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Tagore's Kabuliwala

The territories that make-up the modern state of Afghanistan have enjoyed for centuries deep connections to the Indian subcontinent. Buddhism travelled to Afghanistan and contributed in the emergence of the Gandhara art during the Kushan dynasty of Kandahar. The Muslim rule of Delhi (North India) and subsequently the whole of India occurred through the Turk Afghans, Pathans and then the Mughals – all originating from Afghanistan. While the societies of these two lands connected through various networks that transported goods, people and ideas, there is no recorded history of the cultural exchanges between Afghans and Indians in modern times or since the middle of the nineteenth century.

 

Rabindranath Tagore brought one such network to popular attention in his celebrated short story. Kabuliwala is possibly the most well-known tale by Tagore, Asia’s first Nobel laureate in literature. The story was published in 1892 and it instantly struck a chord with readers. The charm and beauty of this tale lies in the deep friendship between a middle aged hefty Afghan dry-fruit peddler and Mini, the five-year-old girl from a middle class Bengali family. The warmth of their bond has transcended language, age and culture.

The story behind the tale

Till date, there’s been no written trace of how Tagore composed this powerful story of universal connection across cultures. Intriguingly, however, we heard the backstory of Kabuliwala from a relative of one of Tagore’s students, Syed Mujtaba Ali. Ali, a student of Shantiniketan – the university founded by Tagore – apparently heard it from the noble laureate himself.

Photo credit: Chitpore Road Calcutta, by Simpson William. 1867

One day, Tagore was walking down Chitpur Road - Kolkata’s earliest thoroughfare - on which his family house was located. His attention drew to the sight of a hefty man in a strange dress sitting by the roadside talking with a little Bengali girl. Their incessant conversation in two languages aroused his curiosity. He interacted with the man to find out that he was a dry-fruit peddler from Afghanistan who had left behind his daughter, same age as the little Bengali girl, back at home. The Bengali girl reminded him of his own daughter; hence he felt comforted talking to her. This incident was the seed of the Kabuliwala story according to Syed Mujtaba Ali.

An Irish teacher and social activist, Margaret Noble, who became known as Sister Nivedita after becoming a Hindu nun, translated the first English version of the story in 1910. The story was published in the January 1911 issue of the well-known monthly journal of the time, The Modern Review, edited by the renowned editor Ramananda Chattopadhyay. While publishing the story, Chattopadhyay requested one of the leading painters of early twentieth century and a disciple of Tagore, Nandalal Bose to illustrate it.

 

Over a century later, Kabuliwala has taken a life of its own with translations in dozens of languages around the world, including theatrical and cinematic adaptations (in Bengali in 1959 and in Hindi in 1962). The story has been staged and adapted for television as well.

Photo credit: Kabuliwala by Nandalal Bose. 1912

Did you grow up having a Kabuliwala visit your neighbourhood? Do you have any stories to share? We'd love to hear from you!