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This 19th-century short story might help combat racism against refugees today

A still from the 1961 Hindi film <em>Kabuliwala, </em>directed by Hemen Gupta.
Kabuliwala (1961)
A still from the 1961 Hindi film Kabuliwala, directed by Hemen Gupta.

KOLKATA, India — When Ahmed Khan fled to India from his native Afghanistan three years ago, he left behind the constant din of rocket fire and a desperate search for work in a broken economy. He also acquired a new nickname: "Kabuliwala."

"Kabuliwala" refers to someone from the Afghan capital of Kabul in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu — some of the languages spoken in Khan's new city, formerly known as Calcutta. The city was India's colonial capital and a longtime trading hub and remains one of the subcontinent's most diverse places, having absorbed migrants from across South Asia and the world for centuries.

"There was no work in Afghanistan. I didn't receive any specific threats on my life, but there was constant fighting between the Americans and the Taliban," he tells NPR while sitting in a friend's textile shop in a bustling market area. Khan has since gotten United Nations refugee status and a job selling dried fruit. As of mid-August, about 18,000 documented Afghan refugees like Khan were living in India, experts say, often in uncertain circumstances.

What Khan didn't know before settling here was that the life story of another Kabuliwala was already well known to many Indians — even those who'd never met an Afghan in person. In fact, it's required reading in many Indian schools.

"The Kabuliwala" is a fictional short story by one of India's most beloved writers, Rabindranath Tagore. He wrote it in the 19th century and based his main character, an Afghan migrant, on Kabuliwalas he saw in his own Calcutta lane.

The story helped combat prejudice against migrants and refugees in Tagore's day, according to historians and scholars. And it's ever more relevant now, they say, with Afghan refugees once again in the news, Islamophobia rising in India and much of the world, and discrimination against immigrants everywhere.

Portrait of Indian author and poet Rabindranath Tagore, circa 1935.
Fox Photos / Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Portrait of Indian author and poet Rabindranath Tagore, circa 1935.

It's a fictional story of an immigrant father forced to leave his daughter behind

The story's narrator is a father who glances out his Calcutta window one day to see his 5-year-old daughter playing in the street with a bearded, bedraggled Afghan peddler — a Kabuliwala. The father cringes.

With his hollow expression and soiled clothes, the Afghan man looks a bit menacing. He paces the streets selling dried fruit from the pockets of his voluminous cloak. Locals joke that he might be kidnapping children and hiding them in the folds of his robe.

Tagore wrote:

He wore the loose soiled clothing of his people, with a tall turban, there was a bag on his back, and he carried boxes of grapes in his hand. ... When [the girl] saw this, overcome by terror, she fled to her mother's protection, and disappeared. She had a blind belief that inside the bag, which the big man carried, there were perhaps two or three other children like her.

"India. Calcutta. Harrison Road I. with Group of Jogees" [ca. 1890-1910]
/ Library of Congress
Library of Congress
"India. Calcutta. Harrison Road I. with Group of Jogees" [ca. 1890-1910]

But 5-year-old Mini soon becomes more trusting. She forms a playful friendship with the Kabuliwala, whose name is Rahmat. They laugh together at puns. His face lights up around her.

Later, the Kabuliwala is involved in a dispute over money in the neighborhood and is sent to jail. Mini grows up, and she and her father, the narrator, forget about the Afghan man who was once a fixture on their street.

Cover of the 1961 film <em>Kabuliwala </em>directed by Hemen Gupta.
/ Kabuliwala (1961)
Kabuliwala (1961)
Cover of the 1961 film Kabuliwala, directed by Hemen Gupta.

At the end of the story, on Mini's wedding day, the Kabuliwala returns. He's older, even more bedraggled and still poor. Again, the narrator is annoyed. It's bad luck to have this pauper show up on his daughter's wedding day.

"The refugee symbolizes chaos, anarchy. In our safe lives, they are a reminder of the chaos, of the hopelessness, of the disruption of other countries," says Suketu Mehta, an author who read "The Kabuliwala" as a teenager in school in India and then immigrated to the United States and wrote his own books about the immigrant experience. "We just don't want them in our homes — especially on the wedding day of our daughter."

But then comes the story's climax: The Kabuliwala pulls out a crumpled piece of paper. On it is a handprint, in soot, from his own daughter back home in Afghanistan. He has carried it in his breast pocket for years.

He too is a father. His friendship with Mini was born out of longing for his own little girl, whom he was forced to leave behind and misses dearly. He was away in India for her whole childhood.

"I first read the story in my teen years, and now I'm a father — and it's all the more moving," Mehta says.

The narrator feels ashamed that he judged the Kabuliwala unfairly. He now recognizes him as a fellow father who loves his daughter and has been dealing with the pain of being separated from her. This realization comes on the same day as the narrator is preparing to be separated from Mini as she marries and moves in with her in-laws.

