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In Rabindranath Tagore's "The Cabuliwallah", Rahmun, the eponymous Cabuliwallah, has come to Calcutta to make a living selling nuts and dried fruits from his native Afghanistan. In lieu of a photograph, he carries with him a handprint in ink of the daughter he has left behind in Kabul. Toward the end of the story, Rahmun shows the narrator this handprint. The narrator comments:

That impression of the hand of his little Pārbati in her distant mountain home reminded me of my own little Mini.

Pārbati is how people from Calcutta would pronounce Pārvati, a fairly common name for girls in India. Since Mini is the narrator's daughter, when I first read the story I assumed that Pārbati was likewise Rahmun's daughter's name. On a subsequent reading, that seemed strange to me. Pārvati is a typically Hindu name and it would be unusual, to say the least, for a Muslim from Afghanistan to name his daughter that. It would be analogous to a Greek girl's being named Brünhilde.

Nowhere in the story does Rahmun actually mention his daughter's name. Given the unlikelihood of the name Pārbati for an Afghani girl, it appears that Pārbati is what the narrator calls her rather than her actual name. Why does he refer to her as Pārbati? What is the significance of the name?

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The Sanskrit word for mountain is parvat. Pārvati is a patronymic meaning "the daughter of the mountains". Such patronymics are very common in Indian mythology. For example, Sītā, the daughter of king Janaka, is often called Jānakī. Similarly, one of the Vedic sun deities is Savitṛ, and his daughter is Sāvitrī. In "The Cabuliwallah", Tagore's narrator calls Rahmun's daughter Parbati in the first place because she lives in a mountainous country. But the name also has mythological undertones that contribute to the story's evocative power.

The contrast between the distant, mountainous Afghanistan from where Rahmun hails and the flat Gangetic delta of Bengal where the story is set is thematically important in the story. The narrator remarks:

I, never stirring from my little corner in Calcutta, would let my mind wander over the whole world. At the very name of another country, my heart would go out to it, and at the sight of a foreigner in the streets, I would fall to weaving a network of dreams,—the mountains, the glens, and the forests of his distant home, with his cottage in its setting, and the free and independent life of far-away wilds. Perhaps the scenes of travel conjure themselves up before me and pass and repass in my imagination all the more vividly, because I lead such a vegetable existence that a call to travel would fall upon me like a thunder-bolt. In the presence of this Cabuliwallah I was immediately transported to the foot of arid mountain peaks, with narrow little defiles twisting in and out amongst their towering heights. I could see the string of camels bearing the merchandise, and the company of turbanned merchants carrying some their queer old firearms, and some their spears, journeying downward towards the plains.

The contrast between the comfortably middle-class life of the narrator at home in Calcutta and the life in exile of the migrant worker from Kabul is highlighted by a series of accompanying contrasts:

  • between the mountains, glens, and forests of Afghanistan and the broad streets of Calcutta
  • between the exoticized image of travel the stay-at-home narrator spins and the realities of Rahmun's precarious existence in Calcutta
  • between the "free and independent" life the narrator imagines for foreigners and the literal imprisonment Rahmun undergoes.

But underlying these contrasts is the connection the narrator and Rahmun have as fathers of little girls. The Cabuliwallah strikes up a friendship with Mini because she reminds him of his own daughter, and this in turn strikes a chord with the narrator. The connection between Mini, the daughter of the Gangetic delta, and Rahmun's daughter in the mountains around Kabul is what causes the narrator to refer to the latter as Pārbati, a name that could more easily have been his own daughter's than Rahmun's.

The mythological identity of Pārbati is also appropriate to the story. In mythology, Parvati is Uma, the daughter of Himavat, the king of the Himalayas. She is called Parvati because of the identification of her father with the mountain range. Parvati is determined to marry the ascetic god Shiva, and undergoes severe trials to earn both his love and her parents' approval of the match. Ultimately, she succeeds, and Shiva and Parvati get married in a ceremony whose comic and terrible aspects are part of Indian lore. "The Cabuliwallah" too ends with a marriage which entails distinctly mixed feelings.

Rahmun visits the narrator's home the day after completing a prison term of several years. He expects to pick up his relationship with Mini as before, playing with the little girl, giving her gifts of raisins and almonds, etc. But as it turns out, that very day is Mini's wedding day. Seeing Mini in her bridal attire turning away from him in shyness, it suddenly dawns on Rahmun that his own daughter too will have grown up and will be a stranger to him.

Understanding his heartbreak, the narrator gives Rahmun some of the money set aside for the wedding expenses so that he can return to Kabul. The wedding therefore no longer has electric lights and a military band, and this causes great hand-wringing among Mini's mother and the other women of the household.

Tagore's expert handling of the comic as well as poignant aspects of the situation recall the stories told of the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. Her parents' shock at the ascetic's uncouth behavior during the ceremony, and their lamentations about their delicate daughter leaving their palace for his no-frills hermitage, are mirrored in a couple of ways in this scene:

- The consternation caused by Rahmun's unwelcome appearance at Mini's wedding is rather like the consternation Uma's parents feel at the sight of their soon-to-be son-in-law Shiva's matted hair, ash-streaked body, pet snakes, and generally ungroomed appearance
- The sorrow of having a daughter leave for her husband's home, felt by both Uma's parents and Mini's, is contrasted with Rahmun's situation, where he is the one who has left home and his daughter.

The name Pārvati, therefore, has both local and broader relevance to this story. Locally, Pārvati simply means the little girl of the mountains. But the use of that particular name in the context of a wedding brings to mind the wedding of the mythological Pārvati to Shiva, which gives the moving story a greater resonance because of the parallels evoked.

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'Cabuliwallah' is a beloved tale of love and loss and nostaligia for a cessation of time. But time moves on relentlessly and leaves in its wake, heartbreak and human efforts to reconcile with this situation. I liked the answer given above, which is Parbati referring to Goddess Parbati, since it lifts the story to mythic/cosmic dimensions.

Thinking aloud here. Parbati, the daughter of the mountains of Kabul, is absent physically in the story. Yet it is her absent-presence that fuels the story -- the affection of the Cabuliwallah for little Mini, the bond between the two men, and finally the realisation that some things in life- like love for daughters, present or absent, are more important than any material possession. Parbati in Bengal, is worshipped as DURGA, the Goddess who slays the evil demon, Mahishasur. However in Bengal, Durga is the daughter who comes every year from the mountainous home of her husband to visit her father's home in the plains. Curious reversal!! So Parbati - the daughter of the mountains (parbat) is an archetypal figure for daughterhood- the one who is always a child to her father-- whether young or old, whether little or married, she like Durga, Parbati, is the daughter always beloved, an essential part of the Bengali psyche.

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