The Cabuliwallah, Rabindranath Tagore

This post is by way of being a thank you to Brona of This Reading Life. A few days ago she put up a review of a book in the Perveen Mistry murder mystery series which is set in 1920s India, and in the discussion which followed she “highly recommended” I read Rabindranath Tagore.

Not a name I’d ever heard before, so who is he? Brona’s consideration for my ignorance extended to linking to Wikipedia. Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was an Indian, a Bengali Brahmin from Calcutta, “a poet, writer, playwright, composer, philosopher, social reformer and painter … Tagore modernised Bengali art by spurning rigid classical forms and resisting linguistic strictures. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays spoke to topics political and personal.” Ok, enough quoting.

Tagore was well-known world-wide, his works were available in English, and he apparently visited all the world’s (habitable) continents except Australia. In 1913 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first “non-European” to be so honoured. I wonder if that means the first person not resident in Europe or is just a polite way of saying the first non-white.

Brona’s Perveen Mistry novel was set during the royal tour of India by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) in 1921/22 (another blogger has photographs) and in the context of Ghandi’s ‘passive resistance’ movement. Tagore was apparently a supporter of Independence, but was inclined towards world peace rather than nationalism.

The Cabuliwallah is the first short story from Stories from Tagore (1918) which appears to be an English language reader for Indian students.

The present Indian story-book avoids some at least of these impediments [the unfamiliarity of stories set in England]. The surroundings described in it are those of the students’ everyday life; the sentiments and characters are familiar…

Two of the longest stories in this book—”Master Mashai” and “The Son of Rashmani”—are reproduced in English for the first time. The rest of the stories have been taken, with slight revision, from two English volumes entitled “The Hungry Stones” and “Mashi.” A short paragraph has been added from the original Bengali at the end of the story called “The Postmaster.”


The Cabuliwallah of the title is an Afghani pedlar, working the streets of Calcutta. He attracts the notice of Mini, the author’s 5 year old daughter, and the author must leave the hero and heroine of the adventure novel he is writing swinging from a rope while he goes out into the street to talk to the pedlar. “I made some small purchases, and a conversation began about Abdurrahman, the Russians, the English, and the Frontier Policy.”

Soon Rahmun (the Cabuliwallah) and Mini are firm friends, to be found at some time every day in conversation. They have a little joke about the phrase “father-in-law’s house” which for a strictly brought up girl, which Mini is not, means the home to which her husband will take her; and which when applied to the pedlar is a slang term for jail.

Sadly, one day the pedlar really is taken off to jail, falsely accused by a customer seeking to avoid their debts. For eight years he is out of the author and his daughter’s thoughts. But at the end of that time he returns, to resume the friendship, only to find it is Mini’s wedding day (at 13!).

She is called, and comes, but is too shy to speak.

I remembered the day when the Cabuliwallah and my Mini had first met, and I felt sad. When she had gone, Rahmun heaved a deep sigh, and sat down on the floor. The idea had suddenly come to him that his daughter too must have grown in this long time, and that he would have to make friends with her anew. Assuredly he would not find her as he used to know her. And besides, what might not have happened to her in these eight years?

The marriage-pipes sounded, and the mild autumn sun streamed round us. But Rahmun sat in the little Calcutta lane, and saw before him the barren mountains of Afghanistan.

This being a reader for schools there is at the end a short list of words to be considered (mostly pointing back to their Latin roots, which gives you some idea of what young Indians were taught. But then I suppose at that time they needed Greek and Latin to get into Oxford and Cambridge).

And at the end of the book there are notes, beginning –

“The Cabuliwallah” is one of the most famous of the Poet’s “Short Stories.” It has been often translated. The present translation is by the late Sister Nivedita, and her simple, vivid style should be noticed by the Indian student reader. It is a good example of modern English, with its short sentences, its careful choice of words, and its luminous clearness of meaning.

Cabuliwallah. A man from Cabul or Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.


Rabindranath Tagore, Stories from Tagore, Macmillan, London, 1918. [Project Gutenberg]

19 thoughts on “The Cabuliwallah, Rabindranath Tagore

  1. I’ve meant to read some Tagore for ages, so thank you for the reminder. Have you ever come across R.K. Narayan? I love his Indian stories. Deceptively simple, but devastating or hilarious.


