His alkhalla (long cloak, outer attire) sways with the mild breeze as he animatedly sits on the porch of an elite Bengali residence, lending his ears to the musical soiree – a soiree at which he is both the audience as well as the chief guest. Straightening his rather typical turban, he brushes his fingers through his dense beard, while Mini, a five-year-old croons a song in Bangla in her wavering bird-like voice. The lyrics of the gentle song “kauthau amar hariye jabar nei mana, mone mone (In my heart I can always wander everywhere, unhindered)” glides in the air of Calcutta of 1892 to somewhere in Kabul in Afghanistan, from where Rahmat (Mini’s sole audience) hailed.
This is a quintessential scene from director Tapan Sinha’s 1957 black and white film Kabuliwala, drawn from the eponymous short story by poet laureate Rabindranath Tagore, written in 1892, for the second year of Sadhana Patrika – a glowing literary periodical that he had founded a year earlier.
The premise of Tagore’s short story is pivoted around an unlikely bond between Rahmat, a middle-aged dry fruit seller from Afghanistan, and five-year-old Mini, the daughter of an upper-caste Hindu Bengali couple, who live somewhere in the imperial capital of erstwhile Calcutta.
Tagore subtly weaves a humane tale of a father-daughter pair, establishing his idea of universal parivar (family) and antimyo (relative) – a notion that transcends religion and ethnicity, and looks at vishwa or the world as home. This would later go on to become the founding fabric for Visva-Bharati, the university established by Tagore.
Sometime between 1891-1897, Tagore – through the letters he wrote to his large circle of family, friends, fellow literateurs, and even as monologues in his diary – described how he positioned himself in his philosophical awakening and engagements.
In an interesting allegorical description, he envisioned himself as a mature elderly person, with a long white beard, traversing through a fantastical forest, dense and widespread. He elaborated,
“I have created a traversable path through this insanely scattered, huge forest. In this gloaming, I can see a handful of my fellow travellers beginning their journeys at the other end of the forest. I am certain that my sadhana (here used metaphorically both the magazine as well as his intellectual, philosophical understanding of the world around him) will never be futile”.
Beyond philosophising what is seemingly a progressive approach, Tagore in Kabuliwala implemented his idea of a global family, quickly removing barriers of religion, age, culture, class, language between Rahamat and Mini. He creates an egalitarian ambiance, retaining the organic sentiments between father, father figures and daughters. For Rahmat, Mini is just like his daughter, which in the late 19th century of Kolkata or in far-flung war-torn Afghanistan (then ruled by Abdur Rahman Khan) wasn’t a common sentiment.
But Tagore – both through his musings in Sadhana Patrika and a prolific reaffirmation in a later essay where he writes “what is needed is the eagerness of heart for a fruitful communication between different cultures. Anything that prevents this is barbarism” – emphatically promotes the notion of cosmopolitanism. The essay was published in a volume in the book Complete Works – Rabindra Rachanabali.
Over the next few decades, debates around nation and nationalism began to emerge.
Tagore’s understanding of the same met was with criticism even from those who knew him closely like Prasanto Mahalanobis. Yet Tagore stood by his core ideation of ‘nation’ – one which was based on a blend of love and cooperation (swadeshi samaj) precisely built on the concept of personal connections. In Kabuliwala, it is this very notion of a personal connection that becomes its playbook.
Suddenly all divisions disappear within the story, making it a tale of familial affection between a little girl and an Afghan dry fruit seller. A subversion that Tagore believed in.
Much later, Tapan Sinha played on the same note, not only by retaining the original story but also by casting Chhabi Biswas as a Muslim, a loving Afghan father who had left his own daughter back home, having been compelled by realities as he lands in Kolkata for his livelihood.
Biswas, a towering figure of the 40s and 50s Bengali cinema, had so far been either playing roles of patriarchs in films revolving around growing educated upper, middle-class Bengalis or adorning characters from real-life biographies like in Vidyasagar (1952) Raja Krishnachandra (1953), Jadhubhatta (1954), Rani Rashmoni (Rajchandra Das – 1955). Rahmat, the Kabuliwala, was an exceptional casting – a leap of faith for him as well as for Sinha.
As Afghanistan stands in perhaps its most complex and tragic juncture of history, the idea of warm, hospitable, friendly Afghan people will be sooner or later subjected to critical gaze.
Thus, reflecting back on a story written 124 years ago may appear as pluralistic, inclusive, multicultural – it was one that was sans religion, class, nation, language and came from an erudite, globetrotter who was deeply aware of his Brahmanical caste background, but still stood his ground of love and cooperation in a most modernist sense.
Nilosree Biswas is a filmmaker, author most recently of Banaras: Of Gods, Humans And Stories.
Featured image credit: A still from Tapan Sinha’s film Kabuliwala.