It’s been 125 years since the publication of Rabindranath Tagore’s story, Kabuliwala, which was adapted into popular films in both Hindi and Bengali. But what is life in Kolkata like for the community today?
In an old neighbourhood of central Kolkata, where the buildings could do with a fresh coat of paint, residents readily point to a narrow alley leading to an old house when asked about the residence of the Kabuliwalas. A young man coming out of one of the two flats on the ground floor gestures towards the door next to his own house as the one where the Kabuliwalas live. On the wall beside the door to which he points is scribbled the word ‘Khan’. The door is opened by a man dressed in a Pathani suit. But he sullenly shakes his head when asked if he is a Kabuliwala or if there are other Kabuliwalas living in the flat. His flatmate is more vocal. “Go away. Don’t disturb. There are no Kabuliwalas here,” he shouts, speaking with a pronounced Afghani accent.
Long before Afghan refugees started coming to India in the 20th and 21st century to escape the Taliban oppression and war at home, in the 19th century came the Afghan businessmen, or Kabuliwalas as they were called in Bengal. Most came to sell Hing or dry fruits, or were moneylenders. Calcutta, the capital of colonial India, was a popular destination.
In 1892 was published Rabindranath Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala. “There is no record of exactly when the Kabuliwalas started coming to India. But the authority with which Tagore wrote of the Kabuliwala’s life indicates that there were Kabuliwalas in the city by the mid or late 19th century,” says writer-photographer Nazes Afroz, whose photo-project on Kolkata’s Kabuliwalas, done in association with Moska Najib, was exhibited in 2015. The story, feels retired bureaucrat and historian Jawhar Sircar made Kabuliwalas a popular figure in the Bengali psyche.
Dadgul Khan would agree. Dressed in a Pathani suit, his hena-dyed hair and beard are a flaming red Dadgul has spent 50 years in Kolkata since coming here in 1967 and even married a local. But he still speaks fluent Pashto and his Hindi is stilted. He also takes less time to tie the traditional Afghani turban, than it takes for an observer to form the words ‘wow’, and can easily be passed off as the protagonist of Tagore’s story. “Back then when I came, the locals were scared of us. They would run away if they saw a Kabuliwala approaching. Slowly, because of the film Kabuliwala, (Tagore’s story has been adapted on screen both in Hindi and Bengali) people started becoming friendly,” says Dadgul. Ironically now, 125 years after the publication of Tagore’s story, it is the Kabuliwalas who seem eager to avoid attention.
Holding on to tradition
At Shiraz, Zeeshan and Sabir’s, the restaurants in Kolkata frequented by the Kabuliwalas especially at breakfast time, the restaurant management point at tables occupied by Kabuliwalas – or Khans as they are more commonly addressed in the city now. But the Khans look with suspicion at anyone who asks them about their antecedent or tries to photograph. They are especially apprehensive of the media.
“Though called Kabuliwalas by the locals, the Khans in Kolkata identify themselves as Afghan-Pakhtoons and want the Pashtunistan region, presently part of Pakistan, to be separated from Pakistan and united with Afghanistan,” says Yasmin Nigar Khan, great granddaughter of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan and president of the All India Pakhtoon Jirga-e-Hind. The Paktoons meet often at Yasmin’s office to discuss the cause of Pashtunistan. Their native place, its language and culture are important even to the young generation, born and brought up in India. “The kids may spend the day with the locals, speak their language, whether Hindi, Bengali or English, but at home we teach them our history, our culture. We make them speak to relatives living in Afghanistan,” explains 42-year-old Musa Khan. Like many of the younger generation, Musa is dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, “but at home we all wear only Pathani suits. And we only speak Pashto among ourselves,” he says.
Musa has never been to Afghanistan, but his house in Kolkata’s Park Circus area is a quintessential Khan-Kothi – as the homes of the Kabuliwalas are referred to in Kolkata. There are over 150 Khan Kothis spread across the city – bachelor pads – where these Pathans live with others of their communities. While some Kabuliwalas now live with their families, it is still more common for a Kabuliwala to keep his family in the village, “mostly because the city is so expensive,” explains Musa, who lives with four other Kabuliwalas. The floors of his flat have wall to wall carpets and very little furniture. Cushions and pillows are piled along the walls. At one corner near the entrance cricket bats are piled, the television is tuned to ESPN. “The Khans love sports. If you come to the Maidan on Sundays you will see many Kabuliwalas playing cricket in their traditional attire,” says Musa. The Maidan is also where the Khans meet to celebrate Eid in the traditional Afghani way every year.
