The story opens with the narrator talking about his precocious five-year-old daughter Mini, who learned how to talk within a year of being born and practically hadn’t stopped talking since. Her mother often tells her to be quiet, but her father prefers to let her talk, so she talks to him often.
One day while the narrator is writing, Mini starts crying out “Kabuliwallah, Kabuliwallah!” The man she’s shouting about is an Afghan in baggy clothes, walking along selling grapes and nuts. Mini fears him, convinced that she has children the size of herself stashed in his bag.
But a few days later, our narrator finds the Kabuliwallah sitting with Mini, paying close attention as she talks and talks. He has given her some grapes and pistachios, so the narrator gives the Kabuliwallah half a rupee. Later, Mini’s mother finds her with the half-rupee and asks where she got it, and is displeased to hear she took money from the man.
Mini and the Kabuliwallah develop a close relationship, spending time together every day joking around and talking. The narrator enjoys talking to the Kabuliwallah too, asking him about his home country of Afghanistan, and all about his travels. But Mini’s mother is alarmed by her daughter’s closeness with the man, worrying that he might try to abduct Mini. The narrator does not agree that there is any danger.
Every year in the middle of the month of Magh, the Kabuliwallah returns home. Before making the trip, he goes around collecting money he is owed. But this year, the Kabuliwallah gets in a scuffle with a man who owes him money and ends up stabbing him. This lands him in jail for the next several years, during which Mini grows up and starts enjoying the company of girls her age. The narrator more or less forgets about the Kabuliwallah.
But on the day of Mini’s wedding, the Kabuliwallah appears at the narrator’s house. Without a bag or his long hair, he is barely recognizable to the narrator, but he eventually welcomes him in. The narrator is uneasy, thinking about how the Kabuliwallah is the only would-be murderer he’s ever known, and tells the visitor to leave. He complies.
But shortly after, the Kabuliwallah returns, bringing a gift of grapes and pistachios for Mini. The narrator doesn’t tell him that it’s her wedding today, but simply repeats that there’s an engagement at their house and he must go. But the Kabuliwallah pulls a small piece of paper out of his coat pocket and shows it to the narrator. It’s a handprint in ash, and he explains that he has a daughter back home in Afghanistan, and that Mini helps him deal with the heartache of being so far from her. The narrator is touched and gets Mini.
Mini and the Kabuliwallah have an awkward exchange during which the man realizes that Mini has grown up, and therefore so has his own daughter. Like with Mini, he’ll have to reacquaint himself with his daughter. The narrator gives the Kabuliwallah money so that he can return home to Afghanistan to see his daughter, meaning that Mini’s wedding will lose some of the theatrics such as electric lights and a brass band. But the wedding will be “lit by a kinder, more gracious light.”
There are two central themes in this story, and Tagore masterfully plays them against each other to build tension in the narrative. The first key theme is otherness, with Kabuliwallah standing as a clear outsider who speaks broken Bengali and dresses in a way that situates him outside of typical Bengali society. The narrator is fascinated by him in part because of the fact that he’s seen parts of the world that are so different from Calcutta, while the narrator’s wife distrusts him precisely because he is a foreigner, and perhaps one who will kidnap her child, which she thinks Afghanis are wont to do.
The other theme is doubling, as the narrator and the Kabuliwallah are construed as mirror characters of one another. They are both shown as storytellers, and each is fascinated enough by Mini to listen to her talk for hours. But most importantly, Tagore reminds us that they’re both fathers, and the narrator seeing the Kabuliwallah as a man who is heartsick over a daughter that he has not seen in years helps the narrator see the man as a human being, not as some would-be murderer.
The genius of the story is the fact that the climax seems to come when Kabuliwallah stabs the debtor, which would confirm the narrator’s wife’s worst fears that this outsider is dangerous. During what seems like the denouement of the story, the Kabuliwallah returns and the narrator, who has clearly spent the intervening years considering the man a would-be murderer, tries to brush this outsider off.
But then the real climax comes. The Kabuliwallah pulls out the piece of paper with his daughter’s handprint inscribed on it. This image draws a link between the narrator and Kabuliwallah as men with daughters they love dearly. With the move to bond the narrator and the Kabuliwallah, Tagore crafts a tale about finding common humanity despite all of the differences that two men may have.
It’s worth noting here that one of the things that makes Tagore such an innovator given the context he was writing in was his unconventional narrative structure. Indeed, this story doesn’t play out over some sort of conflict and resolution like a typical narrative (or the adventure stories that the narrator writes) might. Instead, Tagore develops a set of relationships and shows us how those relationships play out when tempered by the sands of time.