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The migration themes in the 19th century short story 'Kabuliwala' resonate today

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A story from the past offers insights into our troubled present. It's a story written in the 19th century that is popular in India. In it, a girl in India becomes friends with an Afghan migrant, which feels very current in this year when many Afghans fled their country after the Taliban retook power. NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KABULIWALA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking Hindi).

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: "Kabuliwala," a little girl exclaims with delight in this classic Indian film.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: Kabuliwala is a migrant from Kabul, Afghanistan. The movie and the short story it's based on is about an Afghan man who sells dried fruit on the streets of 19th-century Calcutta. He's far from home, struggling to make a living. He's big and tall with a long beard, and he looks a bit intimidating. People are scared of him. He faces discrimination...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FRAYER: ...But also an unexpected friendship with a 5-year-old Indian girl.

SUKETU MEHTA: I read "Kabuliwala" in school, and I remember bawling like a baby.

FRAYER: The story is a tear-jerker, says Suketu Mehta, who grew up in India, emigrated to America and has written his own books about the immigrant experience. The "Kabuliwala" story has always resonated with him. He reads me his favorite part, the ending when the Kabuliwala, named Rahmat, pulls a crumpled piece of paper out of his breast pocket.

MEHTA: (Reading) Unfolding it very carefully, he spread it out on my table. There was a small handprint on the paper, not a photograph, not a painting. The hand had been rubbed with some soot and pressed down onto the paper. Every year, Rahmat carried this memento of his daughter in his breast pocket.

FRAYER: That's when we learn that the Kabuliwala, who has befriended a little Indian girl, has a daughter of his own far away in Afghanistan whom he was forced to leave behind and misses dearly.

MEHTA: So I first read the story, you know, obviously, when I was not a father, in my teen years. And now I am a father, and it's all the more moving.

FRAYER: Mehta says that now with everything going on in the world - xenophobia, racism, those scenes of desperation at Kabul's airport last summer - everyone should read this story.

MEHTA: Whether it's Americans who are scared of Mexicans or Indians who are scared of Afghans, everyone should read it because this is what great literature does; it reminds you that the person who's coming to your country carrying a memento or a handprint of their child is a parent like you could be a parent, is a human being like you're a human being.

FRAYER: The "Kabuliwala" was written in the 19th century by Rabindranath Tagore, one of India's most famous writers. His home is now a museum...

BAISAKHI MITRA: This is the place where Tagore was born. We have his writing room here.

FRAYER: ...Where curator Baisakhi Mitra gave me a tour, as Tagore's music played in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RABINDRANATH TAGORE: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: He was a composer, too, and a poet from Bengal, a region that straddles India and Bangladesh. He wrote both country's national anthems. To Bengalis, Mitra says, Tagore is...

MITRA: He is our sky. That's what we say. Tagore, for us, is not only the poet philosopher. The moment a Bengali child comes into consciousness, I think the first great figure he meets is Tagore. And of course, Gandhi is there, but he comes in later...

FRAYER: Tagore was the first nonwhite person to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. Even before that, it was the "Kabuliwala" that made him famous. Real-life Kabuliwalas were feared. But as Tagore's story became required reading in schools, it helped combat prejudice. Mitra recalls a moment from her own childhood when a Kabuliwala approached her in a train station with her mother.

MITRA: I remember my mother telling me that in the station, one Kabuliwala picked me up when I was very small. And usually my mother would have got very scared, but she remembered this story, and she was alert but not scared. So I think, yes, it did a lot of good for the Bengali psyche.

FRAYER: Tagore based his character on the Kabuliwalas he saw on his own street because Afghans were suffering and fleeing their country all the way back in the 19th century, too. Many came to Tagore's hometown, Calcutta - now Kolkata. Some of them even stayed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

FRAYER: In McCleod Street, this old colonial street in downtown Kolkata, allegedly there is a Kabuliwala who once settled here. And I'm looking for this mailbox at No. 15 McCleod Street, and it's this mix of street signs in Bengali and Hindi and Urdu and English, and it's this just tangle of different cultures and languages and bicycle rickshaws and mopeds.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

FRAYER: Kolkata is now one of India's most diverse cities. And if you ask around, people will tell you that at 15 McCleod Street is a house that's taken in Afghan migrants for generations.

AHMED KHAN: Kabuliwala. Yes, of course, I am Kabuliwala.

FRAYER: And that's where I found a modern-day Kabuliwala, an Afghan migrant named Ahmed Khan. At first, he was shy, hesitant to talk. But after chatting for a few minutes, he invited me to his friend's textile shop the next day, where we sat cross-legged on the floor, and he told me his story.

KHAN: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "There was no work in Afghanistan," he says, "only rockets and war." He fled to India nearly three years ago and since has gotten refugee status from the U.N. And just like the Kabuliwala in Tagore's 19th-century tale, Khan too sells dried fruit on the street, and he too has a little girl he was forced to leave behind back home.

KHAN: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: She's 5 years old, just like in the story. Her name is Sayema. And he misses her, he says. He WhatsApps with his wife in Afghanistan often, but he doesn't know when he'll see them next. He hopes he can bring them to India soon.

KHAN: (Speaking Hindi).

FRAYER: "The kids here in India remind me of my own daughter," he says. "She talks a lot, plays with toys. She wants to be a doctor," he says. And even though Khan had never heard of Tagore's story until I told him about it, he may be reaping its benefits. The community here has taken him in. He's learned Hindi. And despite rising Islamophobia across India and much of the world, Khan says he has not felt that in this city where Tagore is beloved and where almost everyone has read his "Kabuliwala" story.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Kolkata, India.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARRA FOR CUVA'S "OF WONDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.