They were flying high—specks of green, red, pink, black, blue—brightening up a lazy blue sky. At ground level, animated Afghani men in Pathani suits were tugging and spooling kite strings adeptly. Battle lines were soon drawn. Other Afghan men fervently began following conquests happening in the sky. Wild cheers and jeers were heard doing the rounds. In a while the coloured specks faded till only two remained. The Green and the Yellow. Tension gripped, brows creased, necks stiffened. The crowd grew silent. Passerbys paused. Two paper squares in the sky held control. Tug, lift, jerk, snap. Suddenly the Yellow nosedived and jubilant cries in Pashto rent the air. The victor was hailed by his supporters. And as his winning Green mascot soared higher, somewhere from among the Pathani-clad men a group of kite runners emerged and ran for the trophy—the vanquished Yellow.
I was watching this engrossing action at the Maidan in Calcutta on a ceremonial Sunday afternoon. It could well have been a page out of Khaled Hosseni’s The Kite Runner being played out in front of me. Such was the similarity in spirit and portrayal at this gathering of Afghans in Calcutta, their adopted home, miles away from their homeland.
Every Sunday, and most visibly during the days of the Eid and Navroz or new year, Calcutta’s Afghan settlers gather at the Maidan and live a little bit of Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad…entertaining themselves with traditional passions…kite flying, anda kushti (hard-boiled egg fights) and performing the Attan. It’s a custom that’s been followed for close to a century, from the time the first Afghans began coming to Calcutta to seize opportunities of commerce.
Amongst the earliest sub-continental voyagers, these rugged men would travel the lengths of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gangetic India to reach Calcutta. Here, as elsewhere across Indian cities, they would go door to door selling bags full of Afghan flavours and fragrances—dry fruits, spices and ittar; translating the capital earned from its sale into money-lending business. Their place of origin and typical dress code—Pathani shalwar kameez, keffiyeh and turban—earned them their brand name: Kabuliwala. Which though a little romanticised, a little enigmatic is an identity that has stuck on till today.
The Kabuliwalas assembled at the Maidan that day were among the close to 2,000 Afghans settled in Calcutta. Most of them still continue to be moneylenders, though many have diversified into other small trades. “Whatever occupation we may do on six days of the week, on the seventh day we Afghans have to picnic,” septuagenarian dry fruit trader Hafeez Muhamud tells me. “We need an excuse to party, feast and dance. You can call it our favourite pastime,” his grandson chips in. While in Kabul they have baghs and cooler mountain regions of Paghman or Salang in the Hindu Kush to let their hair down, in Calcutta, its green lung remains their chosen ground.
The Sunday I was there was a day after Eid-ul-Fitr, and celebration on such festive occasions generally becomes a daylong affair. Conversation was flowing in Pashto and Dari. A lot of catching up was taking place. A visitor from Kabul wearing the pukhool (round woolen cap) and turban was holding court. A customary feast of pilau, naan, qorma, boulanee, watermelons and of course lots of dry fruit, had been spread out on dastarkhwans and groups of men were tucking in. Throughout the various sessions, Afghan chai was doing brisk sales. Quite similar in taste to kahva, local tea vendors by now are adept at making the beverage and prefer calling it lal chai owing to the colour of the cinnamon-flavoured concoction.
On the fringes sporting activity continued. A few boys displayed their volleyball skills, while others preferred playing soccer. Some avidly watched the blade of the willow hit a cracker of a shot by one of the many teams playing weekly cricket at the Maidan. In one corner empty trays of eggs and coloured egg shells lay as reminders of a passion for traditional games played on Eid like aanda kushti, which essentially is two contestants trying to crack each other’s hard-boiled eggs, which are painstakingly painted in bright colours after being boiled to perfection. Dozens of trays get used up, the winner being the one who manages to have maximum eggs intact. “The boiled eggs are eventually used for the community dinner or given away in charity,” burly Khomein explained, counting the number of eggs he had managed to save.
Around late afternoon, the two drummers who had been providing a background score, increased the tempo and as if on cue a group of men took centerstage and began performing Attan, the Afghan dance that has origins in the southern provinces of Afghanistan where every celebration culminated with it. Its beat is the traditional Mogholi, said to be a creation of the Mughal dynasty. A huge circle was created and performers from the crowd followed each other going round and round in a circle to the beat. Their Attan was a blend of three steps: wardaki (lots of twists and turns), logari (clapping and turns) and khosti (snapping of head from side to side). As the rhythm and beats began to get fast, participants who couldn’t keep pace dropped out and others joined in…and the Attan went on till after sundown.
“We like to stick to traditions,” a youth who held an Indian election card told me. Yes, the conservative Afghans sure do stick to tradition. Except for the little girl in a pretty pink salwar kameez, their women were missing from the gathering.
Published Outlook Traveller