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Kabuliwala

  • Published at 05:06 pm May 11th, 2021
Rabindranath Tagore
A portrait of Rabindranath Tagore by Jamini Roy

Bengali classics in translation

(Translated by Shawkat Hussain)

My five-year-old daughter Mini talks non-stop. She learned to talk when she was only one, and since she learned talking, she doesn't waste a single moment of her waking hours in silence. Her mother sometimes forces her to shut up, but I cannot do that. It seems so unnatural when Mini is silent that I often find that unbearable. This is why the two of us often spend much time conversing with one another.

In the morning, I had just started writing the seventeenth chapter of my novel, when Mini entered my study and started talking, "Baba, Ramdoyal calls a kakkauwa”. He doesn't know anything."

Before I could tell her about the different languages and dialects in the world, she moved on, "You know Baba, Bhola says it rains because elephants shower the earth with water using their long trunks. That's not true Baba. He's always making up stories."

Without waiting for an answer to this, she said again, "Baba, how are you related to Ma?"

Your mother is my sister-in-law, I said to myself. To Mini, I said, "Now go and play with Bhola. I have some work to do." 

Instead, Mini knelt down beside my desk and started reciting nursery rhymes from memory. In the seventeenth chapter of my novel, my character Pratap Singh was getting ready to jump from the high wall of the prison in the dark night with his beloved Kanchanmala into the river below.

My study was beside the road. Suddenly, reciting some nonsense rhymes, Mini ran towards the window and called out, "Kabuliwala, O Kabuliwala."

Wearing a loose shalwar and kurta, a turban on his head, a shoulder bag, and a few small boxes of grapes in his hand, a tall Kabuliwala was walking slowly along the road. It's difficult to say what she thought when she saw him, but little Mini started calling him at the top of her voice. I felt that an unwanted guest with a shoulder bag was about to make his presence, and my seventeenth chapter would remain unfinished.

As soon as the Kabuliwala started walking towards the house after hearing Mini's call, Mini herself disappeared inside the house. Mini was convinced that if one searched inside the shoulder bag, one or two little children like her could be found.

In the meantime, the Kabuliwala came to the door of the house. I felt that although Pratap Singh and Kanchanmala were in an extremely critical situation, it would be improper of me not to invite him in and buy something from him.

I bought a few things, and we talked a little. Abdur Rahman talked about the principles of border protection against the Russians and the English.

As he stood up to leave, he said, in broken Bangla, "Babu, where is your daughter?"

I wanted to dispel Mini's irrational fear of the Kabuliwala, so I called her from inside the house. She came and stood close to me, and cast suspicious glances at the Kabuliwala's face and bag. The Kabuliwala took out raisins and apricot from the bag and gave them to Mini, but she refused to take them. Instead, she became even more suspicious, and held me tightly around my knees. This was how their first encounter went.

A few days later, when I was going out for a walk in the morning, I saw my daughter sitting on a bench outside the door and talking endlessly, while the Kabuliwala was sitting at her feet and listening to her with a smiling face, and sometimes responding to her in his own broken Bangla. In her five years of life Mini had never had such a patient listener, except for her own father. I noticed that her tiny aanchal was full of nuts and raisins. I told the Kabuliwala, "Why did you give her all those dried fruits? Don't do it anymore." Saying that, I gave him a fifty paisa coin which he accepted without any hesitation and put it in his bag.

When I returned, I saw that quite a drama was playing out inside the house centring on the fifty paisa coin.

Mini's mother was scolding her about the shining, round silver coin that she was playing with. "Where did you find this coin," she asked Mini.

Mini replied, "The Kabuliwala gave it to me."

Mini's mother questioned her, "Why did you take it from the Kabuliwala?"

Mini was about to cry, she said, "I didn't ask for it. He gave on his own."

I intervened and saved Mini from further danger. I came to know that this was not the second encounter between the Kabuliwala and Mini. I was informed that Kabuliwala came almost every day and with bribes of pistachios and nuts he had secured a place for himself in Mini's small but greedy heart.

I came to understand that the two exchanged a few set phrases and jokes every time they met. For example, as soon as my daughter would meet him, she would ask, "Kabuliwala, O Kabuliwala, what do you have in your bag?"

Rahmat would invariably smile at her question and reply with an unnecessarily nasalised intonation, "Haati," he would say, an elephant.

That he had an elephant in the bag was the meaning of his subtle joke. It can't be considered to be a great joke, but the two of them would laugh loudly at this exchange, and on an autumn morning my heart too would fill up with joy at seeing this exchange between an adult and a mere five-year-old child.

There was another set exchange between them. The Kabuliwala would ask her, "Won't you go to your father-in-law’s house, your shoshurbari?"

