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The Cabuliwallah

[The Fruitseller from Cabul]

My five years' old daughter Mini cannot live without chattering. I
really believe that in all her life she has not wasted a minute in
silence. Her mother is often vexed at this, and would stop her prattle,
but I would not. To see Mini quiet is unnatural, and I cannot bear it
long. And so my own talk with her is always lively.

One morning, for instance, when I was in the midst of the seventeenth
chapter of my new novel, my little Mini stole into the room, and putting
her hand into mine, said: "Father! Ramdayal the door-keeper calls a
crow a krow! He doesn't know anything, does he?"

Before I could explain to her the differences of language in this world,
she was embarked on the full tide of another subject. "What do you
think, Father? Bhola says there is an elephant in the clouds, blowing
water out of his trunk, and that is why it rains!"

And then, darting off anew, while I sat still making ready some reply to
this last saying, "Father! what relation is Mother to you?"

"My dear little sister in the law!" I murmured involuntarily to myself,
but with a grave face contrived to answer: "Go and play with Bhola,
Mini! I am busy!"

The window of my room overlooks the road. The child had seated herself
at my feet near my table, and was playing softly, drumming on her knees.
I was hard at work on my seventeenth chapter, where Protrap Singh, the
hero, had just caught Kanchanlata, the heroine, in his arms, and was
about to escape with her by the third story window of the
castle, when all of a sudden Mini left her play, and ran to the window,
crying, "A Cabuliwallah! a Cabuliwallah!" Sure enough in the street
below was a Cabuliwallah, passing slowly along. He wore the loose
soiled clothing of his people, with a tall turban; there was a bag on
his back, and he carried boxes of grapes in his hand.

I cannot tell what were my daughter's feelings at the sight of this man,
but she began to call him loudly. "Ah!" I thought, "he will come in,
and my seventeenth chapter will never be finished!" At which exact
moment the Cabuliwallah turned, and looked up at the child. When she
saw this, overcome by terror, she fled to her mother's protection, and
disappeared. She had a blind belief that inside the bag, which the big
man carried, there were perhaps two or three other children like
herself. The pedlar meanwhile entered my doorway, and greeted me with a
smiling face.

So precarious was the position of my hero and my heroine, that my first
impulse was to stop and buy something, since the man had been called. I
made some small purchases, and a conversation began about Abdurrahman,
the Russians, she English, and the Frontier Policy.

As he was about to leave, he asked: "And where is the little girl, sir?"

And I, thinking that Mini must get rid of her false fear, had her
brought out.

She stood by my chair, and looked at the Cabuliwallah and his bag. He
offered her nuts and raisins, but she would not be tempted, and only
clung the closer to me, with all her doubts increased.

This was their first meeting.

One morning, however, not many days later, as I was leaving the house, I
was startled to find Mini, seated on a bench near the door, laughing and
talking, with the great Cabuliwallah at her feet. In all her life, it
appeared; my small daughter had never found so patient a listener, save
her father. And already the corner of her little sari was
stuffed with almonds and raisins, the gift of her visitor, "Why did you
give her those?" I said, and taking out an eight-anna bit, I handed it
to him. The man accepted the money without demur, and slipped it into
his pocket.

Alas, on my return an hour later, I found the unfortunate coin had made
twice its own worth of trouble! For the Cabuliwallah had given it to
Mini, and her mother catching sight of the bright round object, had
pounced on the child with: "Where did you get that eight-anna bit? "

"The Cabuliwallah gave it me," said Mini cheerfully.

"The Cabuliwallah gave it you!" cried her mother much shocked. "Oh,
Mini! how could you take it from him?"

I, entering at the moment, saved her from impending disaster, and
proceeded to make my own inquiries.

It was not the first or second time, I found, that the two had met. The
Cabuliwallah had overcome the child's first terror by a judicious
bribery of nuts and almonds, and the two were now great friends.

They had many quaint jokes, which afforded them much amusement. Seated
in front of him, looking down on his gigantic frame in all her tiny
dignity, Mini would ripple her face with laughter, and begin: "O
Cabuliwallah, Cabuliwallah, what have you got in your bag?"

And he would reply, in the nasal accents of the mountaineer: "An
elephant!" Not much cause for merriment, perhaps; but how they both
enjoyed the witticism! And for me, this child's talk with a grown-up
man had always in it something strangely fascinating.

Then the Cabuliwallah, not to be behindhand, would take his turn: "Well,
little one, and when are you going to the father-in-law's house?"

Now most small Bengali maidens have heard long ago about the
father-in-law's house; but we, being a little new-fangled, had kept
these things from our child, and Mini at this question must have been a
trifle bewildered. But she would not show it, and with ready tact
replied: "Are you going there?"

