The Kabuliwala

Today happens to be the anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, the first non-European to do so.

Short stories are my favourite form of writing, because unlike norvels, they are brisk read and do not demand a long commitment, delivering their point in the span of a few pages. I always love a good novel, but short stories are my go-to thing when looking for some quick relaxation in the midst of exams and the like. The short stories of Rabindranath Tagore, a literary polymath and Asia’s first Nobel Laureate, are among my favourites, and one his most celebrated short stories is “The Kabuliwala”.

Written in 1892, The Kabuliwala is a very sweet yet compelling tale about human connections, and focuses on the friendship between a five-year-old girl, Mini, a restless child and incessant chatterbox who is daughter of a well-to-do Bengali writer, and a “Kabuliwala” (literally meaning “from Kabul”), an older man with a massive figure, who is an Afghan dry-fruit seller (which, historically, were a key commodity sold by the Afghans in India). The Kabuliwala overcomes Mini’s initial terror at seeing him through a generous offer of nuts and raisins, and the two become great friends. They share many quaint jokes, which are a source of immense amusement both of them, as well as to Mini’s father, who is the narrator of this story.

Tagore writes with a lot of empathy and sensitivity which drives the story home. He shows a beautiful understanding of human feelings and relationships that touches the reader deeply. The Kabuliwala spends some time daily entertaining Mini and treating her to nuts and raisins for free, refusing any money Mini’s father offers as compensation for the dry-fruits. We learn that the reason he does so is because Mini reminds him of his own little daughter, who lives in far-away Afghanistan, whom he can meet only once a year when he returns.

Even as he writes with emotion and compassion, Tagore remains deeply grounded in the cruel realities of the world. We notice that Mini’s mother, unlike her father, is very suspicious of the Kabuliwala’s affection for Mini—which, no doubt, many modern readers will be too—and asks grave questions: “Were children never kidnapped?…” to remind us of the unkind realities of the world which is so full of crime and wrongdoing that even an innocent bond between a man and little child has to be viewed with suspicion. The author also paints a subtle but vivid portrait of poverty: the Kabuliwala, a father, is forced by poverty to leave his family in the mountains of Afghanistan and make a living in Calcutta, far from home.

The story becomes more serious as it progresses. Soon, it is that time of the year when the Kabuliwala returns to his country, and he goes around collecting money from his debtors before he departs. One of them refuses to repay, resulting in a physical quarrel, and the poverty-crazed Kabuliwala violently assaults his debtor. His subsequent sentencing to prison for a few years mercilessly cuts short his friendship with little Mini. As the years pass, Mini grows up to become a mature young lady, spending her time with others like herself, and forgetting her old friend completely…

The day of Mini’s wedding arrives, and suddenly that morning, her father notices a familiar figure at his threshold. At first our narrator wants to have nothing to do with him—after all, this was a man who has served time in prison, and it is his daughter’s wedding day—but gradually warms up to him when the Kabuliwala offers Mini’s father some dry-fruits for the “little one”, believing her to be the little girl he once knew. He shows her father a poignant keepsake: a worn-out piece of paper with the ink-print of the hand of his little daughter in the faraway mountains, which he keeps close to his heart always. The story reaches its pinnacle when Mini is brought out to meet the Kabuliwala, who is unable to recognize or reconcile with this grown woman that now stands before him, dressed in her wedding attire. The Kabuliwala then realises, with a shock that reaches even the readers, that his own daughter would also no longer be the child he once knew, and that when he returned, he would have to rebuild his relationship with her from scratch.

Lucidly written, heartfelt and profound, this story is one that has carved out a place for itself in my heart and the hearts of millions of others who have read it. It is a story I have returned to again and again, and will definitely recommend to anybody looking for a meaningful and thoughtful read.

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