateful for Tagore for immortalising us in Bengali literature.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 10:35:13 PM |

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