Far away from their homeland, the Kabuliwalas of Kolkata, who lead a sheltered and secluded life in the city, are deeply saddened by the terror attacks in Afghanistan, fervently wishing peace would prevail in their country soon.
The Kabuliwala or man from Kabul was immortalised by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore in the widely-translated classic “Kabuliwala” set in the early-20th century.
Thriving in the eastern metropolis, the community now is a blended one.
Thanks to journalists-photographers Moska Najib and Nazes Afroz, the 21st century Kabuliwalas have been frozen into vibrant photographs in the exhibition ‘From Kabul to Kolkata: Of Belonging, Memories and Identities’.
Fondly reminiscing their origins in Pakhtunistan (the geographic region at the Pakistan-Afghan border), they are no strangers to the present.
“Whatever is happening in Afghanistan is not humane… yeh insaniyat nahi hai. Our hearts go out to them. Peace will prevail soon…,” Amir Khan, president, Khudai Khidmatgar (the community’s collective), told IANS on the sidelines of the exhibition on Saturday.
There are roughly 5,000 Afghan men living in city pockets like Kashipur, distinctive in their appearance – tall, hefty, strong jawed, and with a zest for life. They have Indian wives.
Once known for selling asafoetida (heeng), dry fruits and soorma (kohl), they are now into transport, money lending and sartorial ventures.
A second generation Afghan, Amir Khan is proud of the fact that basic tenets of his native Pashto culture still survive in Kolkata.
“The way we dine together and our food culture, our festivities have remained the same. Some of us now put on pants and shirts, but when the occasion demands, we dress up in the traditional shalwar-kameez (loose fitting linens) and turban,” said Amir Khan.
They have also embraced Hindi in the last few decades.
Daulat Khan, a third generation Pashtun, proudly points out his grand-mother’s native dress in one of the photographs.
“As much as proud we are to hold on to our traditions, we are equally participative in Kolkata’s festivals. We attend Indian weddings, functions and love the culture here. We are all mixed up,” said Daulat Khan, who owns a cloths and tailoring business.
However, a shadow crosses Daulat Khan’s fair features as one mentions the recent terror attacks in Kabul by Taliban militants.
“Innocents have suffered too much because of the alliances between some nations to foster terrorism. It is high time that peace is established,” he said.
Echoing him, Shah Khan, a money lender, said he wants to revisit his native village one day.
“Thanks to India, we are living a sheltered life here. We have a roof on our head, food, education and identity as voters. Those subject to the terror in Afghanistan have to fight for their livelihoods each day,” Shah Khan said, gazing at a photo showing him in Afghan traditional attire at an Indian wedding.
Najib, who is an Afghan living in India for the last 20 years, concurs.
“There is much to the culture but at the moment they have to ensure their basic livelihood in the midst of terrorism,” Najib said.