Cabuliwallah: One of the most popular short stories by Rabindranath Tagore

Cabuliwallah‘ is one of the most cherished and loved short stories in India. Written by the great nationalist and poet Rabindranath Tagore, Cabuliwallah is deeply etched in our minds. It was originally written in Bengali, and was published in 1892.

The story strikes an emotional chord and largely rests on the characterization of Cabuliwallah – Abdur Rahman, the seller of seasonal goods from Kabul.

Cabuliwallah begins with the details of Mini, the talkative five-year-old daughter of the narrator. The father-daughter relationship is the focus of this story. The father cherishes Mini’s incessant barrage of questions and queries amidst writing his novel. On the other hand, the little girl’s mother is often vexed with her.

One day, Mini sees Cabuliwallah from the window of her father’s room. He is described as wearing loose soiled clothes as was the clothing of the people from Pashtun and a tall turban, carrying a bag on his back that contained grapes. When Cabuliwallah looks at Mini, she is terrified and runs to her mother. In her imagination, the Cabuliwallah is some sort of a monster who takes away children her age in his huge bag.

As the narrator calls Cabuliwallah inside and buys some things from him, he thinks of letting Mini overcome her fear of this man. Even Abdur Rahman, the Cabuliwallah wants to know the little girl before leaving the house. The father calls Mini near him. The Cabuliwallah tries to give nuts and raisins to Mini but she rather clings to her father. This is how the deep friendship of sorts between the young girl and the peddler from Kabul begins from an awkward introduction.

In a few days, when the father next notices Mini and Cabuliwallah, the two have bonded well. Mini and Cabuliwallah play the popular ‘going to the Father-in-law’s house’ joke. Father-in-law’s house with the satirical meaning of going to jail. A common joke in the Indian context in those times.  

The mother in the story is depicted as ‘unfortunately a very timid lady’ who constantly warns her husband to be careful of Cabuliwallah. Her fears of Cabuliwallah trying to kidnap Mini are waded off as silly apprehensions by her husband. For the husband, Cabuliwallah’s presence gives him a vicarious pleasure of ‘mountains, the glens and the forests’ of a distant, foreign land while being stuck in Calcutta (present-day Kolkata).    

Abdur Rahman visits Kabul once a year in the middle of January. Before going home, Cabuliwallah would get very busy collecting his debts from house to house but this particular year, he made sure to visit Mini everyday amidst his hectic work. But, as fate would have it, Cabuliwallah is embroiled in a brawl with a man who refuses to pay for a Rampuri shawl. He is taken by policemen in handcuffs and “on a charge of murderous assault, Rahman was sentenced to some years’ imprisonment.”    

With time, human relations change and that’s the highlight of this tale. Mini who was obsessively talkative and used to spend a lot of time with her father is changed. She begins to spent time with girls, hardly talking to her father. She also forgots about her old friend – the Cabuliwallah.

It is heartbreaking to read about Cabuliwallah’s life in the climax. For him, life had frozen for all those years in the prison. He had come out with the expectation of finding the little Mini, at the same age and with an unchanged excitement to run up to him, calling “O, Cabuliwallah! Cabuliwallah!

The day he comes to visit Mini’s household after the prison release is the day of Mini’s wedding.

Meeting with Mini’s father, Cabuliwallah desires to see Mini. It is not possible to meet Mini amidst the ceremonies. Cabuliwallah hands over almonds and raisins wrapped inside a paper just like the olden days. He now tells the narrator (and us) about his own daughter, about the same age as Mini whom he had left in the mountains of Afghanistan to earn a living here in this foreign country. He takes out from his pocket, ‘The impression of an ink smeared hand laid flat on the paper’.

The moment brings the two fathers on the same emotional table.

Mini is called upon to meet with Cabuliwallah. This is where the realization dawns on Cabuliwallah that his daughter would have also grown up and changed in the last eight years. The narrator hands him some money to return to Afghanistan, curtailing the wedding expenses.

Cabuliwallah is all about the love that fathers have for their daughters. And, the heartbreaking moment of seeing them grow up, transform and leave paternal home after marriage. It is purely the father’s (as of narrator and that of Cabuliwallah’s) perspective that Tagore presents to the readers.

Cabuliwallah, as a story is a nostalgic part of every Indian readers introduction to short stories and stories in general.

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z challenge under Alphabet C.

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