Book Club-Revisiting Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘The Cabuliwallah’

The late nineteenth century India, under the British Colonial rule, witnessed debates that sought to define nationalism, reform religion, revive the caste system or to seek liberation and education of women. Not remaining confined to the realm of politics and law, these debates found expression in literature through the works of writers such as Rabindranath Tagore. Through his cornucopia of poetry, dramas, short stories, novels, songs and essays, Tagore responded to the debates current to his time, by avoiding abstract discussions and creating characters embroiled in these debates.

Published in 1892, a period in India that saw growing support for Hindu revivalism and restoration of caste hierarchies, The Cabuliwallah tells the story of a beautiful and innocent relationship between a young girl Mini and a tradesman from Kabul that surpasses caste, religion, language and age barriers. Tagore gives precedence to shared human experiences such as fatherhood by allowing Mini’s father, an educated Hindu Bengali man, to recognise and experience the agonising pain felt by another father, the Cabuliwallah, a tradesman and a Muslim, separated from his homeland and daughter for eight long years. Through the “impression of an ink-smeared hand” that the Cabuliwallah carries in remembrance of his daughter, Tagore creates a powerful symbol of love that tugs at every heart while transcending class and regional boundaries.

It is because of these universal sentiments that The Cabuliwallah has been translated from Bangla to English, Hindi, Gujrati and many more languages. Screen adaptations of the story were released as early as 1957 in Bangla. Bimal Roy’s 1961 adaptation in Hindi gained great success and is still widely acclaimed. The story has been adapted time and again with each adaptation making its unique contribution to the legacy of the story. Anurag Basu’s Kabuliwala , first aired in 2015, deviates from the text to depict Mini, a girl belonging to a Hindu family, desperately offering Namaz to Cabuliwallah’s God to reunite her with her friend imprisoned for murder. This scene manages to capture a child’s innocence that, unlike her mother, protects her from intolerance against people of other religions and class. Interestingly, Basu’sKabuliwala was aired at a time that saw a surge in Hindu nationalism with a new government coming to power in India in 2014. This forces one to wonder if Basu, drawing inspiration from Tagore, was trying to respond to the changing political climate in India through his art.

Nevertheless, despite the lapse of more than a century since it was originally published, Tagore’s The Cabuliwallah continues to strike a chord with readers with its elements of innocence, friendship and sincerity. Tagore’s language, a mixture of Pashtu, Hindi and Bangla, makes his characters come alive. These characters are relatable and enable readers to step out of the shell of their ideology and beliefs to sympathise with and understand the point of view of the other. On the one hand, The Cabuliwallah is filled with examples that imbue the spirit of nineteenth century Bengal and on the other hand it carries an essence that embraces Tagore’s concept ofVishwa Sahitya, that is literature that belongs and appeals to the whole world.

Have a nice day!

In obeisance to the divine in you,


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