Oh, Kabuliwalah!!!

Kabuliwallah – That one story introduced people like me, living the southern tip of India, to Northerly Afghanistan, many decades ago. Our Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore wrote this powerful story in 1892, a time when the frontier policy was being debated by the British. This was a story that then found its way into our school text books. Tagore was the one who introduced us formally to the Afghan, though we saw Kabuliwalah’s often on the streets. If you have not read the story, please, please read it. It is such a beautiful bit of writing. Here is a link (it is but one translation, there are better and worse, this one is OK).

Then there was the Kabuli Chana (chickpeas or Garbanzo beans) that we all know. Today we have Desi Chana, but in those days, it came from Kabul (so did Badam, Pista, Raisins…) through roving Kabuliwallah’s and it was thus called so. When we eat Chana masala today, with the sizzling Batura, we don’t quite care about its origins, be it from Turkey or Kabul or wherever, but many years ago, it reached India through the Khyber pass, in return for spices and other Indian stuff that went back North and Westwards through the silk road and the Hindu Khush…

I was listening to Khaled Hosseini reading out his own book Kite runner, a book that I enjoyed to the hilt. So some days back, it is this narration that took me often to the streets of Kabul. My mind was quite full of Afghanistan, the smell and the sights and the waste wrought by mankind, the destruction of the once great nation, again geopolitics at play and the price? Someday I hope Khaled Hosseini (since he remembers & quotes mainly Persian authors) and you all will read the Kabuliwallah story and allow that story to fill your heart & eyes. It was Tagore’s gift to an Afghan in 1892.

I was fortunate that three Afghan movies I had seen earlier, prepared me for the various scenes in the Kite Runner and Kabul.

It is one of the most poignant movies we have ever watched. The story of a 12 year old girl in the Taliban run Afghanistan, in a movie shot in Kabul. The film takes you through the destroyed streets of Kabul and the life of the abject populace (covered in Kite runner during the second half), the high handedness of the ruthless Taliban and the plight of the once proud & even scholastic women of Kabul..
After the brutal Taliban regime bans women from working and forbids them to leave their homes without a male escort, a 12-year old girl and her mother find themselves on the brink of starvation. With nowhere left to turn, the mother disguises her daughter as a boy. Now called "Osama," the young girl embarks on a terrifying and confusing journey as she tries to keep the Taliban from discovering her true identity

NY Times - Osama has no special resiliency or survival skills; her face is, at every moment, a study in suppressed panic and worried passivity. Her unvarnished vulnerability, along with the director's combination of tough-mindedness and lyricism, prevents the movie from becoming at all sentimental; instead, it is beautiful, thoughtful and almost unbearably sad.

Kabul Express
It is a story of five people whose paths cross in Afghanistan. I liked both John & Arshad, but the American girl was mainly eye candy. On the whole, I enjoyed watching the movie. The movie ran into rough weather over some harsh comments passed about Hazrah’s, an ethnic minority with Mongoloid origins (Some say they are Genghis khan’s descendants) in Afghanistan and who were horribly treated by the Taliban. The ‘Kite Runner’ book features the protagonist’s relationship with Hazarah’s amongst other things.

Kabul Express is set in post 9/11 (November 2001) Afghanistan where the American bombing has destroyed the most hated Taliban regime and the Taliban soldiers are trying to escape to Pakistan to avoid the wrath of the Afghans. Against this turbulent backdrop, Jai and Suhel, two Indian Television reporters have entered Afghanistan and their aim is to somehow get a rare interview with a Talibani. One cold winter morning in Kabul, they get kidnapped at gunpoint by a Taliban fugitive who wants to escape to the Pakistani border. American journalist Jessica spots them and thinks that they are leaving to get a big scoop and unwittingly she too becomes a part of the kidnapped lot.

The 9th Company (9-Ya Rota)
This is an odd one in comparison, looking at the Afghan war from the Russian side & based on a true story. It is the story of a regiment who goes to war against the Afghan Mujahideen and the dismal results that ensue. A brilliantly crafted movie, it has superb photography and sharp depiction of the war scenes.

Washington post - The young soldiers, unsure what they're fighting for or even where, are abandoned on a lonely plateau that is eventually overrun by a faceless enemy. After a bloody but heroic denouement, the lone survivor is left to return to a home country that is itself in crisis, where his experience will be ignored if not scorned. Russian art seems inherently pessimistic, and the atmosphere around the camp could scarcely be darker as stories circulate about hideously injured soldiers and whole companies going missing in the mountains. When the troops finally get to Afghanistan the film explodes into action (this apparently had one of the largest budgets in Russian cinema history) and the battle scenes are told with all necessary brutality, without ever losing sight of the human story at its core.

