Kabuliwala Calling

BY DRISHTI RAKHRA

I told four people that I was going to watch ‘Kabuliwala Calling’. All their faces lit up with recognition, followed by the customary – “oh, I remember reading Kabuliwala. I loved it so much.” My mother, who hates every silent minute of reading, said, “Wait, let me show you adaptations of Kabuliwala,” and then began listing different shows for me to watch. Tagore’s short stories, she tells me, are just beautiful. I agree, of course, carrying with me the memory of being in school and reading the story for the first time. 

‘Kabuliwala Calling’ was a short play staged at Bangalore International Centre on 5th March. The play is an original adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story of the simpler name, Kabuliwala. It was staged by members of Bangalore Little Theatre, entirely in English, to celebrate Tagore’s — Gurudev, as the characters called him — 160th birth anniversary. 

Walking into an auditorium for a play is forever an exciting feeling. You’re offered an insight into the performance before it has even begun — the stage might be empty or covered in props. For a few minutes, you can play a small guessing game with yourself. What is the play going to look like? The audience has a few minutes to soak in the quiet before the stage comes to life; giving you some sense of intimacy. One that was taken away in the pandemic. 

On this particular day, the BIC stage was carefully decked up to show us two different timelines–one of present-day India, and the other in which Tagore’s story took place, the late 1800s. The right side of the stage contained a makeshift verandah and a desk with a typewriter, while the left housed a small partition that looked like a brick wall. In front of the partition were some stools and cushions. The difference between the two sets is visible at the offset. The left is the poverty-stricken present, while the right is the house of a West Bengal aristocratic family from the 19th century. 

Through this original adaptation, Bangalore Little Theatre shows us how it is possible to take a story from 1890 and adapt it to the 21st century. The play began with a young man walking around with a DSLR camera. A disembodied voice began narrating – telling us that this man was here to interview Zafir Khan and his grandfather, for men like Zafir Khan are very rare. They are immigrants from Afghanistan settled now in India, the last of the few. Our young journalist, nervous bodied and excited, began interviewing Zafir’s grandfather, an old, heavy-voiced man who told us the story of his Abba – Rahmat Khan from Tagore’s Kabuliwala. 

The heavy-voiced old man, played by Vijay Padaki, played a key role in connecting the two worlds of the story. On one side, you were able to see Tagore’s Kabuliwala enacted, while on the other you’re able to glimpse at the possibility of Kabuliwala today. The journalist in the story, played by Karan Manveer Singh Dalal, embodies the somewhat ignorant audience. He is a young, energetic man of 21st-century-India who enjoys different privileges, recognising the possibility of a story in the Khan family, but remaining oblivious to the smaller problems within. 

More than anything, I found myself intrigued by the view of pre-partitioned India. With the state of the world right now, it is hard to imagine a merchant from Afghanistan crossing several borders to sell Afghani delicacies in India. The play reminds us of how vulnerable we are as individuals, struggling always to make ends meet. We share our problems with Rahmat Khan, the Kabuliwala from the 1890s, particularly now in the pandemic, when every day is difficult to predict. The play brings forth serious questions of identity — what rights does a refugee have in a foreign country? Does his being there allow for the same privileges as a citizen of the country? In today’s thoroughly digital world, does access to technology add or take away from our selfhood? 

A still from ‘Kabuliwala’, a 1961 Hindi movie adapted from the short story of the same name by Rabindranath Tagore.

Kabuliwalas don’t exist in Calcutta like they once did. Only about 7,000 of them remain, but none of them is in their old avatars — turbanned with the jhola. Now, they’re only reflections of who they used to be — merchants from Afghanistan, selling (what used to be) exotic dry fruits and silks. 

I return to the beginning of the play repeatedly — with a voice clip of a busy market. You hear chaos — many different sounds that are meant to represent the Calcutta of today. 

When you compare this to the second half of the play, you’re forced to confront the changing world — for 19th-century Calcutta is quiet, quiet enough for the Kabuliwala’s call – “O, Kabuliwala aaya!” to echo through the silence. There’s no room for this call anymore.

Both stories, while taking place in the same geographical location, belong to different universes, held together only by man’s daily needs of hunger, thirst, sleep. For everything has changed between then and now, except for the simple fact that we are animals.

Drishti Rakhra is a reader, teacher, and writer, in that order. In 2019, she completed her Master’s in English from Ambedkar University Delhi, and is currently an assistant professor at St. Joseph’s College, Bangalore.