(This is a feeble translation of Rabindranath Tagore's famous story)
My five-year-old daughter, Mini, cannot remain quiet even for a minute. It had taken her only a year after coming to this world to learn the language and, thereafter, she has never wasted a single moment of her waking hours in remaining silent. Her mother often scolds her and forces Mini to keep her mouth shut, but I do not have the heart to do that. Mini appears so unnatural if she keeps quiet that I find it unendurable. It is for this reason that Mini's conversation with me is always lively.
I was trying to complete the 17th chapter of my novel in the morning when Mini came to me."Baba, our watchman Ramdayal calls a crow as 'kouaa'. He does not know anything. No?"
Before I could acquaint her of the diversities of the language, Mini had broached a different subject. "See Baba, Bhola was saying that elephants spout water in the sky with their trunks and, so, we get rains. Bhola is such a liar. He only talks, talks through the day and night."
Without waiting to hear my opinion on the matter, she asked me abruptly, "Baba, how is Ma related to you?"
"Sister-in-law," I said in my mind but to her I said, "Mini, you go and play with Bhola now. I have some work to do."
She sat down at my feet by my writing table and began to play some sort of a game. In the 17th chapter of my book, Pratapsingh and Kanchanmala had in the darkness of the night leapt from the high wall of the prison into the river.
My house is by the road. Mini stopped her game all of a sudden and rushed to the window while shouting, "Kabuliwallah, Oh Kabuliwallah."
Attired in dirty clothes with a turban on his head, a bundle slung across his shoulders and few boxes of grapes in his hands, a tall Kabuliwallah was walking down the road. My daughter became very excited on seeing him and began to call him. I thought to myself that the man would now come here and I will not be able to complete the 17th chapter.
However, when the Kabuliwallah, hearing Mini's shouts, turned back smilingly and approached our house, Mini ran away from there and could not be seen anywhere. She believed that if the bundle was searched, a few children like her could be found in it.
The Kabuliwallah, meanwhile, came up to me and after saluting me, stood there. I thought that although Pratapsingh and Kanchanmala were facing a critical situation, it would not be proper if I did not purchase something from the man after having summoned him.
So, I made some purchases and then we had a little conversation. Finally the Kabuliwallah made to go but before departing, he asked, "Babu, where has your daughter gone?"
I called her but she stood clinging to me while eyeing the Kabuliwallah's bundle suspiciously. The man withdrew some raisins from the bundle and held them out to her. But Mini did not take them. She clung to me more firmly and her suspicion heightened. The first meeting ended in this manner.
A few days later when I stepped out of my house in the morning, I saw Mini and Kabuliwallah seated on a bench at some distance. Mini was talking incessantly and Kabuliwallah was listening to her intently with a smile on his face. Whenever, he could, the Kabuliwallah was trying to put in a word of his own. In her five years of existence till now, Mini had not found such a good audience other than her father. Then I noticed that she had a heap of nuts and raisins. "Why have you given her all these. Please do not give them to her for free," I told Kabuliwallah and drawing out a coin from my pocket, I handed it over to him. He took the coin without any protest.
When I returned home, I found that a war of words had erupted between mother and daughter over the coin. The Kabuliwallah had returned the coin to Mini. Mini's mother, upon discovering the coin on her person, wanted to know where it had come from. "Kabuliwallah gave it to me," Mini told her.
"Why did you take it?" the mother demanded to know.
"I did not ask for it. He gave it to me on his own," Mini, who was on the point of bursting into tears, said.
I came to Mini's rescue and took her out.
I learnt that this was not just the second meeting between Mini and Kabuliwallah. He had come often and after bribing her with nuts and raisins, had won her little heart. The two friends would begin their conversation with few specific teasing statements. For instance, upon seeing Rahamat, my daughter would laughingly ask him, "Kabuliwallah, oh Kabuliwallah, what do you have in that bundle of yours?"
Rahamat, equally merry, would reply, "Elephant."
For me, it was a joy to watch the innocent merriment between an elderly man and a small child.
