Roundabout | A whiff of Afghan Snow, the Kabuliwala’s call

Published on Aug 29, 2021 02:31 AM IST

Literature, art hold onto the thread of love even as the powers that be fight their wars in faraway countries, destroy the togetherness of those who have co-existed for centuries and trample on rights of women and children

Yesteryear star Devika Rani endorsing the cream Afghan Snow. (SOURCED IMAGES)
Yesteryear star Devika Rani endorsing the cream Afghan Snow. (SOURCED IMAGES)
ByNirupama Dutt

A round glass jar embossed with a pretty woman’s face and topped with a pink lid occupied a precious corner in mother’s cupboard along with a tiny blue bottle of ‘Evening In Paris’ and containers of kumkum. The rotund jar contained a magical cream, cheekily named Afghan Snow.

Suddenly, the forgotten cosmetic, hailed as India’s first cream when it made its way into the market in 1919, returned to memory with its gentle fragrance in times when fear looms large on the country that inspired its name. The Afghan Snow was a part of most Indian homes until the 70s. The brand had also sponsored early Miss India contests and leading yesteryear star Devika Rani lent her face for its promotion.

As the story goes, the Afghan king Mohammed Zahir Shah had visited united India in 1919 and a young Indian entrepreneur presented him a hamper of cosmetics, the pearly white cream included. He asked the king if he could name it Afghan Snow and permission was generously granted.

Indeed, snow in Afghanistan is a sight to behold. Actor Tisca Chopra, who spent a portion of her youth in Kabul, where her father was the principal of a school says one of her most vivid memories was waking up to four feet of snow on the hill that was home to them. She too expressed concern for the Afghan women and children with the US beating a hasty retreat leaving the country in ravage and fear.

Strange that remembrance and fragrance should return at a time when both Afghan Snow and Afghanistan that inspired its name are struggling for survival.

A poster of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala. (SOURCED IMAGE)
A poster of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala. (SOURCED IMAGE)

Growing up with Kabuliwala

Not just phantom perfumes, the chant ‘Kabuliwala aaya pista badam laaya’ also rings in the ears. It was in 1961, at the city’s lone Kiran Cinema that one made a new on-screen friend, a ‘Kabuliwala’ named Rehmat. One has never seen the like of him in the fledgling city of Chandigarh. One longed to go to Kolkata in the hope that one would find him there in his colourful clothes walking the streets, singing and dancing with children and giving them pistachios, almonds and raisins. At six, one envied little Mini who could befriend such a large-hearted soul who carried a bag brimming with goodies and could summon fairies, elves and animal friends from the forests by just swinging his magical stick.

Rabindranath Tagore’s classic Bangla story ‘Kabuliwala’, penned in 1892 when the subcontinent was a British colony explores human relationships. The prominent message, however, was that human relationships transcend differences in caste, creed, race, age and culture. In Bengal, every child grew up knowing this story as it was a prescribed text in schools. However, it was Bimal Roy’s film that brought the fascinating story to the children in north India and Pakistan. The story continues to thrall 129 years after it was written. The film was empathetically directed by Hemen Gupta, who was part of the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose, and includes a memorable music score by Hemant Kumar. Two of Hemant’s songs that transcend the test of time are Ae mere pyare watan and Ganga aaye kahan se.

A recent graffiti by Shamsia Hassani, one of the first street artists of Afghanistan photos. (SOURCED IMAGE)
A recent graffiti by Shamsia Hassani, one of the first street artists of Afghanistan photos. (SOURCED IMAGE)

Kumkum is doing fine

The sequel to Tagore’s Kabuliwala came from across the border by well-known Urdu writer Zahida Hina. She wrote the sequel, ‘Kumkum Theek-Thak Hai’ (Kumukum Is Doing Fine) after the 2001 US attack on Afghanistan, following 9/11. Now, who is Kumkum? Well, time has moved on and Mini of the Kabuliwala times is Kumkum’s grandmother. A doctor, she goes to Afghanistan as a volunteer and forms an empathetic bond with an injured Afghan militant.

Penned as a letter to her grandmother in Kolkata, it is the revival of kindness and human warmth that had once been given to her grandmother by a Kabuliwala named Rehmat who saw in her shades of his daughter far away amid the Afghan snow.

In this chain of literature, art and love, it is Kumkum who must have the last word as she writes to the Mini of yore: “You told me that Rehmat Baba had also a daughter your age who lived in Kabul. He didn’t have the money to get her photographed or perhaps in those days, there were no photographers in Kabul, so he had a print of her hand on a piece of paper, and used to keep it in his pocket, near his heart, just like papa used to keep my photo in his wallet. Your father, I mean my great-grandfather, had given some money to Rehmat Baba so that he could go back to Kabul and see his daughter, which made great-grandmother very angry. Nowadays, when I receive wounded, bleeding patients, shouting with pain or breathing their last, I sometimes ask myself, had you not eaten those almonds and pistachios from Rehmat Baba’s bag 70 years ago, had my great-grandfather not written his story, would I still be here in Kabul, in Kandahar, in Herat, in Helmund?”

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