Amongst men of the Cabuliwallah's class, however, it is well known that
the words father-in-law's house have a double meaning. It is a
euphemism for jail, the place where we are well cared for, at no expense
to ourselves. In this sense would the sturdy pedlar take my
daughter's question. "Ah," he would say, shaking his fist at an
invisible policeman, "I will thrash my father-in-law!" Hearing this,
and picturing the poor discomfited relative, Mini would go off into
peals of laughter, in which her formidable friend would join.

These were autumn mornings, the very time of year when kings of old went
forth to conquest; and I, never stirring from my little corner in
Calcutta, would let my mind wander over the whole world. At the very
name of another country, my heart would go out to it, and at the sight
of a foreigner in the streets, I would fall to weaving a network of
dreams, --the mountains, the glens, and the forests of his distant home,
with his cottage in its setting, and the free and independent life of
far-away wilds. Perhaps the scenes of travel conjure themselves up
before me, and pass and repass in my imagination all the more vividly,
because I lead such a vegetable existence, that a call to travel would
fall upon me like a thunderbolt. In the presence of this Cabuliwallah,
I was immediately transported to the foot of arid
mountain peaks, with narrow little defiles twisting in and out amongst
their towering heights. I could see the string of camels bearing the
merchandise, and the company of turbaned merchants, carrying some of
their queer old firearms, and some of their spears, journeying downward
towards the plains. I could see--but at some such point Mini's mother
would intervene, imploring me to "beware of that man."

Mini's mother is unfortunately a very timid lady. Whenever she hears a
noise in the street, or sees people coming towards the house, she always
jumps to the conclusion that they are either thieves, or drunkards, or
snakes, or tigers, or malaria or cockroaches, or caterpillars, or an
English sailor. Even after all these years of experience, she is not
able to overcome her terror. So she was full of doubts about the
Cabuliwallah, and used to beg me to keep a watchful eye on him.

I tried to laugh her fear gently away, but then she would turn round on
me seriously, and ask me solemn questions.

Were children never kidnapped?

Was it, then, not true that there was slavery in Cabul?

Was it so very absurd that this big man should be able to carry off a
tiny child?

I urged that, though not impossible, it was highly improbable. But this
was not enough, and her dread persisted. As it was indefinite, however,
it did not seem right to forbid the man the house, and the intimacy went
on unchecked.

Once a year in the middle of January Rahmun, the Cabuliwallah, was in
the habit of returning to his country, and as the time approached he
would be very busy, going from house to house collecting his debts.
This year, however, he could always find time to come and see Mini. It
would have seemed to an outsider that there was some conspiracy between
the two, for when he could not come in the morning, he would appear in
the evening.

Even to me it was a little startling now and then, in the corner of a
dark room, suddenly to surprise this tall, loose-garmented, much
bebagged man; but when Mini would run in smiling, with her, "O!
Cabuliwallah! Cabuliwallah!" and the two friends, so far apart in age,
would subside into their old laughter and their old jokes, I felt
reassured.

One morning, a few days before he had made up his mind to go, I was
correcting my proof sheets in my study. It was chilly weather. Through
the window the rays of the sun touched my feet, and the slight warmth
was very welcome. It was almost eight o'clock, and the early
pedestrians were returning home, with their heads covered. All at once,
I heard an uproar in the street, and, looking out, saw Rahmun being led
away bound between two policemen, and behind them a crowd of curious
boys. There were blood-stains on the clothes of the Cabuliwallah, and
one of the policemen carried a knife. Hurrying out, I stopped them, and
enquired what it all meant. Partly from one, partly from another, I
gathered that a certain neighbour had owed the pedlar something for a
Rampuri shawl, but had falsely denied having bought it, and that in the
course of the quarrel, Rahmun had struck him. Now in the heat of his
excitement, the prisoner began calling his enemy all sorts of names,
when suddenly in a verandah of my house appeared my little Mini, with
her usual exclamation: "O Cabuliwallah! Cabuliwallah!" Rahmun's face
lighted up as he turned to her. He had no bag under his arm today, so
she could not discuss the elephant with him. She at once therefore
proceeded to the next question: "Are you going to the father-in-law's
house?" Rahmun laughed and said: "Just where I am going, little one!"
Then seeing that the reply did not amuse the child, he held up his
fettered hands. " Ali," he said, " I would have thrashed that old
father-in-law, but my hands are bound!"

On a charge of murderous assault, Rahmun was sentenced to some years'
imprisonment.

Time passed away, and he was not remembered. The accustomed work in the
accustomed place was ours, and the thought of the once-free mountaineer
spending his years in prison seldom or never occurred to us. Even my
light-hearted Mini, I am ashamed to say, forgot her old friend. New
companions filled her life. As she grew older, she spent more of her
time with girls. So much time indeed did she spend with them that she
came no more, as she used to do, to her father's room. I was scarcely
on speaking terms with her.

