We live in an age where many people are fleeing their native lands and seeking refuge in other countries. The causes for the creation of so many refugees are many, the most common being wars, economic hardships caused by climate change, and fears of persecution either as individuals or as members of some minority community that is being targeted by the majority community with the government either not doing anything about it or even condoning the abuses.
While I am technically not a refugee, I left Sri Lanka with my family because I fell into the last category. As such, it gives me a small window into the refugee mindset and know that leaving one’s country and all that is familiar for another land where one has to start afresh, sometimes not even knowing the language, is a very difficult decision, not made lightly. Hence refugees should be treated with compassion. But sadly that is often not the case. It is easy to view refugees as somehow threatening and many politicians have used them as an easy target to inflame nativist tendencies in the population to create hostility to the refugees.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was a Bengali polymath, writer, poet, artist, and composer among other things, the first non-European to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1913. He was a humanist, universalist, internationalist, and anti-nationalist. He even rebuked Gandhi after the latter unwisely called an earthquake that hit Bihar in 1934 and killed thousands a ‘seismic karma’ for the way that the Dalits (members of the so-called untouchable caste) were treated.
On NPR recently I learned about his touching short story Kabuliwala that can be read here. The word Kabuliwala (or sometimes ‘Kabuliwallah’) means ‘Kabul person’ and the story is of an impoverished fruit seller who is an Afghan who comes to Calcutta (now Kolkata) to try and make a living. When a small child calls out when he passes by her house, he is strangely struck by her, talks to her, and ends up forming an unlikely friendship with her. Her mother fears and disapproves of this foreigner, thinking he has possibly ulterior motives, but the girl’s father accepts the Kabuliwala coming by their home with little gifts of fruits for her. The reason for the Kabuliwala’s interest in the girl is revealed at the end of this touching story when he returns to see the child after being released from prison after eight years.
You can see the power of Tagore’s writing, his ability to evoke strong feelings in the reader using mundane details. The story brought tears to my eyes.
The NPR story points out that Kabuliwala is about how refugees suffer from the loss of loved ones left behind. The story is ultimately about combating xenophobia and and forms part of the school curriculum and thus is well known to the people of India, especially in Bengal, where the influence of Tagore is justifiably immense. The story is credited with helping in the acceptance of Afghan refugees displaced by the endless wars that that country has suffered. It provides a much-needed antidote to the anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalist forces that prime minister Narendra Modi encourages.
Here is a clip from a TV show based on the story. You do not need to understand the words to appreciate it.
Here is a full 1957 Bengali film with English subtitles. I have not as yet seen it so cannot comment on its quality.