Then, Rahamat would ask Mini, "Khoki (little girl) when will you go to your father-in-law's home?"
Mini would not understand the question but it was against her nature to remain quiet without offering a reply. So, she would counter, "Will you go to your father-in-law's house?"
At this, Rahamat would raise his fists against an imaginary father-in-law and say, "I will beat my father-in-law." Hearing this, Mini would try to picture the plight of the poor stranger by the name of "Father-in-law" and break into peals of laughter.
It is autumn. In the ancient times, kings used to embark on their conquering quests during this season. I have never stirred outside Kolkata but my mind keeps roaming around the world. I feel very excited whenever I hear of tales of foreign countries or foreigners. Yet I do not like to abandon my little corner. So, every morning, while sitting in my small room, my curiosity would be satiated by listening to the Kabuliwallah telling me about his homeland - about the tall peaks on either side, the narrow paths, the long lines of camels laden with goods, the traders and wayfarers in their turbans with some riding on camels and others on foot, some carrying lances while others carrying guns. The Kabuliwallah would tell me about his homeland and its fleeting picture would pass by my eyes and satisfy my wanderlust.
Mini's mother is of a suspicious nature. If she hears a sound outside, she imagines that a whole horde of drunkards are rushing towards our house. In her opinion, the world is infested by thieves, robbers, drunkards and a whole lot of diseases and pests. She was rather wary of Rahamat Kabuliwallah and had requested me to keep an eye on him. I tried to laugh away her fears but she asked me, "Do not children get stolen? Is bonded labour not prevalent in Kabul? Is it impossible for a gigantic man like the Kabuliwallah to carry away a small child?"
I had to admit that this was not impossible, but unthinkable. Despite my wife's fears, I could not tell Rahamat to stop coming to my house.
Every year, during the middle of winter, Rahamat returns to his homeland. Near the time of departure, he is usually very busy since he has to visit his debtors to collect his dues. Yet he would find time to come and meet Mini. It appeared as if there was some sort of conspiracy between him and Mini. If he could not come in the morning, Kabuliwallah would come in the evening. A doubt would creep into my mind whenever I saw the huge Kabuliwalla, attired in his loose clothes, in the darkness. But the very next moment all my doubts would evaporate when I saw an elated Mini running up to him while gushing, "Kabuliwalla, oh Kabuliwallah" all the time.
One day in the morning, I was sitting in my room. It was rather cold. The comforting rays of sunlight pierced through the window and warmed my feet. It was a luxurious experience. All of a sudden I heard a commotion outside. Peeping out of the window, I saw two policemen escorting Rahamat whose hands were tied. A bunch of children followed them. There were blood stains on Rahamat's clothes while one of the policemen held a bloody knife in his hand. I stepped outside the house and enquired of the policeman as to what was the matter.
Partly from the policeman and partly from Rahamat I gathered that a neighbour of mine had owed a certain amount to Rahamat having had purchased a Rampuri shawl from the latter. However, the neighbour later refused to acknowledge that he owed any money. Rahamat, in a fit of anger, had stabbed him.
Rahamat began to hurl abuses at the neighbour. Just then Mini came out of the house while exclaiming, "Kabuliwallah, oh Kabuliwallah."
Rahamat's face at once underwent a transformation and became very pleasant. He was not carrying his bundle today so Mini could not ask him as to what he was carrying. Instead she asked, "Will you go to your father-in-law's house?"
"That is where I am going," Rahamat said with a laugh.
But perceiving that the reply had not made Mini laugh, he showed his hands and said, "I would have thrashed my father-in-law, but what can I do, my hands are bound."
Rahamat was sentenced to a few years imprisonment.
I had quite forgotten about Rahamat. While working in my own home, it never occurred to me as to how a hill dweller, born free, must be spending his days in confinement.
And I must admit that fickle-hearted Mini's behaviour was absolutely shameful. She completely forgot her old friend and began making new friends. She was now not to be seen even in her father's room.
