Kolkata: A short story by Rabindranath Tagore has inspired a Bengali and a Hindi film, classics by Tapan Sinha and Hemen Gupta respectively. Now, it has inspired a photo exhibition called Kabul to Kolkata, that has travelled from Kabul to Delhi, and Dhaka and Kolkata to rave reviews.
Kabuliwala, written in 1892, is about a man who comes to Kolkata to trade, and in the end, goes back home. The exhibition is about Kabuliwalas who stayed on in Kolkata but have never been able to take Kabul out of their souls.
One of the exhibition's photographers, Moska Najib, is from Kabul, which she left 23 years ago and has not been able to go back. The other, Nazes Afroz, is from Kolkata for whom the Kabuliwalas represent the city's immense diversity.
Both the Bengali and Hindi films were in black and white and you somehow expect the photographs, too, to be black and white. But instead they are a visual treat in vibrant colours, bringing history, literature and the 21st century Kabuliwala of Kolkata to life.
The photographs give viewers a glimpse into the homes of the Kabuliwalas their lifestyles and their diasporic sentiment. They also exhibit how the Kabuliwalas are continuing their traditions. The stars of the show are Amir Khan and Mohammed Anwar Khan, two of 5000 Kabuliwalas who live in Kolkata today. Anwar Khan left Kabul as a teenager and has never been able to go back. Amir Khan, 42, was born in Kolkata. For both, Kabul is memory and Tagore's Kabuliwala, much more familiar lore.
"I respect Rabindranath Tagore more than my father. If he were alive at this moment, I would have ignored the rest of the world and touched his feet because he is the one who helped these people to rise and have an identity." says Amir Khan.
"I am interested in human migration. Migration is very important aspect of history," said Nazes Afroz. "In Calcutta we had Jewish neighbours, Chinese neighbours, we had Anglo-Indian neighbours. So the diversity of Kolkata fascinated me. But from 1980 onwards, I felt that Calcutta's diversity is disappearing. So I felt, as somebody who has been shaped by Calcutta, I should capture at least a slice of the diversity before it disappears," he added.
For Moska, it's a personal journey about migration and memories. When she left Kabul, she was just eight and circumstances have not permitted her a journey back home.
"I think that like Kabuliwalas of the 21stcentury Kolkata, I am too in the same boat. I haven't been back to my homeland for 20 years now. So you know the subject of these photographs is to do with a sense of belonging and reconnecting back with them. And the way I connect with them is how to preserve my own identity. You cannot go away from your roots," she said.
In Tagore's short story, the Kabuliwala come to Kolkata to trade. He meets a little girl named Mini, who he comes to love as she reminds him of his own daughter, whom he had left back home. He ends up in jail for 10 years. And the day he walks free, he goes to Mini's home and finds that she is about to get married. Mini's father gives him money to return to Kabul.
Today, for the Kabuliwalas of Kolkata, the city is home, but their hearts still lie in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan.