When I was a kid, I was told to be afraid of the tall, burly, bearded, turbaned man in loose trousers, who came to our neighborhood every week to sell Hing, Surma, Kaju (Cashew), Akhrot (Walnut). I was brainwashed into believing that every bearded man was to be afraid of. For a long time I ran away seeking refuge in my mother’s aanchal each time the hefty, but smiling Kabuliwala, passed by our house.
Then one day I suffered a severe burn injury in my leg and was unable to move. My uncle (father’s brother) used to carry me in his arms to make me sit on the doorsteps. When the Kabuliwala came, I couldn’t escape. He stooped low to look me in the eye with a melancholy smile. He saw my injury and his eyes moistened as he, I guessed, asked me what had happened.
I didn’t understand his words but his eyes told me he was feeling my pain. He dug into his sling bag, drew out a handful of raisins (किशमिश), mixed it with kaaju and aakhrot, made a neat bundle and handed it over to me. Slightly embarrassed, my mother rushed out and asked him for the price. Protesting vigorously, the man left with a wave without waiting for the money. Thus began the weekly ritual of his coming to our home, giving me the bundle, and refusing any payment. By then the burly Kabuliwala had become my friend.
My parents found a way to reciprocate his kindness. They had started to offer him tea, and some light homemade snacks. His bushy beard no longer appeared scary. He took me in his lap and made me ride on his bicycle. The Kabuli in his broken Bengali told us stories about his beautiful country. In Calcutta, his makeshift abode was a house in Shyambazar, opposite the tram depot, in the northern parts of the city. He stayed with a few of his friends and family there for a part of the year before going back to Kabul.
Only much afterward, I came to know that he was also a moneylender, who charged very high-interest rates. He would get into fierce arguments with defaulters, but that didn’t leave an imprint on my friendship; the raisins were still as sweet.
A little later I found another friend. This time a young boy of my age. I must have been around eight or nine years old. He came with his father, once again a bearded man with a hooked nose. My father too had a hooked mid-eastern nose, which has been passed on to me as an inheritance.
The boy and his father carried loads of beautiful woolen shawls and were very welcome in our home. My mother, aunts, and grandmother flocked around him and excitedly went through his wares. The boy played with me, as his father patiently and always with a smile, kept on displaying an endless variety of shawls with extreme serenity. His gentle smile never left his lips even on days he couldn’t do business.
Soon the boy used to be left in our home while his father roamed the neighborhood selling shawls. A few years later, the father stopped coming, and the boy, now a young handsome man, took over the trade. He had a Rajdoot motorcycle, to carry around the shawls, sweaters, and even carpets.
He remained my friend and told me stories of his beautiful land in Kashmir. We even visited his home during a summer holiday and were showered with heartwarming hospitality by his entire family of uncles, aunts, sisters, and his mother.
They were genuinely displeased that we had chosen to stay in an inexpensive hotel. I still remember the name, New Rigadoon. This was considered an insult and very soon we found ourselves in a houseboat, in Dal Lake, owned by one of his uncles. It was an expensive arrangement much beyond our humble means. I’m quite sure my friend and his father had ensured a hefty discount for us, without making us feel slighted in any way.
I was overwhelmed by the beauty of my friend’s homeland. In the evenings he taught me to row a shikara on the lake. The paddle was heart-shaped at the end and it left pretty little eddies on the surface of the water after each stroke. Two weeks passed in undiluted bliss and happiness. I vowed to come back each year when I was grown up enough and earned enough to pay for the travel.
Kabul and Kashmir have been an integral part of my childhood, both lands devastated by war and terror. I do not know what happened to my friends and their families. I shudder to think of them ever as being part of the violence that has destroyed lives, livelihood, and their lands. I cannot fathom why it had to happen this way. Why do other countries have to fight over someone else’s land? I return to my childhood and keep asking these questions. I only wish that our politicians who decide to send armies to another person’s home had friends as I had in those beautiful countries.