Bengali women usually become familiar with shoshurbari from their birth, but since we fancied ourselves to be a little modern, Mini still didn't know the significance of this word, and did not understand Rahmat's question. But it would be unnatural for her not to reply to a question, so she would retort, "What about you? Will you go to your shoshurbari?"

Rahmat would raise a massive fist towards an imaginary father-in-law and say, "I'll beat him up."

Mini would start laughing imagining the perils of an unfamiliar creature known as shoshur.


Illustration by Jahid Jamil

*

Now it was autumn, the time when kings in ancient times would venture forth to conquer new lands. I had never gone anywhere outside Kolkata, which is probably why my mind would wander to far-off places. I was like an eternal prisoner in my own room; my heart would become restless for the world outside. My mind would race to a distant land at the mention of a foreign country; if I happened to see a foreigner, the image of a cottage somewhere in the midst of mountains and jungles and rivers would spring to my mind, and I'd begin to dream of a free and adventurous life.

On the other hand, I was generally so lethargic that the very thought of leaving the safe corner of my room would seem disastrous. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed talking to the Kabuliwala from the comfort of my small room every morning, without ever venturing abroad. We would talk about impenetrable, high mountains on either side, a narrow pass winding between, and a caravan of camels laden with goods lumbering through the rocky path. Traders and travellers, wearing colourful turbans, some on the back of camels, some on foot, would pass; some would carry spears, a few would have old-fashioned guns. The Kabuliwala would tell his stories in his grave voice and broken Bangla, while these images would parade past my eyes.

Mini's mother was a very nervous sort of a person. A loud noise outside on the street would lead her to think that all the drunks of the world were rushing towards our house. After living in this world full of thieves and robbers and drunks and snakes and tigers and malaria and scorpions and cockroaches for so long she still wasn't able to get rid of all her fears. 

She was not completely trustful of Rahmat Kabuliwala. She would request me often to keep an eye on him. If I tried to laugh away her fears and suspicions, she would ask me a few questions like, "Aren't there any instances of children being kidnapped? Don't the people of Afghanistan practice slavery? Is it impossible for such a big Kabuliwala to abduct a child?"

I had to admit that such actions were not impossible, but they were certainly unbelievable. Our capacity for trust is not the same, so my wife continued to have her suspicions. But because Rahmat had done nothing, I did not try to stop him from coming to our house.

Every year towards the middle of the month of Magh, Rahmat went back home to Kabul. At this time, he usually became busy collecting all money from his borrowers. He would go from house to house collecting his debts but he still made time for Mini. It would seem that there was some kind of a conspiratorial bond between the two. If he couldn't make it in the morning, he would come in the evening. Seeing that big man wearing his exotic, loose shalwar-kurta, sitting in the corner of a dark room, would no doubt give rise to a vague fear in one's mind. But when I would see Mini running towards him with a smile on her lips and crying, "Kabuliwala, O Kabuliwala," and these two people of different ages exchange their customary jokes, my entire heart would fill with joy.

One morning I was sitting in my study and correcting proof-sheets. The last two days had been bitterly cold. The rays of the morning sun warmed my feet below the table, and it felt very good. It was around eight in the morning. Most people who had gone out for a morning walk wearing caps and scarves wrapped around their necks had now returned home. Suddenly I heard some commotion in the street outside. 

When I looked outside, I saw Rahmat tied up with a rope and dragged by two guards, and followed by a posse of curious schoolboys. Rahmat's clothes were splattered with blood, and one of the guards carried a bloody dagger. I asked them about what happened.

Partly narrated by the guards and party by Rahmat himself, I learnt that one of my neighbours owed some money to Rahmat, and when the latter asked for the money, the man lied and said that he owed nothing. A scuffle ensued which eventually led to Rahmat stabbing the man with his dagger.

Rahmat was uttering some obscene words about the man when Mini came running out of the house crying, "Kabuliwala, O Kabuliwala."

Rahmat's face immediately lit up with pleasure. He didn't have his shoulder bag with him so the usual exchange between the two didn't take place. Mini just asked him, "Are you going to your shoshurbari?"

Rahmat laughed and said, "That's where I'm going? 

Rahmat saw that his answer did not make Mini happy, so he pointed to his hands and said, "I would have beaten my shoshur, but look, my hands are tied." 

Rahmat's crime led to imprisonment for a few years. 

We gradually forgot all about him. Spending our days at home doing the usual things we did not think at all about how a free person from the mountains spent his days within the high walls of a prison.

And I have to admit that Mini's behaviour, too, was extremely selfish. She forgot her friend Rahmat quite easily and made many new friends with girls of her own age. She stopped coming to my study, and in a way, I too felt somewhat abandoned by her.

*


Also Read: 'The gift of a garland' : A short story by Rabindranath Tagore


Several years passed, and another autumn arrived. Mini's marriage had been arranged during the puja holidays. She who had lit up my house with her laughter and her presence would leave for her husband's house soon. 

