To inaugurate the new course of our Chat Mat column, here we resume our old series aimed at unearthing precious Afghan gems from the stockpile of world literature. Having presented some Victorian pearls earlier in the series, it is time to move to closer quarters, to India and to what was arguably its most anglicised part: Late Nineteenth Century Bengal. Fresh from a recent train ride through the lush alluvial plains of Bengal and Assam, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini explores the region’s age-old relations with barren, mountainous Afghanistan, expounded in three literary treats.
The first jewel comes not on the scale of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, but as more of a precious nugget – The Kabuliwala, also known asThe Fruit-seller from Kabul (1), one of Rabindranath Tagore’s most famous short stories.
In a few pages, the Bengali genius manages to carve a beautifully melancholic portrait of his own family life and that of a streetwise yet sensible giant of a man: the Afghan pedlar who gives the story its name. The friendship struck up between the tall, tough and turbaned Afghan and the writer’s chirpy little daughter establishes itself with immediate success in the mind of the reader – as the author/narrator admits ‘has in it…something strangely fascinating’.
The treatment of the kabuliwala’s character by the author is striking in not being based on exotic stereotypes. Oriental reveries of camels and caravans are concentrated in the author/narrator’s own escapist fancies made from his studio in Calcutta, and abruptly interrupted by a specular, but more earthly, set of stereotypes: Fears of kidnapping and slavery at the hands of the street-seller expounded by the hyper-protective little girl’s mother.
The reality of the kabuliwala’s life instead is one of longing for a distant family and debts to be collected – but one which eventually leads him to the occasional, damning outburst of violence. The kabuliwala’s humanity finally impresses itself even upon the narrator, as he realises that before him stands just another father figure. This triumph of humanism over romanticism, with an Afghan at centre stage, is even more striking given that the short story was written in 1892. That was a time in which the lack of access to Afghanistan, compared to the opening up of most of the globe to travellers, together with its considerable claims to ‘wilderness’, made highly-dramatised representations of the country and its inhabitants literary topoi.
Since then, Tagore’s kabuliwala has proudly walked out of jail and into the textbooks of Indian schoolchildren for decades. The story, together with its three cinematographic (1957,1961,1993) and several stage versions, has however contributed to shape a romantic imagery of Afghans in more than just Bengal. Characteristics like moral integrity and big-heartedness established themselves as standard Afghan attributes – soothing an already earned and ambiguous reputation for violence – in future literary and, especially, cinematographic representations throughout India (2).
In Tagore’s time, real kabuliwalas were a common sight in the streets of Calcutta, as in those of most cities of north and central India. They were not necessarily from Kabul, and in fact more often they were Kuchis (Afghan nomads were at that time known more as Powindas, especially in India). Many of these would seasonally cross the border with their kinship group heading for the mild weather of the Indus plain. Then, leaving family and flocks in the winter camps, men would move on into India for some months, to carry out some trade before returning to the Afghan highlands in spring. But of course there were also more specialised merchants who, like Rabi’s kabuliwala, spent almost the whole year in the Subcontinent. Items of their trade were Afghan products like horses and dried fruits or luxury clothes they picked up from Kashmir or Rohilkhand (the Rampuri shawl mentioned by Tagore) – places were Afghans had been trading or settling down for centuries already. They then proceeded to commercialise these further inside India, and in exchange brought back to Afghanistan industrial manufactures not available there.
Paradoxically, it was the British authorities who facilitated this trade enormously by creating a capillary network of railways throughout India. In the early Twentieth century, Afghan merchants would start to appear in increasing numbers as far as Madras, before political blockades against trans-border nomadism and agreements favouring large scale trade with Afghanistan gradually reduced their activities.
It was when I recently took the long train ride from Calcutta to Assam’s major city of Guwahati – always a capital time for reading books – that I came to know about a modern version of the kabuliwalas. It did not come as a complete surprise. Bengal, both West Bengal and Bangladesh, and the surrounding states of northeastern India, are full of Afghan reminiscences. From neighbouring Bihar, and indeed with the conquest of Bengal in 1538, the Afghan chieftain Sher Shah Suri began his astonishing career which would break the rule of the Mughals in India for fifteen years. Even after the restoration of the Mughal empire in 1555-56, these eastern regions remained the bastion of Afghan resiliency, or open resistance, to the imperial power of Agra. Afghan kings continued to rule Bengal, and even managed to annex Orissa shortly before having to acknowledge Akbar’s sovereignty in 1576. But old habits never die, and they soon rebelled again: It took the Mughals another forty years of tough warfare and periodic setbacks to completely subdue the Afghan gentry entrenched in the eastern Bengal lowlands (3).
