On this day, we pay homage to Tagore Da. Thank you for the stories and the songs and for handing Bengalis cultural clout over the rest of us heathens. But it is with a heavy heart that I say, it’s now time to bid farewell to one of your most-loved creations: the Kabuliwala.
No middle-school student, who had to pore over his Onward English Reader is unaware of this story of the charismatic, large-hearted Pathan peddler who used to make an annual journey to sell dry fruit on the streets of Kolkata. Actually, it didn’t matter which state you grew up in, whether you attended an English-, Hindi-, or vernacular-medium school, “The Kabuliwala” was omnipresent in your syllabus.
In case you’ve forgotten, “The Kabuliwala” is a touching story about filial love; about the friendship between a fearsome-looking foreigner, and Mini, a little girl in Kolkata. Over time, the Kabuliwala becomes an important part of Mini’s world. But the message at its heart is about opening the doors of your houses and your perceptions, to let go of your prejudices and recognise the essential humanity of people.
Relatives would comment on my beard, saying “Mussalman ke tarah kyun daadhi bana ke rakhi hai?”
In my little Jesuit school bubble, I couldn’t fathom the world working any differently. I held fast to the conviction that the world was a benign place where the Kabuliwala could visit a foreign city and be greeted with a smile. But growing up is a process of painfully shedding one naïve, wide-eyed misconception after another.
Without realising that the fractures of identity cannot be healed by a story, I stuck to my guns even after my first brushes with bigotry. I once gifted my uncle a lovely shirt. It fit right and looked smart, but it had one crucial flaw – it was green. My uncle shook his head. “I can’t wear this,” he said, “It’s their colour.”
There’s no doubt who my uncle was talking about. Staying a stone’s throw away from Mumbai’s Mohammed Ali Road, a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, he didn’t want to wear a shirt the same shade as the green flags that adorned the streets in the area. As I grew older, I noticed other signs. Relatives would comment on my beard, saying “Mussalman ke tarah kyun daadhi bana ke rakhi hai?”
This was the moment I grew out of a grade-school textbook. Were the Kabuliwala to visit Mumbai today, none of us would be friends with him.
Today I’ve reconciled to the fact that “The Kabuliwala” is probably nothing more than a quaint little timepiece that stopped working a long time ago. In the world that we occupy today, the plot of Harry Potter seems less far-fetched than that of “The Kabuliwala”. The notion of an outsider being welcomed by a community without any prejudice is less likely to occur than a Quidditch match.
As I exchanged my textbooks for newspapers, I played a mental game of placing the Kabuliwala in different situations around the world. In post-Brexit UK, racists would shower him with insults and threats on the subway as they do any brown-skinned or hijab-wearing passengers. Closer home, people on the Delhi metro might shuffle away from him. If any other Afghan national were to fall afoul of the law, we’d gather around to beat him up, just the way we’ve tried to lynch anyone from Africa.
In fact, I’ve come up with what I call the “Kabuliwala Pop-Quiz” for you to use and discover exactly how xenophobic your neighbourhood is. Go and ask the uncle and aunty next door what they’d think if an African student made friends with their child. If the answer falls anywhere between “He is selling drugs to them,” to “He is going to eat them like a cannibal,” then you know you live in a non-Kabuliwala neighbourhood.
The one thing that the Kabuliwala would hear incessantly today, no matter what part of the world he goes to, would be, “Go back to where you came from.” In Trump’s America, he’d be picked up for “random checking” at JFK, or chased down the street by members of the Alt-Reich – that is, if he can get past the immigration ban. In Australia, he’d see the government’s propaganda videos to scare off asylum-seekers. In every newspaper, he’d see the photo of a dead refugee child lying face-down in the surf on a European beach and probably weep for the apathy we reserve for anyone bearing a different skin colour.
A real-world retelling of “The Kabuliwala” would probably miss out on all the heart-warming moments of human connection, and retain all of its simmering suspicion. So, thanks for the memories and the childish optimism, Tagore da.
The story ends with the Kabuliwala finally leaving Kolkata with a heart full of sorrow and a head full of doubts. In my mind’s eye, I can picture him trudging away in his Pashtun salwar-kameez. Only this time, he’s not just leaving Kolkata, but a world that has no place for him anymore.