Selected Short Stories

by Rabindranath Tagore

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What is the meaning of the story "Kabuliwala"?

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The short story "Kabuliwala" by Rabindranath Tagore is the story of an Afghan fruit-seller (called a "kabuliwala" in Hindi) who one day, while in Calcutta, meets a five-year-old Bengali girl named Mini. Mini seems to come from a wealthy family, but the kabuliwala is poor, and he is looked down upon by many in the community, including Mini's mother. The kabuliwala and the girl strike up an unusual but endearing friendship, and the little girl always looks forward to seeing him, although she was initially frightened by him when he first appeared. The kabuliwala is then imprisoned for eight years for striking a man who would not pay for one of the trader's goods. The story jumps ahead to when he is released from prison. By this time, the girl seems to have forgotten him, and we learn that the kabuliwala was so fond of the small girl because he missed his own young daughter, who he had had to leave behind to "come year after year to Calcutta, to sell his wares in the streets." At the end of the story Mini's father, feeling sorry for the kabuliwala, gives him some money so that he can go and see his own daughter again.

One meaning or moral of the story is not to judge people by their appearance or by their social status. The kabuliwala has an unusual appearance, being dressed in "the loose soiled clothing of his people, with a tall turban ... (and) a bag on his back." The young Mini is at first frightened by him, believing that he carries children in his bag. She has perhaps heard such stories from other children, who have learned to look down upon such people as the kabuliwala. During the course of the story, the reader might even become suspicious of this older man who strikes up a friendship with this young girl, but when we learn at the end of the story that he simply misses his own daughter, we feel sorry for him and we realize how unfair it can be to judge people based on appearances or social status.

A second meaning of the story might be that we should simply cherish the time we have with our children, or our loved ones in general. There are people like the kabuliwala who, because of circumstances beyond their control, cannot have much time with their loved ones. So, if we are lucky enough to be able to spend time with our loved ones, we should appreciate our good fortune. At the beginning of the story the narrator pushes his little daughter away because he is busy, telling her to "Go and play with Bhola ... I am busy!" At the end of the story, having learned of the kabuliwala's life, he might realize how foolish such impatience was. Indeed, when he thinks of the kabuliwala together again with his own daughter, Mini's father admits that his day is "brighter."

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