Years had passed away. It was once more autumn and we had made
arrangements for our Mini's marriage. It was to take place during the
Puja Holidays. With Durga returning to Kailas, the light of our home
also was to depart to her husband's house, and leave her father's in the
shadow.

The morning was bright. After the rains, there was a sense of ablution
in the air, and the sun-rays looked like pure gold. So bright were they
that they gave a beautiful radiance even to the sordid brick walls of
our Calcutta lanes. Since early dawn to-day the wedding-pipes had been
sounding, and at each beat my own heart throbbed. The wail of the tune,
Bhairavi, seemed to intensify my pain at the approaching separation. My
Mini was to be married to-night.

>From early morning noise and bustle had pervaded the house. In the
courtyard the canopy had to be slung on its bamboo poles; the
chandeliers with their tinkling sound must be hung in each room and
verandah. There was no end of hurry and excitement. I was sitting in
my study, looking through the accounts, when some one entered, saluting
respectfully, and stood before me. It was Rahmun the Cabuliwallah. At
first I did not recognise him. He had no bag, nor the long hair, nor
the same vigour that he used to have. But he smiled, and I knew him
again.

"When did you come, Rahmun?" I asked him.

"Last evening," he said, "I was released from jail."

The words struck harsh upon my ears. I had never before talked with one
who had wounded his fellow, and my heart shrank within itself, when I
realised this, for I felt that the day would have been better-omened had
he not turned up.

"There are ceremonies going on," I said, "and I am busy. Could you
perhaps come another day?"

At once he turned to go; but as he reached the door he hesitated, and
said: "May I not see the little one, sir, for a moment?" It was his
belief that Mini was still the same. He had pictured her running to him
as she used, calling "O Cabuliwallah! Cabuliwallah!" He had imagined
too that they would laugh and talk together, just as of old. In fact,
in memory of former days he had brought, carefully wrapped up in paper,
a few almonds and raisins and grapes, obtained somehow from a
countryman, for his own little fund was dispersed.

I said again: "There is a ceremony in the house, and you will not be
able to see any one to-day."

The man's face fell. He looked wistfully at me for a moment, said "Good
morning," and went out. I felt a little sorry, and would have called
him back, but I found he was returning of his own accord. He came close
up to me holding out his offerings and said: "I brought these few
things, sir, for the little one. Will you give them to her?"

I took them and was going to pay him, but he caught my hand and said:
"You are very kind, sir! Keep me in your recollection. Do not offer me
money!--You have a little girl, I too have one like her in my own home.
I think of her, and bring fruits to your child, not to make a profit for
myself."

Saying this, he put his hand inside his big loose robe, and brought out
a small and dirty piece of paper. With great care he unfolded this, and
smoothed it out with both hands on my table. It bore the impression of
a little band. Not a photograph. Not a drawing. The impression of an
ink-smeared hand laid flat on the paper. This touch of his own little
daughter had been always on his heart, as he had come year after year to
Calcutta, to sell his wares in the streets.

Tears came to my eyes. I forgot that he was a poor Cabuli fruit-seller,
while I was--but no, what was I more than he? He also was a father.
That impression of the hand of his little Parbati in her distant
mountain home reminded me of my own little Mini.

I sent for Mini immediately from the inner apartment. Many difficulties
were raised, but I would not listen. Clad in the red silk of her
wedding-day, with the sandal paste on her forehead, and adorned as a
young bride, Mini came, and stood bashfully before me.

The Cabuliwallah looked a little staggered at the apparition. He could
not revive their old friendship. At last he smiled and said: "Little
one, are you going to your father-in-law's house?"

But Mini now understood the meaning of the word "father-in-law," and she
could not reply to him as of old. She flushed up at the question, and
stood before him with her bride-like face turned down.

I remembered the day when the Cabuliwallah and my Mini had first met,
and I felt sad. When she had gone, Rahmun heaved a deep sigh, and sat
down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter
too must have grown in this long time, and that he would have to make
friends with her anew. Assuredly he would not find her, as he used to
know her. And besides, what might not have happened to her in these
eight years?

The marriage-pipes sounded, and the mild autumn sun streamed round us.
But Rahmun sat in the little Calcutta lane, and saw before him the
barren mountains of Afghanistan.

I took out a bank-note, and gave it to him, saying: "Go back to your own
daughter, Rahmun, in your own country, and may the happiness of your
meeting bring good fortune to my child!"

Having made this present, I had to curtail some of the festivities. I
could not have the electric lights I had intended, nor the military
band, and the ladies of the house were despondent at it. But to me the
wedding feast was all the brighter for the thought that in a distant
land a long-lost father met again with his only child.

Rabindranath Tagore

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