Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Tuesday, June 22nd, 2021

Memoirs of the Kabuliwaala: A Testimony to Indo-Afghan relations


Memoirs of the Kabuliwaala: A Testimony  to Indo-Afghan relations

My family members fondly recall the charming, genial, irradiant persona of the Kabulliwallah, hearty, humorous simpletons who narrated dramatic anecdotes and elaborate descriptions of distant lands. Unlike the manipulative, adulterating, exploitative native banias of the village, they sold goods from original sources, unaltered in form, pure, uncontaminated and intense, at candid, modest prices. They thus built a repute for their honesty and immaculate moral integrity, in spite of the prevalent suspicion and prejudices of the era - both generic (against any outsider even hailing from a different village in the same state) to ones specific towards frontier-dwellers, typecasting them as uncouth, unrefined, brutish and boorish. The latter archetype was partly owing to a wave of homologous assailants and conquistadors who invaded medieval India throughout the course of the millenium with the mountain passes in the Hindu Kush being the natural entry passage, leading to a misattirbution of even the Turkic and Mongoloid invaders to the place.
Deriving sustenance and livelihood, and just that, was the sole purpose of their trade; monetary materialism never impelled these mercantile trans humans. They put impetus on seeing facets of life that prevail the aalam (world) of the parwardigaar (Nourisher, raiser and sustainer of the world: The Almighty), and amassing the treasure of exploration, experience, adventures and memories. They stressed living a simple, frugal but eventful, diverse life and emphasized the bond all humans share, notwithstanding individual differences, and disregarding petty sectarian bounds.
Akin to a mobile weekly Baazaar, the seasonally recurring transhuman traders, The Kabulliwallahs were traditionally the most eagerly-awaited guests in India. Irrespective of the region, terrain or habitat, Indian households urban and rural alike, counted on annual, biannual or even more frequent visits from these far-fetched yet close-to-heart highlanders. Unlike traditional inmigrants, vagabonds, tramps or drifters, who were met with skepticism or condescension, Afghan traders came to be warmly welcomed.
Semiprecious gemstones, predominantly the endemic lapis lazuli, (long the exclusive source of the coveted imperial hue of ultramarine, used for regalia), Chickpeas (Kaabuli Chanaa i.e. Gram of Kabul), Rock Salt, Black Salt, traditional herbs and remedies brewn thereof, especially vitality-boosting folk medicines, and motley spices were the frequent subject of sale, besides occasional artefacts. Peddling these articles and items was a vulnerable job and traders were prone to loot - exposed to wandering bandits, thugees, pindaris, etc whilst trudging in the wilderness. Undertaking a perilous journey winding and traversing through tricky mountain passes, arid stretches, badlands vast expanses of hillocks and ravines, and vast thickly forestedw tracts. Being straightforward, candid, generous and credulous people, they were also soft targets to rumormongers, manipulation and underhanded scapegoating, such as being framed for child abduction and thievery, often at hands of the very perpetrators themselves. The native conmen would instigates the villagefolk against them, and subsequently loot them. However, over time their integrity of character, consistent conscientious sanction and solid conduct established a credential of uncompromising virtue, and undented hard-earned repute. They transitioned from the susceptible to the dependable, being augmented into vernacular colloquialisms and local parlance as cultural exemplaries. It won’t be an overstatement to proclaim that they became the analogical motifs for virtues of courage, vigour, gallantry, and sincerity. They were popular with children, whom they brought fascinating tales of distant lands, and showered with affection and petty novelties, often freebies. The Kabulliwallahs thus played a pivotal role in cultural exchange, in the mercantile process transmitting tales far and wide and inadvertently accomplishing an information dissemination between various otherwise geographically isolated provinces. Indeed, they were a testimony to human zeal, and defied the doctrine that geographical isolation implied cultural alienation.
Kabulliwallahs were sparingly, if ever treated as other tramps, and ordinary vagabonds: being coveted visitors, engaging conversators, and capturing folk imagination, trickling into various mainstream literary narratives and dins of the ruralfolk. Although eking out a humble living, a popular saying in India labels them as having hearts of gold, and as vast as the fields. Though they dwelt arid lands, their hearts were teeming meads, pastures and gardens, where unbridled tales grazed. Fascinating tales of Indian lands were also frequently the subjects of minstrelling and qissagoi of wandering bards, back in the frontiers.
Memoirs of Kabulliwallahs rescuing and salvaging children and men in need or critical situations, at times, sacrificing own selves have been popular narratives in stories regarding them. Eastern India and Afghanistan shared a relation, notwithstanding and circumventing intermittent regions as Pakistan and West India, making it sad that modern cultural ties bear privy and dependence to mediators and liaisons. Afghanis and Indians as far east as Bangladesh shared a direct heart-to-heart bond, with a chunk of Afghanistan to be found in every Indian kitchen (where spices are vital and venerated) and every storyteller’s captivating repertoire of enrapturing tales of distant lands. Despite being susceptible to the myriad dangers venturing through wilderness, the traders loved the land, its diversity, eclectic tehzeeb, and looked forward to each visit. The eager await to visit India at times negated if not outweighed the temporary parting from their families. Despite, and perhaps because of, their cultural dissimilarities, Indians and Afghans were mutually charmed by respective, vivid cultural descriptions and resonated with the idea of Universal Brotherhood, Vasudhaev Kutumbakam. The shared heritage of mutual reverence for guests and fondness of narration, human interaction and novelty strung the subcontinent together. The interfaith candour bypassed distinctions of nationality, regionalitwy and religion, whatsoever, hence forging the purest and most-selfless of friendships. It’s thus aching to see that Indo-Afghan relations today don’t often bypass the geopolitical intermediary Pakistan, and are reliant on the occasional shared animosity towards Pakistan, and the mutual sympathy of predicament of Pakistan-grown terror.
This inherent underlying unity of humanity is immortalized in Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala, a touching tale of generosity, integrity, transcendental friendship, and pluralism; subsequently adapted into an eponymous 1961 film, widely considered to be an unprecedented cinematic milestone.

The author is a journalist, columnist, writer, activist, and amateur researcher in minority studies, having previously written for, amongst others, The Telegraph, The Hindu, The Gulf News, The Sunday Independent, The Quint, The MilliGazette, The Madras-Courier, The New Delhi Times, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Observer, The New Sarawak Tribune, Free Press Kashmir and Front Cover Magazine, amongst others

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