It was an exceedingly beautiful morning. After the monsoon rains, everything was drenched in a soft golden light. Even in the narrow alleys of Kolkata, the mellow glow of the autumn sun appeared magical. The plaintive notes of the shehnai playing since the previous night pierced my heart. The melancholy notes of Raga Bhairavi mingled with the soft autumn sun and reminded me of my impending separation from my daughter. Mini was getting married today. 

It was hectic from the morning, with lots of people coming and going. Festoons were being hung in all the rooms and the verandah of the house; there was noise and commotion all around. 

I was sitting in my study, looking at my accounts, when Rahmat came and stood behind me.  

At first, I didn't recognise him for he did not have his bag, his long hair, or that liveliness that was once a part of his nature. When I saw his smile, I finally recognised him.  

I said, "Rahmat? So you are back?" 

He said, "I got released from jail yesterday." 

As soon as I heard him, I felt a kind of fear inside. I had never seen a murderer before, and here was one standing before me. I cringed inwardly. I began to feel that on this auspicious day I did not want his presence in the house. 

I told him, "There is something going on in the house today. I'm kind of busy. Why don't you come another day?"

As soon as he heard me, he immediately got up to leave. When he was near the door, he hesitated a bit and said, "Can I just see Khuki once?"

He probably thought that Mini was just the way she used to be. He probably believed that Mini would come rushing out, just as she used to, crying, "Kabuliwala, O Kabuliwala," and then the two of them would exchange their usual laughing banter. In fact, the Kabuliwala had with him a box of grapes and some raisins wrapped in paper which he probably procured from another Kabuli friend of his—he did not have his shoulder bag. 

I told him, "There is work going on in the house today. You can't see anyone today." 

He seemed hurt. He stood silently by the door and looked at my face for a while. Then he said, "Salam, Babu" and turned towards the door and stepped outside.

I felt an ache inside and I thought of calling him back when I saw that Kabuliwala was coming back himself. 

He came near me and said, "I brought some grapes and some raisins for Khuki. Please give them to her."

I took them and was about to pay him when he clasped my hand and said, "You are very generous Babu, I'll remember you all my life. Do not pay me for this. Like you, I too have a daughter like Khuki in Kabul. Your daughter reminds me of mine, so I bring these little gifts for her. I do not come here for trade."

Saying this, he searched for something inside his large, loose kurta, and brought out a dirty, folded piece of paper. He carefully unfolded the paper and lay it on the table before me. 

The paper carried the faint image of a tiny hand. It was not a photo; it was just the faint imprint of a palm made after it was rubbed with wheat-dust. Carrying this image of his daughter near his heart, the Kabuliwala roamed the streets of Kolkata every year to sell his exotic nuts and raisins. It was as if that tiny, faint image of his daughter's palm somehow made his separation more bearable.

My eyes teared up when I saw it. I forgot that he was a Kabuli trader, and that I was a respectable, well-off Bengali. I realised that we were both the same; we were both fathers. The image of his daughter living somewhere in the mountains of Kabul, reminded me of my own Mini. I sent someone to bring Mini to me. There was much resistance from inside, but I was adamant. Wearing a red taffeta dress and sandalwood paste on her forehead, Mini was dressed like a bride—she came and stood shyly beside me.

At first, the Kabuliwala was startled to see her, and was unable to resume their usual conversation. Then he laughed and said, "Khuki, are you going to your shoshurbari?"

Mini now knew what the word meant; she was not able to give her usual reply. Instead, she turned her face away with shyness. I remembered the first day when Mini met the Kabuliwala and my heart filled up with sadness.

After Mini went back inside, the Kabuliwala sighed deeply and sat down on the floor. He suddenly realised that his own daughter must also have grown up, and he would have to start talking to her in new ways. The little girl he had known was forever gone. Who knows what had happened to her in these eight years. In the morning, the notes of the shehnai mingled with the soft light of the autumn sun. Sitting in an alley in Kolkata, the Kabuliwala thought of his home in the desert mountains of Afghanistan. 

I gave a hundred-rupee note to Rahmat. I said, "Rahmat, go back to your daughter in Kabul. May your reunion bring luck for my Mini."

I had to cut down a few expenses for Mini's wedding. I could not have as many electric lights as I had wanted, and I also had to cut down on some musical arrangements. The women inside expressed their dissatisfaction strongly, but the happy occasion was lit up with a different kind of glow because of all the blessings that showered on Mini.

 


Professor Shawkat Hussain did his MA in English Literature from the University of Dhaka in 1972. He taught there for more than 40 years, was the Chairman of the English Department and retired in 2014. He has a PhD from Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. He is a writer and translator.

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