The Kabuliwalahs of Kolkata

The Kabuliwalahs of Kolkata

May 15, 2015

Kolkata’s tryst with Kabuliwalahs is going to be renewed, in a way. On May 16 opens an exhibition titled ‘From Kabul to Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories and Identity.’  After travelling to Kabul, Delhi and Dhaka, Kolkata would be the final stop.

The exhibition documents a community known to all Bengalis – the Kabuliwalahs. To clear any misconceptions at the beginning, Kabuliwalahs are not really from Kabul, but rather from the provinces of Paktia and Paktika, bordering Pakistan. The nomenclature got stuck after the name by which a lot of the area of modern Afghanistan was identified during the colonial period in India.

The Kabuliwalahs began arriving in India on the heels of the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1839. Kolkata, or Calcutta, as it was known then, being the capital of British India, was a natural choice to search for work in. Typically the Kabuliwalahs have brought spices, dry fruits and attar from Afghanistan and sold them door to door in the city, and lent the money earned to small businesses, usually at high rates of interest.

The vibrant though less discernable community in the slowly homogenising Kolkata of today number around 5,000. Interestingly, though few in number, the community is a vibrant one. Their trade may have changed, but their traditions remain the same. It tries to retain the traditions, as much as possible. For one, even the youth are remarkable adept at speaking Pashto, their ancestral language, though they have never set foot in Afghanistan. Even today, the Kabuliwalah or more properly, the Afghan, community celebrates both Eids in Afghan fashion in the Maidan of Kolkata. Dressed in their traditional attire ‒ the flowing over-sized salwar kameez ‒ many gather at the iconic Victoria Memorial to live out a little bit of their traditional passions: flying a kite, anda kushti (hard-boiled egg fights) and performing the Pashtun Attan dance. These are customs that have been followed for close to a century, from the time the first Afghans settled in Kolkata. Then, the community has preserved traditions like communal prayers and communal dining, called dastarkwhan.

Though immersed in their traditions, it’s their identity that is in limbo. From the time they first arrived as traders to Kolkata, streams of Afghans travelled back and forth across the southern land route from Kandahar to Quetta and finally to Kolkata. Then came 1947 and independence of India. When a third country emerged in the middle of India and Afghanistan, that is, Pakistan, the Kabuliwalahs started facing hurdles with regard to the documents as result of the rift between Delhi and Islamabad. Without valid travel documents, Afghan traders found themselves unable to return home. Many remained in Kolkata instead, the city that had already been so welcoming to them. However, they’ve been stuck in a vacuum of space between two different worlds; they are as Pashtun as Indian. With only a few members of the community possessing identity cards, the idea of belonging is filled with tensions between dreams and realities – of merging, exclusion and exile.

Some of the pictures from the exhibition


                                                                                             (Moska Najib & Nazes Afroz/Anadolu Agency)


                                                                                                          (Moska Najib & Nazes Afroz/Facebook)


                                                                                                           (Moska Najib & Nazes Afroz/Facebook)


The exhibition is the brainchild of two former BBC journalists, Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz. Though living in India, they have managed to maintain close ties with their country. The idea first came to Moska. Moska is the daughter of executed Afghan President Mohammad Najibullah. She was forced to flee her country when she was only eight; now she’s an Indian citizen.

In 2012, she decided to work on a project around Afghanistan, and Kabuliwalahs were a natural choice. The reason is Tagore. Rabindranath Tagore’s famous 1892 short story, ‘Kabuliwalah’, which was also turned into popular films, has left a lasting impression of Afghans in India: a bittersweet story of a Kabuliwala, a dried-fruit seller from Kabul, who strikes up a touching friendship with a little girl in Kolkata. 

However, thinking she might be too close to the project, she decided to team up with someone who might have a more distant perspective. That person was Afroz, a former colleague of hers. Afroz had lived and worked in Kolkata for 17 years. As a child, he stayed in Park Circus, then an amazingly diverse area that was home to a host of Chinese, Anglo-Indians, Armenians, Baghdadi Jews and, of course, Kabuliwalahs.

Together, over the years, they interacted with the community in Kolkata. At first reluctant, the Afghans gradually opened up, enabling Moska and Afroz an intimate glance into their lives. However, there is a stark absence of women in the photographs. They remained indoors for the most part; the duo were able to photograph only two women, both outside their homes.

Nazes Afroz and Moska Najib at the exhibition in Delhi (telegraphindia.com)


The exhibition of photographs has drawn very appreciative audiences wherever it has travelled, and Moska and Najib are sure that their collection of 50 photographs would find lots of takers in the city the community calls home. After all, these Kabuliwalahs have not only preserved their identity and culture in a faraway land but have also proved their respect and understanding to the host nation by co-existing with them for over a century.

The Pashto Attan dance (Moska Najib & Nazes Afroz/Facebook)


The tradition of dastarkhwan (Moska Najib & Nazes Afroz/indianexpress.com)



Lead image: Kabuliwalahs at the Maidan in Kolkata, celebrating Eid (Moska Najib & Nazes Afroz/Facebook)


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