Dinner at the Khans is a traditional meal. The youngest person at the house comes in with a jug and a bowl into which each washes their hands. The Dastarkhwan is spread over the carpet and big rotis are put in front of each. Two huge bowls of gosht shorba are kept, into which the Kabuliwalas dip their roti. The meal ends with generous dollops of curd being added to the shorba, followed by green tea. “The food is cooked by Bihari and Bengali servants, many of whom have been employed with the Khans for generations. Some of them have even learnt to speak Pashtu,” says F Rehman, one of Musa’s flatmates.
Like most Kabuliwalas, Rehman is a moneylender by profession. He is a licensed one, though not all of them have a license. After Independence, as formal trade between the countries opened, the Kabuliwalas found their market for dry fruits and hing (asafoetida) shrinking. Many of them had always engaged in money-lending with an interest. Now, about 60-80 per cent of them have taken it up as a profession. “But it’s a profession none of us want to be in,” says Rehman, who has been a moneylender for 10-12 years. One reason for that is because earning a living on interest is considered “haram” in Islam, says Dadgul Khan who had been a moneylender for 25 years and only gave it up after going for Haj in 2012. The other reason is because an increasing number of them are getting cheated by their clients.
Stories of a Kabuliwala’s tenacity in following up with those who owe him money are popular – in fact, a nag or person of extreme tenacity is often termed a Kabuliwala in Bengal. But things have changed for the Kabuliwala. “The expansion of banks and ATMs didn’t affect the moneylenders that much, because even now not everyone in India has a bank account and no one gets a bank loan 24X7. What if there is an emergency in the middle of the night,” explains 36-year-old Gul Khan, also a moneylender. “If you come to a Kabuliwala even at 2 a.m., you will get money. But often now, those who have taken a loan from us don’t pay us the interest or return us the money,” he adds. “When the Kabuliwalas go their houses to demand payment, they complain to the police or political party workers, and the Kabuliwalas are the ones who end up getting harassed.”
As a result many have moved to other businesses. Those who manage to save enough get into real estate, like Dadgul Khan’s son. Others are in the textile business. Near Kolkata’s Nakhoda Masjid are garment shops owned by the Kabuliwalas. They sell intricately embroidered silks and velvets, fabrics for Pathani suits and turbans that are sometimes brought in from Afghanistan or Indian weaves that are taken from here to Kabul. “Benarasi silk is very popular in Afghanistan, especially for bridal wear,” says Yasmin. There are seven or eight garment shops belonging to the Kabuliwalas in the Nakhoda Masjid area. One of them is owned by Sher Khan. “The earning isn’t much, just enough to support the family,” says Khan, who is married with two children. His wife is an Afghani and he would like to take her there to meet her family, but he doesn’t have a passport.
Neither here, nor there
Many of the Kabuliwalas, even those born in India or living here for years, still don’t have Indian citizenship. Sometimes it’s just because of reluctance on their part to give up their Afghan identity, says Afroz; or else plain ignorance. Many of the Kabuliwalas, especially middle-aged ones, are not very educated and never got a birth certificate made. Many continue to live on long-stay permits. But even those with an Indian birth certificate and Aadhar card say it is difficult getting a passport. “The officers say ‘You are a Khan. You can’t have an Indian certificate’,” says Musa.
Mobile phones and social networking sites have made it easy to track long-lost relatives. “At one time there used to be a queue of Khans at phone booths in Dharamtala. Now there is a phone in every pocket,” says Dadgul Khan. Relatives visit, often for treatment, keeping alive their fragile tie to the country of their ancestors.
Few, if any, of Kolkata’s Kabuliwalas want to relocate to Afghanistan. They just want to visit, meet family members living there and may be, marry an Afghan girl. For all other purposes, this is home. As Gul Khan puts it: “Afghanistan is my ‘watan’, but India is my ‘mulk’. I can’t forget either.” And so local spices add their flavour to the Kabuliwala’s traditional cuisine, the carpets on their floors is no longer Afghani but bought from a shop in the city, the strains of the rabab and beats of Afghani dholak are often replaced by the electronic keyboards even as they sing their Pashto ballads and odd little words of Bangla and Hindi find their way into their conversations.