Kite runner itself was released as a movie earlier this month, I hope it will be good.

For those interested – some more information on Kabuliwallah’s & KabuliChana

Thanks to Shantanud - Afghan money lenders used to do brisk business in undivided India. The story Kabuliwallah became so well known that it was later made into a movie starring Balraj Sahni (there were actually two movie versions one in Bengali and one in Hindi). Largely illiterate, through a complicated maze of signs and symbols, they kept meticulous track of who owed them how much, when was pay day and then were present at the right time and place to collect their dues. Their interest rates were of course usurious but they provided unsecured loans which their customers not having much collateral to give, found beneficial. However defaults on payments were not tolerated and when patience ran out, the Kabuliwallah’s justice was rough and ready.

For those crazy guys who will keep asking - why, how, when - like me – there are two
types of Chana’s or chickpeas in the world. They are Desi and Kabuli (Mediterranean version) with the latter costing (and tasting better?) twice the Desi version.

Desi chickpea – These are spilt peas and are relatively smaller in size having a thicker seed coat. They appear dark brown in color and they can be used and served in many ways.
Kabuli Chickpeas – Kabuli chickpeas have a whitish-cream color and are relatively bigger in size having a thinner seed coat. They are generally used in soups /salads or as flour

If you want to watch real footage of some action of the Afghan war…try this


narendra shenoy said…
I read "Kabuliwallah" a couple of years ago. It is a beautiful story. Touching. And written beautifully.

I read about Kite Runner in an earlier post of yours. I must get round to reading it. Someone has just gifted me a copy of his Thousand Splendid Suns which I'm looking forward to reading.
harimohan said…
dear maddy
so many movies on this topic and you saw all of them how do you find time ?
great post
An excellent post.

Afghanistan presents such a sad story. I think last week also there was blasting of Buddha statutes in Bamiyan.

I am also reminded of MM Kaye's books with the British-Afghan wars as background,The Far Pavilions and Shadow of the Moon.

Will comment on this soon, but in the meantime, you've been tagged - sorry :-)


Hey, you've become quite the Afghan-phile, have'nt you? I am now eager to read Kite Runner, after reading your reviews.

Re. Kabuliwala, I remember reading it as well. The first Tagore stories I read. Saw the Balraj Sahni movie as well.

Nanditha Prabhu said…
wonderful post as usual.i remember reading kabuliwalla long time back.. and kabuli channa is one of my favorites.though kite runner is stll in my reading list , thousand splendid suns has shown what a crafted story teller khaled houssaini is.i thoroughly enjoyed seeing the kabul express!the path kabul and afghanisthan had to tread is frightening even to imagine.
Maddy said…
Thanks narendra, nandita, Abe & hari - Well I still read a lot and see a lot of movies (and try to write) - many languages... hopefully it will delay dementia and such things, let us hope!!

Abe - The far pavillions was a classic, I still remember many parts of it even after having read it a couple of decades ago..

BPSK – Well there simply was too much to share.

A little bit more - You have probably not read an earlier blog of mine on Emden & Pillai. Check it out - a tidbit from that blog.

There was a great bloke called Champakaraman Pillai, who hobnobbed with Hitler - a half Mallu - Pillai was among those who first gave the slogan of "Jai Hind" to the people of India and to the many Indians abroad who were struggling for the cause of Indian Independence. He had the privilege of being the Prime Minister of the Provisional Government of India set up in Afghanistan in December 1915, with Raja Mahendra Pratap Singh of Kabul as President. However, the defeat of the Germans in the WW shattered the hopes of the revolutionaries
I'm all that said…
Kabulliwalah is a classic. There is nothing I can say that would do justice to the appreciation it deserves.

I thought 'Kabul Express' was absolutely bogus. Filled with cliches and wooden performances, it was a pain to watch. It blew away a great chance to depict a realistic impression of the ground realities.
Maddy said…
thanks i'm all that, well Kabul express was as they say in Bombay 'time pass' i had not expected much so was not disappointed!
I'm all that said…
Btw, I beg to disagree on one thing. I like the desi channa better. Unless its hummus that we're talking about. :P

Did you catch Kite Runner?
Maddy said…
i made that comment after our five plus years at turkey where my wife used to make Channa masala with the Turkish-kabuli chana. i thought it tasted better...

no i did not see the KR movie, people told me it is no great shakes, did not want to spoil the book's impression..