31 pages 1 hour read

Rabindranath Tagore


Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1892

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Cabuliwallah”

"The Cabuliwallah" is a short story by Rabindranath Tagore that utilizes realism to explore the themes of The Transcendental Quality of Human Connection, A Father’s Love, and The Passage of Time. The plot centralizes the unexpected friendship that blossoms between the narrator’s young daughter, Mini, and a Cabuliwallah (meaning a man from Kabul) named Rahmun. The story was first published in 1892 and is narrated from the first-person perspective of a Bengali writer and father, who offers glimpses into the unlikely cross-cultural bond his daughter forms with the Afghani peddler.

Tagore's appreciation for the poets of medieval Bengal and Bengali folk literature reflects in his storytelling, which often features characters from rural Bengal and explores the depths of human emotions. He draws from Indian philosophies and aesthetics to explore universal themes of love, nature, and the human spirit. Moreover, Tagore’s fruitful exchange with modern European literary tradition, especially the English Romantic poets, adds a touch of Romanticism and introspection to his works. These influences are apparent in "The Cabuliwallah," which explores human connection, love, and longing for loved ones.

This guide refers to the version of the text that is freely available on Project Gutenberg.

The story opens with an introduction to Mini, a spirited five-year-old girl. The unnamed narrator, who is Mini’s father, describes her as a talkative child who “all her life […] hasn’t wasted a minute in silence” (1). Mini's constant chatter vexes her mother, but her father appreciates her inquisitive nature and enjoys engaging in conversations with her.

Mini sits in her father’s study as he works on his novel. She spots a Cabuliwallah from their window and calls out to him. The Cabuliwallah, named Rahmun, is a tall and bearded man. He wears traditional Afghan clothing, including a turban, and carries a bag and boxes of grapes. Rahmun is a peddler who sells various goods, including dry fruits and shawls, and often visits Calcutta to sell his merchandise.

Mini is initially reluctant to meet Rahmun. She is frightened by Rahmun’s strangeness; she imagines that he has stuffed children in his bag. Rahmun tries to approach her, but she fearfully hides behind her father. After the first encounter, however, Mini lets her guard down and her fear subsides. She soon strikes up a friendship with Rahmun, who offers her small treats of raisins and nuts. As he continues his visits to Mini’s home, she grows fond of him and the two bond over shared jokes.

Meanwhile, the narrator is captivated by Rahmun's tales of the distant land of Afghanistan. Rahmun’s vagrant life contrasts with the narrator’s own rooted existence in Calcutta. While the narrator dreams of traveling the world, he is hesitant to leave his familiar surroundings. On the other hand, Mini's mother is concerned about Rahmun's presence, primarily due to his foreignness. The narrator tries reassuring his wife, but she persists in harboring doubts against Rahmun.

Despite Mini's mother's unease, Rahmun’s visits continue until one day, the narrator witnesses him being led away in handcuffs. Rahmun explains that he got into a scuffle with a customer who refused to pay for a shawl that he had taken. During the quarrel, it is implied that he stabbed the customer. Mini, oblivious to the gravity of the situation, asks if the Cabuliwallah is being taken to his “father-in-law,” a euphemism Rahmun uses for “jail.” Rahmun is imprisoned for a few years.

Mini gradually forgets about Rahmun, makes new friends, and also grows less attached to her own father. The narrator laments that he has lost the close connection he once shared with Mini.

The plot jumps forward several years, and it is revealed that Mini is about to get married. The morning of her wedding is described as “bright and festive, with wedding-pipes playing since early dawn” (12). The narrator reflects on the radiant sunlight and the pain that he feels at the approaching separation from his daughter.

Immersed in his study, the narrator is startled when Rahmun unexpectedly arrives at his house, having just been released from jail. Rahmun's appearance has changed—he no longer carries a bag, has long hair, or the same vigor that he used to possess. However, Mini's father recognizes him by his smile.

The narrator initially tries to dismiss Rahmun by telling him that they are busy with wedding preparations. However, Rahmun expresses a desire to see Mini, believing that she is still the same little girl who would run to him, calling out "O Cabuliwallah! Cabuliwallah!" (7). When the narrator relents, Rahmun offers grapes, nuts, and raisins as a gift for Mini.

Rahmun then shows the narrator a crumpled piece of paper containing the handprint of his own daughter, Parbati, that he carries with him at all times. This show of a father's enduring love and longing for his child touches the narrator deeply, prompting a change of heart. The narrator calls Mini, who arrives dressed as a bride. The carefree little girl has transformed into an inhibited young woman.

When Mini enters the room, Rahmun presents her with a few almonds, raisins, and grapes wrapped in paper, just like he used to years ago. Now, the innocence of childhood has faded. She blushes and looks away, leaving the Cabuliwallah with a heavy heart.

As Mini departs, Rahmun is hit with a realization that his own daughter must have grown up like Mini. The narrator is touched by the deep love that Rahmun feels for his daughter; he sees himself reflected in the man’s defeated figure. He offers Rahmun money to help him return home. Though this means that the narrator can no longer finance a wedding band or electricity for Mini's wedding ceremony, he believes that this act of kindness brings a more gracious light to the occasion.