The man from Kabul – straight from the heart
Because Kabul is in the news every day for a while now, my partner asked me if I know or knew any Afgans. I don’t know any, but Afgans have crossed my path as one did only this year. I was determined to buy a Kilim, and went to a mela – a craft fair in the southern city of Bengaluru. And sure enough he was there, a trader who patiently spread one Kilim after another for me, and let me take my time about choosing one that I subsequently brought back to the Netherlands and spread in the living room. I remember that I had forgotten to bargain, and handed him a wad of notes, and he appeared to be happy about that.
There is one more Afgan who has crossed my path, and he is the one in Tagore’s narrative, ‘Kabuliwallah’. Translated this word means, ‘ the man from Kabul.’ It’s a story from my childhood, fairly vivid in my memory. I searched and found films and summaries of it online. I hope blasting culture in the digital world will be harder than in real life for the Taliban.
The story is set in the Western city of Calcutta and told through the eyes of a writer, who is middle class and educated, and sees the Kabuliwallah through this lens. The latter is a merchant who sells dry fruits and nuts from door to door. He befriends the child Mini, the highly curious and precocious daughter of the writer/narrator. The self declared ‘progressive’ narrator is surprised when the Kabuliwallah asks Mini when she is going to her father-in-law’s. Progressives don’t discuss fathers-in-law with young children, he writes. Shortly afterwards, the Kabuliwallah is arrested for stabbing a client after an altercation about money owed to him. Years later, he arrives at the writer’s door asking to see Mini. It is her wedding day and so the writer tries to fob him off, but relents after the Kabuliwallah offers dried fruits and nuts for Mini. He pulls out a piece of paper with the hand print of his daughter in faraway Kabul, who he misses, and tells the writer that like Mini, she is about to go to her father in law’s. The writer, moved places a wad of notes (just like I did!) into the Kabuliwallah’s hand and tells him to go back to Kabul, to his daughter, to see her get married. This means that Mini’s wedding is less lavish, but the writer has come to the realisation that he shares something very closely with the Kabuliwallah – and this is fatherhood.
As a child, the narrative had the effect on me that I think Tagore intended it to have, which is what the ending communicates: that these two individuals with very different personalities, cultures and backgrounds share this common human experience of fatherhood. But I’m an adult now. And thousands and thousands and thousands of gallons of water have flowed under the bridge. So when I read Kabuliwallah now, I look at it from another perspective. I think …oops.. there we go again. The man of Islamic background is the one who inflicts violence. The one who is ready to stab because he didn’t get paid for nuts and raisins. The man of Hindu origin is ‘progressive’. The former acts (or reacts??) from the heart, and shows the ‘progressive’ intellectual how to use his. Can it possibly get more stereotypical than this?