A Tinge of the Khyber

They did look rather colourful with their turbans, hennaed beards and Pathani suits. 
In the sixties, the Pathans were quite a common sight in Coonoor market. You would find many of them, sitting on the revetment behind the taxis, near the bus stand. On shandy days when the tea workers, plush with their weekly wages, descended in hordes for their day in town, there would more of them. Often they would be carrying lathis, smacking them menacingly against their legs. Most of the Pathans were money lenders and were waiting to catch the debtors who owed them money, before they spent it all.

I was terrified of them, especially as I would be left alone in an unlocked car while my mother went marketing. Sometimes, my cousin Mohan would be there, but he was no help at all as he would be at the wheel pretending to be a race driver.  When I saw these tall men with piercing green or brown eyes walk past, I would put up the windows, lock the doors and cower in the space between the seats.  Once in a while, I would surface and look out, if the Pathan was standing anywhere close by and hide again.  The poor man would be blissfully unaware of all this drama, of course.  

This was long before I read Tagore’s Kabuliwala and cried for little girls who didn't have a father who came home every evening. Again, this was much before I read about the Great Game in books like Kipling’s Kim and Mundy’s King of the Khyber Rifles.  The Kite Flyer by Khaled Hosseini gave a much better perceptive of what Kabul was like in the twentieth century. The picture of the Afghan remained rather hazy but the feeling was that these were fierce looking but kindly, honourable souls.  Even when the images of the wanton destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and other atrocities filled our TV screens, deep inside I liked to think that the average man on the street is a good soul.

Coming back to the Afghans in Coonoor, it is said, that all them did not come to sell dried fruits and spices like they did in the other cities of India. The story goes that an Afghan prince was once interned in Coonoor after one of the Anglo Afghan wars. This is, of course, purely anecdotal but I am sure there are records of this in buried deep in archives somewhere.

It was quite a common practice for the British to exile truant princes to parts of British India, considered safe. Their arrival in Coonoor was part of a grand scheme of things, planned and orchestrated by armchair strategists in Whitehall, who wanted to create a buffer state between the threat of the advancing Russian Empire and British India. 

The prince, it is said, came with his family and retinue of kinsmen, servants and other hangers on. He was housed in one of the bungalows, off Barlows Road. 
My story starts sometime in the mid 1930s when my grandfather was living in Runnymede, a house which is also off Barlows Road.  

A view of Runnymede bungalow from the Coonoor Ghat Road. 

One summer morning, my father’s two elder brothers, who were home from boarding school in Kerala, were out in the garden playing with an air gun. For some time, they shot at the target that their father had set up for them on the lawn but that soon bored them. Then one of them raised the air gun and fired at a passing bird and to his great amazement, he hit the bird.

The bird continued flying though grievously hurt. The boys were excited and followed the bird’s trajectory and arrived breathless at the gates of a big house, where the bird dropped dead. A tall handsome man wearing a strange cap was standing on the lawn and looking down at the dead bird at his feet. As if sensing he was being watched, the man glanced up and saw the two small bobbing heads at the gate.  He walked up to the gate and asked them in very courteously.

The boys entered looking suitably contrite with their heads down. The man asked them if they had shot the bird. When they nodded, he then asked them if they were hungry and how they planned to cook the bird.  The boys were aghast and said that they would never eat this bird. The man then told them, “Don’t kill animals or birds for pleasure, the only time you hunt is if you are hungry or in danger.” The boys picked up the bird and walked back home, rather chastised.  

In course of time, the family became friendly with the Afghans.  My grandmother even supplied them with milk from her dairy.  

 Apparently, the prince did not live there for long as he went away to Europe with his immediate family. The Afghans exiled in India were paid a subsidy by the British. So the guess is that the British stopped the subsidy once the real prince left. The house off Barlows Road continued to be inhabited by some Afghan nobles for quite a while.  When the money ran out they started selling gems, mainly emeralds to some of the local moneylenders.  Soon they ran out of things to sell and they left. The ones who opted to stay back started lending money. Then, I guess, they left too.


  1. As usual a wonderful read. It transported me back to the days when we used to spot these fierce looking men in the marketplace.

  2. Fascinating. Spellbound with the little girl's perspective . . .

  3. rightergeorge .. yes those men did look very fierce

  4. Nina, you have done it again! You have written so beautifully about all the fear and fascination for the cabuliwallahs felt by little girls!

  5. Thanks Usha.. that was very kind.. I was also very scared of the 'tiger men. who painted themselves tiger stripes on themselves for the annual market temple festival.

  6. Nina get to read your writings again. I did enjoy reading your writing while we were at The Mail . Wonderfully woven. Loved it

  7. Mohan Warrier.. thank you for your kind words.. i really enjoyed writing it too

  8. Beautiful Cabuliwallah story, Nina!


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