Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Kabuliwala

Offtrack/Hindustan Times/September 2005

Brinda Suri

The Kabuliwala

“It’s exotic fruit, direct from Kabul,” chirped the fruit seller, siting plum in his air-conditioned shop, between boxes of fruit bearing labels from around the world. “Haanji, it’s come in the PM’s plane,” he continued, breaking into a sheepish grin knowing he had taken his sales talk a bit too far.

I had spotted sarda (musk-melon variety native to Afghanistan) after years, and intrigued by it I'd walked into the shop. The last time I had tasted the luscious fruit was when Pathan had brought it.

Pathan was your typical-looking Kabuliwala. Six-footer, broad shouldered, rugged, bearded and turbaned. Quite like Tagore’s fictional character or the quintessential and black-and-white era Bollywood hero. For us, though, Pathan was no fiction, he was real.

He had met Grandpa in Delhi, one winter noon in the 1950s and sold him his ware: raisins, chilgoza, almonds, walnuts... Every year for the next 30 years he arrived during winters with his bags full. “Sardar sahab ko bolo, Pathan aaya hai,” would be his opening lines. Fascinatingly, he always managed to locate Grandpa, who had shifted bases in Delhi and later settled in Calcutta. Pathan as usual found out.

He hailed from around Kabul and would travel the length of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India to reach Sardar sahab who he was very fond of. Grandpa had grown up in the NWFP area, close to the Afghan border, and they would share notes. He was fond of fruits and mentioned to Pathan how much he missed the sarda and anaar (pomegranate) that grew in Afghanistan. Pathan promised to bring some for him next time.

Years passed and there was no sign of Pathan. His country was going through turmoil and we had given up hope of seeing him again.

One summer day, in the late nineties, there was a knock on the door and a familiar voice said, “Sardar sahib ko bolo, Pathan aaya hai”. We rushed to the door. There stood Pathan, aged, but still astonishingly handsome. It was an emotional reunion for the two friends after over a decade. The two ninety-plus men sat and chatted for a while, before Pathan laid out his ware: the regular dry fruits and along with that sarda and anaar. Grandpa looked at him in amazement, to which the Afghan said, “Pathan ne zuban diya tha… I had given you my word”. The moment is imprinted in the mind.

The situation in his country had kept him away. “The taste is not what it used to be, Sardar sahib. My land has seen a lot of bloodshed,” he said with a heavy heart before leaving.

Pathan left, never to return. His Sardar sahib passed away soon after.

“Should I pack one,” asked the shopkeeper breaking my reverie. “It tastes good”.
I let him have his way. Maybe it was from Pathan’s land.


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