I grew up in a little town, read small town, in India.
We did not have the fancy stores, the trendy restaurants, and the up-market markets. So as kids, we sat around woefully condemning our fates. However, for all the things we never had, we most certainly had an exposure to people from different lands, different languages, different food, and different looks. If that isn’t education then I don’t know what is!
Cuttack, my home town, had the Chinese, the Parsis, the British, the Assyrian, and a whole bunch of students from different parts of the world attending our local medical college. The mix in this sparsely populated town was exotic and mysterious.
Today, I remember the Afghans in our town. They were called Kabuliwala’s (hailing from Kabul).
Tall, strapping, and good looking in their Afghani turban and Pathanis, they commanded respect and to some extent awe, when they walked down our streets. Growing up, stories were told to children that if we didn’t behave, the Kabuliwalas would put us in a rucksack and carry us away to their land in the mountains. The Kabuliwalas were traders and money lenders. Every few months they would go back to Afghanistan to stock up on dried fruits and come back down the plains to India to sell their wares. Because they did not have family with them, their life was always mysterious and magical to us kids.
When the movie Kabuliwala was released in 1961, based on a short story by Rabindranath Tagore, it tore into our very beings. A beautiful, sad, poignant movie, which made us see the Afghanis for who they were: these wonderful, soft, gentle people.
I was fortunate to have connected with two wonderful Kabuliwala brothers who lived in the same lane that I did. I must have been six or seven and these two brothers became part of our daily lives. They went on evening walks with my grandfather and spent time chatting with my grandmother. I remember the fruits and the candies.
Then I forgot, as I grew up I forgot so many things: their names, how they looked, what they said, all gone.
Today, for some reason, I thought about them: are they alive, where are they, where are their families—what might have happened to them?
Today, I also found out that one of the brothers was called Aslam. This is for you Uncle Aslam.
And for all of you out there who cannot find a way out, my heart breaks.