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Evolution of Kabuliwala -- the story and the man

Evolution of Kabuliwala -- the story and the man

Dec 01, 2015 - 18:13

KABUL (Pajhwok): Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala story, penned in 1890s, has been reproduced either as a play or a successful Balraj Sahni starrer. But the reproduction has retained its original flavour -- authentic and close to Tagore’s text.

The character Kabuliwala was part of the real lives of Bengalis several decades ago. In fact, still 5,000 Afghani families live in West Bengal. The repeat readings and the grand success of the story created a stereotypical image of the Kabuliwala men among the masses.

That image was very apt of Kabulis of that time, who were coming to India for trade. But today’s Kabulis look pretty different. Many wear turbans, many don’t, many sport beards, many don’t. Have a look at Sayeed Edris Fakhri's and Hamid Hemat’s pictures.

Behind the creation of a young Kabuliwala, the purpose of familiarising common Indians with other Kabuliwalas and people from Afghanistan is nicely getting served.

Intercultural dialogue

Do we want our children in India to be thinking always badly about Afghanistan? And do we want to burden Afghanistan as a problematic zone forever?  Is the situation in Afghanistan getting worse or better? Most of the areas are risk zones in Afghanistan, but not all provinces are as unsafe as we perhaps perceive.

Herat, Bamyan and Mazar-i-Sharif are considered safe at this moment, says Edris. The situation there has got better a lot. And this initiative of the Kabuliwala storytelling project does bring a breath of fresh air to resume revisiting the Indo-Afghani relationship and starts an intercultural dialogue at the grass root level.

A common Afghan

In Afghanistan, they watch a lot of Indian films, and that is how they learn good Hindi. Our vocabularies are similar. Both of my Kabuli friends and now collaborators on the Kabuliwala project do not have beard; they look almost as young as I do. Very much like a modern man, Edris says he doesn’t like wearing PairamTumban (the Afghan kurta pajama). He wears it only on weddings or special occasions.

Following are excerpts from an interview with Edris:

Q: Why do you do campaign for telling stories?

Ans: Because I am an eccentric.  While most of my class mates are at senior manager positions in the corporate world earning 1-2 lakh rupees salary a month, I’m creating a fresh Kabuliwala image. I don’t say that I do storytelling for charity, not at all. I charge for telling stories, for letting people open my jhola of tales. Every time I tell a story, I charge.  

This young Kabuliwala in my interpretation is a young trader of stories, a messenger of Afghani culture, he travels enough to sell his stories and wherever he stops and opens his jhola (a big bag), enough people surround him to buy stories from him. The common thing between all the people willing to buy stories is that all of them want happy stories with happy endings! Stories which could give them some peace of mind, harmony to live together and enough entertainment to their otherwise stressed out souls. Stressed out because of the politics, because of the make-believe world we live in, the world of fixed framed, static stereotypical images. And we at international level have also made one such fixed and stereotypical image about the otherwise humble souls of Afghanis. And that is what this young Kabuliwala intends to change by initiating an intercultural dialogue.  Storytelling in the attire of a Kabuliwala and his Afghani accent is for me a new language of Cultural engagement with Afghanistan.

Danger of a stereotypical image

It is very dangerous to have an image of Afghanistan as a country full of terror, unsafe, that all are terrorists over there that the only pursuit they are left with in their lives is making and blasting the bombs at every possible corner of the city. Behind all this there’s also a common Afghani. This young and energetic Kabuliwala is simply selling happy stories and trying to thereby better that image. When people think of Afghanistan, a happy image should come in their minds, not an image full of terror.

Q: How did you get this idea of Kabuliwala?

Ans: The Kabuliwala concept was there in my head for more than a year before it actually started in November 2014. I was just waiting for the right time in my life to bring this out. I wanted to have enough time in hand to concentrate on the Kabuliwala project and to substantiate the jhola (bag full) of the Kabuliwala. Like in any other trade, the shop is supposed to be full of goods, and then only the customers can choose and buy the stuff they are looking for, Kabuliwala’s jhola had to be filled with a big number of happy stories for people to choose from.

Costumes and stories

I am fascinated by costumes and I am fascinated by stories! And what I am personally fascinated with, I have the power to make others to also get fascinated by the same things. Now, my audiences love seeing me as Kabuliwala and talking to me in Afghani accent.

Q: How is the response of the government, NGOs to your work?


Governments have not yet reacted to the young, loud and cheerful Kabuliwala’s voice presence in the town.  I hope that they wake up sooner than later and give me a big order of stories and let my trade flourish and this cultural engagement should continue. People here are suffering from severe malnutrition of happy stories. They want fresh stories about Afghanistan. Not the stale stories of suicide bombers or of other bomb blasts in Afghanistan, which just represent the political landscape. Behind that entire political image, there is a common Afghani trying to live a happy life, looking for recognition, has his own dreams aspirations and defeats, has his cultures and traditions of sorts. Do we get to hear about those things? At least a few of them? This young Kabuliwala is an attempt as a representation of the happy side, the culture, the humility and bravery of Afghanistan.

NGOs and Schools

NGOs and schools want me to come and tell stories but many of them have got the habit of getting free lunches from somewhere that they pretend to not understand that the Kabuliwala also has a family and he can’t simply give out all his dry fruits for free for his love of children. He will otherwise starve and will not be able to to come back again in their street to roam around, shout out loud and sell stuff.

Talking about the positive side, I have performed and taken the Kabuliwala to many schools here in Delhi. And the response has been really warm.

Q: How many shows have you done yet?

Ans: So far 54 shows. I am full time dedicated to this trade of stories.  Business of stories gets me very less money. I might have to shut it down and go back to the cruel world of large multinational companies, where everybody is cooking up their own stories to go up some ladder, to win something that they themselves don’t know about.

Kabuliwala journey so far/7 months/7 states/45 shows/in Hindi and German/6 children festivals/covering 3500+ Children, parents teachers.

Q: What are the problems you faced to do your work?

Ans: In the beginning of all my storytelling performances I start with a greeting of Salam and teach my audiences how to do Walekum-Salam in a proper way with right hand close to the nose and a nodding head. Kabuliwala’s humble and smiling Salam brings smiles on everybody’s faces. But that same Salam brings fear to a few that they don’t want to do any more trade with him. They are stuck in the old fear that the old man will take their kids along with him in his bag by spreading his culture among them.

I talk and interact in Afghani accent for an hour with the children and adults. I hope 99% get sensitized towards the Kabuli culture. But that 1% which is perhaps not really interested in the Afghani or so to say even Muslim culture around them is very dangerous.  If the right wingers don’t like a story, they might not order for more or might influence others not to buy my stories.

In simple words, after performing a show, I'm not always sure whether the organizers will call me again or not. Sometimes people in the audiences have asked me "Are you a Muslim"? If I'm in the attire of the Kabuliwala, my response is a big Yes.  If anybody has problems hiring the services of a Muslim, it's their problem, not mine. My job is just to create art and do good artistic work. 

Q: What are your plans to do for the future?

Ans: A very interesting question. I have absolutely no ideawhere I am leading, where Kabuliwala will go from here. Is he here to stay? Will he succeed in his mission of peace and entertainment? Will he have to continue like this? Will he have to create more Kabuliwalas like him as brand ambassadors of peace?

I leave it on to the organisations, the stakeholders to decide, if they want to make the best of this Kabuliwala or let him or this project die down. On a very practical note I would be very interested in working on Pashto stories and bringing them here in India, but for all this time and money is required.




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