It is one of the Afghan die-hards of this era who has been immortalised in another Bengali literary masterpiece, actually the first novel ever written in that language: Durgeshnandini (4). Although the undisputed hero of Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s novel is a Rajput in the service of the Mughals, the commander of the Afghan army and his rival in both love and war, Usman Khan, receives the best role a foe could aspire to. His character and actions are depicted so tactfully, that at the end of the book, when Usman rides away sternly, having been denied both love and vengeance, we cannot but feel sorry for him.
Leaving Usman Khan unaware of his historical fate – the death of an old warrior against the hated Mughals as late as 1612 – I proceeded in my readings and further East into Assam. Sometime before 1565, the Afghan general Kala Pahar had gone as far as sacking Kamrup, the western part of Assam, where the train now brought me. Still, I had no clue that Afghan links with this second Frontier of India could be deeper than that obscure episode.
By the early Twentieth century, some kabuliwalas had already begun to engage in money-lending among the cash-thirsty rural villagers of Bengal, and eventually made Calcutta their operational base and settled there (5). And as I was sitting in the crowded Kamrup Express and reading a short novel from the leading Assamese contemporary writer Indira Goswami,Parasu’s Well, I was delighted when a Pathan moneylender made his literary appearance in the easternmost corner of Assam.
The character, Rahman Baba, possibly a great-grandson of Tagore’s Rahmun, crosses the whole novel as a dark shadow. In a bleakly violent and corrupt Assam he moves around on his bicycle followed by his Pathan henchmen, an ominous vision to the dejected protagonist who is, from the very first pages, clearly unable to repay his loan. But right in the final climax, when one could expect Rahman to act pragmatically in line with his role, he turns out to be more than an iconic mask with henna-dyed beard and hair. In a memorable turn of events, he actually ends up being the only character in the novel to act sympathetically in a non-ambiguous way.
Well, I told myself, getting down the train in a smoggish Guwahati, we’ve gone too far now. Pathans just happen to be an adventurous lot of entrepreneurs willing to take some risks in their activities, and thus they flocked where business is plenty and competition scant. In this remote and wild frontier riddled with tribal-cum-separatist insurgent groups, they have more chances to recover their credit than ordinary moneylenders would. But they must all be Indians by now, people who have lived here for generations and have arguably less to do with Afghanistan than me.
We had come to the end of our journey, and after a difficult search – nearby Kamakhya temple keeps the city hotels full year-round – we finally managed to find a room. As I entered the hotel reception, however, I stumbled into a tall, turbaned figure clad in Afghan clothes. If I had wondered if members of the local Pathan community were still dressing in a distinctive fashion in their Indian home, my question was abruptly answered when a second man with familiar features and attire joined and was greeted with ‘Pa kheir raghle, Haji Saheb!’ Even with my poor understanding of Pashto, I could clearly hear the two Afghans discussing business in what sounded Kandahari accent for a few minutes. Unfortunately, by the time I had finished my check-in and turned to them, the two kabuliwalas had disappeared in the fogs of the Northeastern Frontier.
(1) You can find the whole text here or here (the Lost Flaneur blogspot also gives the link for the 1957 Bollywood version on Youtube).
(2) Representations of ‘Pathans’ – that is descendants of Afghans settled in the Subcontinent – Afghans and Afghanistan by Bollywood will indeed be the subject of a future blog.
(3) Interestingly, this epoch of often joint Hindu/Afghan zamindar struggle against Mughal central power has passed into Bengal’s folklore as that of the legendary Baro Bhuyan (the Twelve Lords – sometimes also Bhara, ‘Great’ Lords), quite a few of whom, like the famous Isa Khan, were in fact historical Afghan leaders.
(4) A romantic-heroic novel much as that mocked at by Tagore in the Kabuliwala, it was written between 1864-65. The title is to me a clear homage to Pushkin’s classic the Captain’s Daughter (it has the same meaning), of which it shares some features: The protagonist falls in love with the daughter of a garrison’s captain, is captured when the enemies conquer the castle, but by virtue of the enemy’s sense of honour/affection is eventually freed and reunited with his beloved. Only, the female characters play in it a much more important role than in Pushkin’s tale.
(5) In a funny reversal of roles and poles, for until well into the Twentieth Century, the only money-lenders in most of the Northwestern Frontier of British India, and indeed in many parts of Afghanistan, have been Hindus and Sikhs.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020