Tracking Kolkata’s Kabuliwalas - notes from a reporter’s diary
On the occasion of the 125th year of publication of Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala, Poulomi Banerjee travels to Kolkata to see what life is like for them in the city today. But it is not easy to get them talking. Here, she recounts her experience of meeting Kolkata’s Kabuliwalas.india Updated: Jun 04, 2017 00:11 IST
“Jao Yahan Se. Matha kharab mat karo.” (Go away. Don’t disturb) were the angry words with which the tall, well built and bearded man, dressed in a Pathani suit, shut the door of his flat on my face. It was the second of the two houses - supposedly inhabited by Kabuliwalas (members of an Afghan business community that has been living in India for years and even generations) - from which I had been literally thrown out in less than an hour.
A random browsing through a collection of Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories had informed me that 2017 is the 125th year of publication of the bard’s popular short story Kabuliwala, which has been adapted into screen classics both in Hindi and Bengali. A quick call to a friend in Kolkata assured me that the city was still home to many Kabuliwalas, with the result that two days later I was roaming the streets of Kolkata, videographer colleague in tow, in search of the Kabuliwalas of today. While there are Kabuliwalas, or their descendants living across the country, the idea was to portray their life in the city where Kabuliwalas have always been a bit of a romantic figure, thanks largely to Tagore’s story.
On Sundays and on Eid, the Kabuliwalas of Kolkata converge at the expanse of green known as the Maidan, to play cricket or to celebrate. It is when they are most visible. But if it is not a Sunday or Eid, where do you find the Kabuliwalas of the city? We spent four days roaming the streets of Kolkata, checking out restaurants that they are said to frequent, shops owned by them and houses where they live, drawing more refusals than acquiescence for an interview.
At Shiraz, Zeeshan and Sabir’s, three restaurants in Kolkata said to be frequented by Kabuliwalas, especially for breakfast, the management would point out tables occupied by them. But any attempt on our part to engage them in a conversation would result in either an angry demand to be left alone, or a polite smile and a shake of the head. At Zeeshan, when one of the staff of the restaurant tried to act mediator, a young Kabuliwala on a bike asked us to follow him to a nearby cafe and then disappeared in the traffic. We never saw him again.
At Kabul Kolkata Restaurant, a young Kabuliwala even claimed to be from Bangladesh to avoid us. He didn’t known my name, so he wasn’t expecting me to talk to him in Bangla. Stumped, he admitted he was an Afghan, but chatted to us about everything but his community.
There is something to be said for perseverance, however. One gets tired of refusing. Or perhaps the Kabuliwalas just got used to our presence. Finally on our third day in the city we had our first break. Gul Khan, a Kabuliwala we met at Shiraz, asked us to meet him at a cafe in the evening.
Once you manage to make friends with a Kabuliwala though, there is nothing like their hospitality. More than one Khan Kothi - houses where a group of Kabuliwalas live together - were thrown open to us, we were invited to share their dinner and Dadgul Khan, an old Kabuliwala even demonstrated to us how they tie their turbans.
And we were told all about their lives in the city - what keeps them here, what makes it feel like home and the one reason why they still remain outsiders in a foreign land. But that is another story - one that I will share this weekend. Do keep reading.