This 19th century news could help fight racism against refugees today
KOLKATA, India – When Ahmed Khan fled his native Afghanistan to India three years ago, he left behind the constant din of rocket fire and a desperate search for work in a failing economy. He also acquired a new nickname: “Kabuliwala”.
“Kabuliwala” refers to someone from the Afghan capital of Kabul in Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu – some of the languages spoken in Khan’s New Town, formerly known as Calcutta. The city was the colonial capital of India and a long-standing trading center and remains one of the most diverse places on the subcontinent, having absorbed migrants from all over South Asia and the world for centuries.
“There was no work in Afghanistan. I did not receive any specific threat to my life, but there was constant fighting between the Americans and the Taliban,” he told NPR while he was sitting in a friend’s textile store in a busy market area. Khan has since obtained United Nations refugee status and a job selling dried fruit. As of mid-August, around 18,000 Afghan refugees documented as Khan were living in India, experts said, often under uncertain circumstances.
What Khan didn’t know before settling here was that the life story of another Kabuliwala was already well known to many Indians, even those who had never met an Afghan in person. In fact, it is compulsory reading in many Indian schools.
“The Kabuliwala” is a fictional short story by one of India’s most beloved writers, Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote it in the 19th century and based its main character, an Afghan migrant, on Kabuliwalas he saw in his own alley in Calcutta.
The story helped fight prejudice against migrants and refugees during Tagore’s time, according to historians and academics. And it’s more and more relevant now, they say, with Afghan refugees once again in the news, Islamophobia on the rise in India and much of the world, and discrimination against immigrants everywhere. .
This is the fictional story of an immigrant father forced to leave his daughter behind.
The narrator of the story is a father who one day peeks out of a Calcutta window to see his 5-year-old daughter playing in the streets with a bearded and scruffy Afghan hawker – a Kabuliwala. The father grinds his teeth.
With his hollow expression and soiled clothes, the Afghan looks a little threatening. He walks the streets selling dried fruits in the pockets of his bulky coat. Locals joke that he could kidnap children and hide them in the folds of his robe.
He wore the loose and dirty clothes of his people, with a large turban, he had a bag on his back and he carried crates of grapes in his hand. … When [the girl] Seeing this, overcome by terror, she fled under the protection of her mother and disappeared. She blindly believed that inside the bag the big man was carrying there were maybe two or three other children like her.
But Mini, 5, quickly becomes more confident. She forms a playful friendship with the Kabuliwala, whose name is Rahmat. They laugh together at puns. Her face lights up around her.
Later, the Kabuliwala is embroiled in a feud over money in the neighborhood and is sent to jail. Mini grows up and she and her father, the narrator, forget about the Afghani who was once a staple on their street.
At the end of the story, on Mini’s wedding day, the Kabuliwala returns. He is older, even more scruffy and still poor. Again, the narrator is annoyed. It’s not lucky that this poor man shows up on his daughter’s wedding day.
“The refugee symbolizes chaos, anarchy. In our safe lives, they are a reminder of chaos, despair, disruption in other countries,” says Suketu Mehta, an author who read “The Kabuliwala” while ‘he was a teenager at school. in India, then emigrated to the United States and wrote his own books on the immigrant experience. “We just don’t want them in our homes, especially on our daughter’s wedding day.”
But then comes the climax of the story: the Kabuliwala pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. On her is a sooty handprint of her own daughter in Afghanistan. He wore it in his chest pocket for years.
He is also a father. His friendship with Mini grew out of a longing for his own little girl, whom he was forced to leave behind and who he misses so much. He had gone to India throughout his childhood.
“I first read the story when I was a teenager, and now I’m a father – and that’s all the more moving,” Mehta says.
The narrator is ashamed of having judged the Kabuliwala unfairly. He now recognizes him as another father who loves his daughter and has had to deal with the pain of being separated from her. This realization comes on the same day the narrator prepares to be separated from Mini as she marries and moves in with her in-laws.
“I think the whole world should read this story! Anyone who deals with refugees. We now have some 300 million people living in a country other than the one in which they were born,” Mehta said. “The global Afghan diaspora, there is a lot of resistance [around the world] for them. Tagore would have been ashamed. “
Tagore’s story changed attitudes towards migrants in 19th century India – and could help do so again today
First published in Bengali in 1892, “Le Kabuliwala” made Tagore famous. There have been many film adaptations of the story in Bengali, Hindi, and English. Tagore became the first non-white person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1913.
He was also a poet and composer: he wrote compositions which, after his death, would eventually be adopted as the national anthems of two countries, India and Bangladesh.
“It is our sky! Tagore, for us, is not only the poet-philosopher”, explains Baisakhi Mitra, curator of the Tagore museum in the ancestral home of the late author. “The moment a Bengali child realizes, I think the first great figure he meets is Tagore. And of course [Mahatma] Gandhi is here! But he comes later. “
Mitra says that “The Kabuliwala” helped change Indian attitudes towards migrants and refugees, especially Afghans, during Tagore’s lifetime. In the years before he made history, the Afghans had fled to India to escape the British and Russian fighting in their country.
“Real-life Kabuliwalas were greatly feared [in 19th century India]. But here in this story we see a Kabuliwala who is also a father, “says Mitra.” The concept is universal fatherhood. “
She remembers an episode from her own childhood when a Kabuliwala approached her and her mother at a train station in Calcutta.
“I remember my mother telling me that at the station, a Kabuliwala came to pick me up when I was very young. Usually my mother would have been very scared, but she remembered this story and she was alert but not scared, ”recalls Mitra. “So I think so, it has done a lot of good for the Bengali psyche.”
Mehta, the American Indian author, says “The Kabuliwala” captures the immigrant experience like no other story. It should be compulsory reading in schools around the world, he believes – especially now, with constant headlines on xenophobia, racism and the scenes of desperation at Kabul airport in August.
“Whether it’s Americans scared of Mexicans or Indians scared of Afghans or Germans scared of Syrian migrants, everyone should read it, because that’s what great literature does,” Mehta says. . “It reminds you that the person who comes to your country, carrying a memento, a handprint of his or her child, is a parent as you could be a parent – is a human being like you are a human being.”
Two Kabuliwala, centuries apart, experience the same pain of leaving their children behind
Much like the Kabuliwala in Tagore’s story, Ahmed Khan traveled to India on his own, hoping to earn a better living. He also sells dried fruits. And it turns out that he settled in Tagore’s hometown – although he didn’t know it as such.
He also has a little girl he left behind in Afghanistan and who he misses dearly. Her name is Sayema. She is 5 years old, just like Mini in the story.
“She talks a lot! And plays with toys,” Khan recalls, smiling as he sat cross-legged on the floor of his friend’s textile store. “She used to say, ‘I’ll be a doctor when I grow up. I want to prescribe drugs to patients.'”
Khan often exchanges WhatsApp messages with his wife in Kabul. He hopes to bring him and his daughter to India soon. For now, he gets nostalgic when he sees Indian children in his new town.
“They remind me of my own daughter,” he says.
Khan had never heard of Tagore or his 19th century Kabuliwala before NPR told him about it, but he says he would like to read the story now. Perhaps, he muses, the Indian familiarity with her – and her theme of compassion for strangers – made it easier for him. The local community of Calcutta welcomed him. He learned to speak Hindi.
And despite the rise of Islamophobia in India and much of the world, Khan says he personally didn’t feel it – at least not in this city, where Tagore is loved and where almost everyone has read. his story of Kabuliwala.
NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this Kolkata story.