Memoirs of the Kabulliwalaa


My family members fondly recall the instantly agreeable personality and charming, genial, irradiant persona of the Kabulliwallah, hearty, humorous simpletons who narrated elaborate scenic descriptions of distant lands, and unlike the manipulative, adulterating, exploitative native banias of the village, sold goods from original sources, unaltered in form, pure, uncontaminated and intense, at candid, modest prices. Deriving a sustenance and livelihood, and just that was the sole purpose of their trade; mercantile and monetary materialism never impelled these welcome-transhumans, 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, rather than many. They stressed living a simple, frugal but eventful, diverse life and emphasised the bond all humans share, notwithstanding nuances and disregarding petty sectarian bounds and compartmentalisation, fabricated over time and artificially, unilterally imposed upon us by our respective forefathers, niches we dwell and occupy and bloodlines, in due course of time. 

The mountainous passes in the frontier provinces were a hub of informal trade and Kashmir was virtually the gateway for valuable Afghani, Uzbek and Samarqandi trade to India. Afghans and Kashmiris forever shared a warmth, Solidarity and par-cordial mutual influence, exerting exchange of lifestyles, encountered motives, innovations and ingenuities, cultures and stories. Produces, methods, techniques and peculiarities were traded and salient produce of one side became inalienable commonalities on the other, altering and diversifying lifestyles and schools of thoughts. The exchange was not just material, but a spiritualism invariably accompanied, both in metaphorical and the literal sense of the term.

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, depended heavily relied on annual or biannual or even more frequent visits from these far-fetched yet close-to-heart, warm, genial frontier highlanders. Unlike traditional inmigrants, vagabonds, tramps or drifters, who were met with skepticism or condescension, Afghan traders were warmly welcomed. 

Gemstones, predominantly the endemic lapis lazuli, (long the exclusive source of the coveted regal hue of ultramarine for imperial livery), Chickpeas (immortalised in its etymology Kaabuli Chanaa i.e. Gram of Kabul), Rock Salt, Black Salt, Traditional herbs, vitality-boosting folk medicines, motley spices were the frequent subject of sale, besides occasional artefacts. Pedling these articles and items was a vulnerable job and traders were susceptible to motley rogues and vulnerable to wandering bandits, thugees, pindaris, etc whilst trudging 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 forested 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 native perpetrators themselves. The indigenous conmen would instigates masses against them, and subsequently loot them. However, over time their moral integrity, consistent conscientious sanction and immaculate conduct established a credential of uncompromising virtue, undented repute and hard-earned diligence, and they became famous for their impeccable character and honesty, being augmented into vernacular colloquialisms and local parlance, as cultural exemplaries, and analogical motifs for virtues of courage, vigour, gallantry, and sincerity. They were popular with children, whom they brought tales of distant lands, and showered with affection and petty novelties, the latter often freebies. The Kabulliwallahs worked hard, earning repute preferentially over money, and amassing experience and tales, that they took back to their coveting families back homes, and perhaps other lands they toured and transmigrated to.

Kabulliwallahs were sparingly, if ever treated as other tramps, ordinary vagabonds, urchin or drifters: 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 dwely arid lands, their hearts were teeming meads, pastures and gardens, where tales grazed. 

Tales of Indian lands were also frequently the subjects of minstrelling and qissagoi of wandering bards, back in the frontiers. 

Memoirs of Kabulliwallahs rescuing amd salvaging children and men in need or critical situations, at times, sacrificing ownselves have been popular narratives in stories regarding them. Eastern India and Afghanistan shared a relation, bypassing, rather disregarding intermittent regions as Pakistan and West India, making it sad that modern cultural ties bear privy and dependance to mediators and liaisions. Afghanis and Indians as far back as erstwhile 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 prone to the myriad dangers if venturing through wilderness, and with only occasional, sporadic local aid to ensure safe passage, the traders loved the land, its diversity, eclectic tehzeeb, and despite, and perhaps because of their cultural dissimilarities were immensely attracted and mutually charmed by respective, vivid cultural descriptions and richness, and resonated with the idea of Universal Brotherhood, Vasudhaev Kutumbakam, resonating with mutual reverence for guests and welcoming warmth, and united by exuding strands of generosity, genial conversation, and humanism. The interfaith candour bypassed distinctions of nationality, regionality and religion, whatsoever, hence forging the purest and most-selfless of friendships.

This inherent underlying unity of humanity is immortalised 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.


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