Kabuliwalas of Kolkata

Gone are the days when pathans crossed the desert in camels and came down to Kolkata to trade in horses. Today most of them are citizens of India and have given up their vagabond existence for a much quieter life in the city

The very word ‘Kabuliwalah’ brings to our minds the image of a tall, fair and bearded man dressed in pastel-shaded pathan suit and carrying a big ‘jhola’. Bengalis best remember the character as one playing with Mini, Tagore’s heroine in the short story ‘Kabuliwalah’. We can almost picture the two together exchanging pleasantries as if they were our next door neighbours.

Two films were made on the subject. One by Tapan Sinha in Bengali (1956) and the other by Hemen Gupta (1961) in Hindi. The touching story, haunting melodies and brilliant performances by all actors have etched the kabuliwalah deeper in our memories.

The Kabuliwalahs living in Kolkata add up to merely 500 and are not just traders who migrated frequently from Afganisthan as they did earlier. These people have been living in the country ever since the partition and are descendants of the Pakhtuns or Pashtuns. They are originally a Pashto-speaking community from southeast and northwest Afghanistan. They are also referred to as pathans but that is not a native word from Afghanistan but a Hindusthani variation of the word ‘pukhtana’ meaning people from Pakhtun.

These men are descendents of the followers of the Khuda-i-Khidmatgars; the secular, socialist group formed by Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan better known as Frontier Gandhi. At the time of Partition of India, they made a ‘pledge’ to stay on in India and are still faithful to that promise.

Other than Kolkata, the Pakhtuns have also settled down in Assam, Mumbai and Akola. Akola in Maharashtra is the place where the main shrine of the ‘mazaar’ of Miyan Kalandar is situated. It is a place of pilgrimage and pathans from all over the country come together during Urs of the Pir.

Older day Kabuliwalahs came to India on camels and traded horses, sheep and dry fruits at Saudagarpatti in Kashipur. Today, however, things are different. These people now have set up homes in different parts of the city. They marry Pakhtuns from Assam or western India.

Most of them hold an ID card issued by the Government of India and some have complete Indian citizenship. Yet they maintain their own distinctive cultural identity through a cultural association Khuda-i Khidmatgar Al Pakhtoon Jirgha Hind. They don’t have a masjid or school of their own in the city and youngsters get to mingle only at social gatherings or festivals. They usually use the Pashtu dialect. During Eid they gather at the Maidan to exchange greetings and enjoy a feast of shurwa (mutton boiled with spices) with bread and apple morowwa.

Woman at AgFair, Kabul, Afghanistan

They also have fun games such as ‘andawala janjawal’ where they arrange 100 eggs in a row and try to break others’ eggs. The person who has the least number of broken eggs wins. On the occasion of the birth and death anniversaries of Pirs, charity programmes and blood donation camps are organised.

Women are totally segregated in this community and are hardly seen outdoors. Although there is no barrier on their education, they remain totally confined to the house. Marriages are the only occasions when women emerge from seclusion to sing and dance among themselves. There is a ban on not only meeting and talking but even taking photographs of pathan women.

Inter-community weddings are rare but accepted only for daughters. The choice of bride is looked upon as a job that requires great intellect and is executed with utmost precision. More so, because there is no system of ‘talaq’ (divorce).

Unlike other communities no dowry is demanded from the bride’s father. On the contrary the grooms’ family bears all expenses of the ‘nikah’ (marriage). There is no walima (reception) after which the bride enters married life. Instead the bride’s family stays in the groom’s house to participate in three days of festivities after the ‘nikah’.

It is not important for the bride to be fair or pretty as is common among other people. Here her height as compared to that of the groom becomes the deciding factor.

The whole community is invited to the wedding and at least one member from each family has to attend the function. This is also true in case of a death in a certain household. Here too, one member of every house reads a ‘dua’ and offers condolences or hands over a minimum of Rs 300 depending on the financial status of the family.

The women usually wear loose and long kurtas with a churidar and dupatta covering their heads. Men on the other hand wear the pathan suit and get it tailored from some specialised shops in Burrabazar.

Pashto songs and ‘atand’ (100 men dancing in circles) are very popular among the Pakhtuns and no occasion is complete without them.

The strict discipline regarding women is because of a belief that the family prestige is tied up with the woman’s virtue. Even children are not encouraged to speak before elders so that the patriarch can enforce discipline when they are older.

The community heads also extend a benign hand over those who fail in business by organising parleys with his father. Other guarantors from within the community offer him jobs and help him do well.

The community takes pride is in the strength of the ‘given word’ or a promise. All business transactions are carried out without any written contract. Even today they mainly deal in dry fruits and fruit pulp.

Amir Khan, president of the Pakhtoon Association said, “I hope to encourage my people to branch out into other modern day ventures.”

It is not as if they are aloof from the rest of the world. “We do feel for our fellow countrymen and collect relief items for victims in case of natural disasters and other tragedies. We went around asking people to make contributions for Aila victims and families of bereaved families during the Kargil War,” he added.

“I also think the Pakhtoon Association must build schools teaching Pashtu, launch a Pashtu newspaper and build a community centre so that more Pakhtuns are attracted to Kolkata. This is, after all, the best place for Pakhtuns because people here are very welcoming,” Khan signed off with a smile.

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