Traditional money lenders 'Kabuliwalas' a vanishing tribe

Kolkata
11 Jun 2017

Traditional money lenders in the city for ages, the Kabuliwalas, are slowly getting lost in the bylanes of Kolkata due to mushrooming of chit funds, micro finance companies and easy banking system.
"Money lending is no longer a profitable business for us, like it used to be 25-30 years ago. Chit fund companies, easy banking system have been taking a toll on our business for last several years. Lastly demonetisation has dealt a heavy blow to our business. Now we are harassed when we ask for payment of our loans. I want to go back and settle in my own country before I die," Omar Mansoor, a 60-year-old Afghan money lender, told PTI.
The story is same for 45-year-old Reza Khan, who will be moving back to Kabul next month, after he lost a huge amount of money in the lending business.
"Nowadays if we go to seek our payment, those who have borrowed money from us, threaten us with police and use local politicians to harass us. Most of us have gone back to Kabul," Khan said.
The Afghans are commonly known as Kabuliwalas - people hailing from Kabul, Afghanistan- in West Bengal.
The Kabuliwalas were immortalised by Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, in his iconic short story, "Kabuliwala" in 1892.
Kabuliwalas, are known for their distinctive physical features such as tall, well built, piercing eyes and rugged faces.
Long before Afghans left their homeland to escape the Taliban oppression, the Kabuliwalas started coming to Bengal in the late 19th century and early 20th century to sell dry fruits. The profit they made by selling dry fruits was ploughed into the money lending business.
Soon after Independence in 1947, when the formal trade between the countries began, the Kabuliwalas found their market for dry fruits shrinking and permanently switched over the business of money lending. Many of them were licensed money lenders.
But things started changing in the 1980s, after Marwari, Punjabi and Bengali communities entered the money lending business.
With the advent of easy banking system, mushrooming of chit funds and micro finance companies, the Kabuliwalas are out of their business and struggling to make ends meet.
Such is the dismal state of Afghans in the city that the number of Afghans have come down from 10,000 in Kolkata in 2001 to less than 1,800. A large number of them have gone back to Afghanistan after the situation improved there following the country's first parliamentary elections in 2005.
There are only 15 Afghan kothis, or Afghan tenements left in city - where these Pathans live with others of their communities.
While some Afghans now live with their families, although most of the Kabuliwalas still prefer to keep their family in their homeland.