Many years have flown by and another autumn has arrived. My Mini's marriage has been arranged and the wedding is to be held during the "Puja" holidays. She would plunge her father's happy home in darkness and leave for her husband's home.
The morning was very beautiful. After the rains, the autumnal sunshine painted everything in its golden hues. The sound of "shehnai (wind instrument)" reverberated through my house - it was as if the music was wrenched out of my ribs in sobs. Today was my Mini's wedding.
There was chaos in the house with an unending stream of guests, people shouting and hundred other sounds that are characteristic on such occasions. I was sitting in my room and going over the expenses. It was then that Rahamat appeared before me and, after saluting me, stood silently.
At first, I did not recognise him. He was not carrying his usual bundle. His long hair was cut short, he seemed sapped of energy. It is only after he smiled that I recognised him.
"What Rahamat, when did you arrive?" I asked him.
"I was released from jail last evening," he told me.
The words were jarring to the ears. I had never seen a murderer, and, now, I cringed when looking at Rahamat. I began to long that Rahamat would go away on this auspicious day.
"Today there is some work in our house and I am busy. You had better go today," I told him.
Rahamat made to leave immediately, but upon reaching the door he hesitated and asked, "Can I not meet Mini?"
It was as if he believed that Mini was the same little Mini and she would come running to him exclaiming, "Kabuliwallah, oh Kabuliwalla". It was in this belief that he had brought along with him a box of grapes and some nuts and raisins wrapped in paper after obtaining them from a countryman.
"Today there is much work in the house and it would not be possible to meet anyone," I said.
Rahamat looked a bit crest-fallen. He stood for a while, looked at me straight in the face, and then uttering "Goodbye babu", he departed.
I was pained and wanted to call him back, when I saw that he was returning on his own. Coming up to me he said, "I had brought these grapes, nuts and raisins for Khoki. Please give them to her."
I took them from him and wanted to pay for them but he suddenly grasped my hand and said, "You have been kind to me and I will forever remember your kindness - do not give me money."
"Babu, just like your daughter, I too have a daughter in my country. It is while recalling her face that I bring some delicacies for your Khoki. I do not come here to trade."
He put his hand into the deep recesses of his loose robe and withdrew a piece of dirty paper. He unfolded the paper very lovingly and spread it over my table.
I saw the imprint of a small palm on the paper. It was not a photograph, it was not a painted picture. It was just an impression of the palm that was obtained by smearing the palm with ink and pressing it against the paper. With this little memorabilia of his daughter close to his heart, Rahamat went about the streets of Kolkata selling his wares - as if the touch of that soft small hand supplied zeal to his broad chest.
My eyes welled in tears. At that moment I forgot that he was a poor dry-fruit seller from Kabul and I from a good family - it dawned upon me then that he is what I am - he is a father and I too am a father. I, at once, summoned Mini from inside despite many objections. Mini, attired as a bride, came and stood by me.
Kabuliwallah was astonished to see Mini. Their old conversation could not take place. At last, Rahamat broke the silence and laughing aloud asked, "Khoki are you going to your in-law's house?"
Mini now understands the meaning of the word "in-laws". She could not retort back as she used to do as a child. Hearing Rahamat's question she turned her face away shyly and in embarrassment. I remembered Mini's first meeting with Kabuliwallah and was pained.
Mini went away and Rahamat, letting out a deep sigh, sat on the floor. It suddenly dawned upon him that his daughter too had grown big and he will have to renew his friendship with her - he will not find her the same as he had left her. Who knows what had happened to her in these eight years. The shehnai players began to play again and Rahmat sat down picturing beautiful images of his beloved Afghanistan.
I took out a currency note and handed it over to him. "Rahamat, return back to your daughter in your own country. Your reunion with your daughter will augur well for my Mini," I told him.
As a result of donating the money to Rahamat, I had to curtail a few marriage expenses - I could not arrange the lighting or the music as I had planned, and this was resented by the women. But my festivities were increased manifold and I felt joyous by this act.