    • I have come across almost no writers from India/Pakistan/Bangladesh and certainly none from pre-Independence (I have read Monkey!). Your comment prompted me to look up Rudyard Kipling, who as it turns out was almost exactly the same age as Tagore, but was rather more popular, at least in 1950s Australia. He got his Nobel in 1907. I wonder if before Independence their popularity was similar.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have Tagore’s The Home and the World on my wishlist, courtesy of Vishy the Knight’s Indian Reading List (see scroll down to under the post about German Lit) which I recommend without reservation because everything I’ve read from that list has been exceptional.
    If I had to choose one to get you started reading from the wealth of Indian writing (which IMO needs to be distinguished from Anglo-Indian writing written by Indians of the diaspora living in the UK and elsewhere) I’d suggest Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh which is set during Partition.


    • I try and get as close to the place, people and time I’m reading about as I can. I’m sure you’ve gathered, I like writers to write what they have experienced themselves. (Writers who are argue they like to imagine themselves in someone else’s situation are a topic for another day).

      I haven’t given a lot of thought to Indian Lit – I may only have read Arundhati Roy, the other A Roy and Rushdie. And now a few pages of Tagore. But I am happy to read more, though I probably only get through one or two books which require actual reading, a month.


  3. I haven’t read a lot of Indian literature, though I do recall reading Midnight’s Children in a British Lit class. I thought it was wild that “British Lit” was basically any place the British had colonized + England. I’ve read a few contemporary Indian novels but get extremely frustrated that the only theme I read is Indian girl who doesn’t want to marry a stranger, so her mother calls her fat and her father hits her and she brings great shame to the family. I’m being a bit simplistic, but not terribly so. Perhaps I just need some strong recommendations.


  4. Rohinton Mistry was one of the writers I read, early on, about daily life in India. His novel A Fine Balance captured a lot of readers internationally, so it might be available on audio without too much trouble? It’s verrrry long, but very engaging too. A writer I’m exploring now (and whose work, I believe, Lisa has read too?) is Anosh Irani. The Package is remarkable, and again received quite a bit of coverage, but his earlier books were acclaimed as well. You’ve got a great reading project ahead of you. Thanks to Brona!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still have A Fine Balance on my tbr pile for one day, but pre-blog I read Seth’s A Suitable Boy (set post-Independence and post-partition), which was magnificent and worth the effort. Still one of my favourite books of all time, along with Rushdie’s Midnight Children, set over a similar time.

      Thanks to Cirtnecce I participated in a readalong of The Home and the World a number of years back. It was enlightening – made more so by cirtnecce’s three history/background posts – here –
      I’ve been meaning to read more by him ever since & have these short stories on my eReader for one day.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oops, you got missed Brona. I’ve heard of A Suitable Boy, but if I’ve read it it didn’t stick. I struggled with Midnight’s Children, I thought the Magic Realism was overdone, but I probably should reread it. As for everyone’s suggestions, I might need another lifetime (one in which nothing new was ever written, which would be a bit sad).

        Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I loved The parcel – I think it’s called (or called that in my translation). It’s one of my most memorable books of the last few years. I’d love to read more by Irani.

      And, A fine balance is among my all-time favourite books.


    • BIP I have a great reading project ahead of me thanks to you North Americans. But as you say I can probably fit more variety into my audio-reading. Not a lot is available though from the WA library so that means paying for it through Audible. I’ll come back to these comments when I get home mid-week and see what is available.


  5. I had heard of Tagore and could have told you he was a “past” Indian writer, but that’s about as far as I could have gone. I have a lot of useful information in my head like that!

    I assume this was in your father’s collection? If so, you clearly have his books well organised. If not, where did you get it.

    I was interested in your point “a short list of words to be considered (mostly pointing back to their Latin roots, which gives you some idea of what young Indians were taught.” Weren’t you taught Latin and Greek roots at school? They are among my favourite memories of late primary-early high school English.


    • Well you were ahead of me in what you knew! Not Dad’s book, Proj. Gutenberg, there’s a link at the end of the post. The country schools I went to the teachers all just one or two years out of college knew less Latin than I did. Maybe in senior high school they did, but by then they were too old and tired to teach me anything at all.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I saw that, but just thought you were providing the link because you could!

        Re Latin and Greek roots. I remember clearly learning them, but I’m wondering whether it was all in Queensland which is some ways was “behind” NSW where I did high school from second form on, but which was good on some of these really useful things.

        Liked by 1 person

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