Exterior of the Tagore museum in Kolkata, India. The museum is housed in Rabindranath Tagore's ancestral home, where he wrote many of his most famous works. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913 — the first nonwhite person to win that prize.
Sushmita Pathak / NPR
Exterior of the Tagore museum in Kolkata, India. The museum is housed in Rabindranath Tagore's ancestral home, where he wrote many of his most famous works. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913 — becoming the first nonwhite person to win that prize.

"I think the entire world should read this story! Anyone who's dealing with refugees. We now have something like 300 million people who are living in a country other than the one they were born in," Mehta says. "The Afghan global diaspora, there's a lot of resistance [around the world] to them. Tagore would have been ashamed."

Tagore's story changed attitudes toward migrants in 19th-century India — and might help do so again today

First published in Bengali in 1892, "The Kabuliwala" made Tagore famous. There have been many film adaptations of the story in Bengali, Hindi and English. Tagore went on to become the first nonwhite person to win the Nobel Prize in literature, in 1913.

He was also a poet and a composer: He wrote compositions that would eventually, after his death, be adopted as the national anthems of two countries, India and Bangladesh.

"He is our sky! Tagore, for us, is not only the poet-philosopher," says Baisakhi Mitra, curator of the Tagore museum in the late author's ancestral home. "The moment a Bengali child comes into consciousness, I think the first great figure he meets is Tagore. And of course [Mahatma] Gandhi is there! But he comes later."

Street scenes in modern-day Kolkata, a city in eastern India that's taken in Afghan migrants and refugees for generations. Previously known as Calcutta, it was also Rabindranath Tagore's hometown, and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, "The Kabuliwala," about an Afghan migrant.
Lauren Frayer / NPR
A street scene in modern-day Kolkata, a city in eastern India that has taken in Afghan migrants and refugees for generations. Previously known as Calcutta, it was also Rabindranath Tagore's hometown and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, "The Kabuliwala," about an Afghan migrant.

Mitra says "The Kabuliwala" helped change Indians' attitudes toward migrants and refugees, especially Afghans, during Tagore's life. In the years before he wrote the story, Afghans had fled to India to escape British and Russian fighting in their country.

"Real-life Kabuliwalas were very much feared [in 19th-century India]. But here in this story, we see a Kabuliwala who is also a father," Mitra says. "The concept is of universal fatherhood."

She recalls an episode from her own childhood when a Kabuliwala approached her and her mother at a Calcutta train station.

"I remember my mother telling me that in the station, one Kabuliwala picked me up when I was very small. Usually, my mother would have got very scared, but she remembered this story and she was alert but not scared," Mitra recalls. "So I think, yes, it did a lot of good for the Bengali psyche."

Mehta, the Indian American author, says "The Kabuliwala" captures the immigrant experience like no other story. It should be required reading in schools around the world, he believes — especially now, with constant news headlines about xenophobia and racism and the scenes of desperation at Kabul's airport in August.

"Whether it's Americans who are scared of Mexicans, or Indians who are scared of Afghans, or Germans who are scared of Syrian migrants — everyone should read it, because this is what great literature does," Mehta says. "It reminds you that the person that's coming to your country, carrying a memento, a handprint of their child, is a parent like you could be a parent — is a human being like you're a human being."

Two Kabuliwalas, centuries apart, experience the same pain of leaving their children behind

Just like the Kabuliwala in Tagore's story, Ahmed Khan traveled to India alone, hoping to earn a better living. He also sells dried fruit. And he happened to settle in Tagore's hometown — though he didn't know it as such.

He also has a little girl whom he left behind in Afghanistan and misses dearly. Her name is Sayema. She's 5 years old, just like Mini from the story.

"She talks a lot! And plays with toys," Khan recalls, smiling while sitting cross-legged on the floor of his friend's textile shop. "She used to say, 'I'm going to become a doctor when I grow up. I want to prescribe medicines to patients.'"

Khan exchanges WhatsApp messages often with his wife back in Kabul. He hopes to bring her and their daughter to India soon. For now, he grows wistful when he sees Indian children in his new city.

"They remind me of my own daughter," he says.

Khan had never heard of Tagore or his 19th-century Kabuliwala before NPR told him about them, but says he'd like to read the story now. Maybe, he muses, Indians' familiarity with it — and its theme of compassion for outsiders — have made things easier for him. The local community in Kolkata has taken him in. He has learned to speak Hindi.

And despite rising Islamophobia in India and much of the world, Khan says he personally has not felt that — at least not in this city, where Tagore is beloved and almost everyone has read his Kabuliwala story.

NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this story from Kolkata, India.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.