Pagris, jootis & broken English
by Preeti Verma Lal
In the bylanes of Amritsar, business
deals are hurried affairs generally thumped around dusk, but on the streets the
English language falters glumly. They accord a "hartiest" welcome, the
actor is named "Prienka Chhoppra", you can visit the "Bar Bar Shope"
for the latest coiffure, the juice bars sell "cole dranks" and you can
order food from a "Cater's". Strangely, Simco Hair Fixers are always
impeccably turned out. They are never ever spelt incorrectly. L
ook at a yesterday some centuries
old and imagine two burly young sardars on a steed kicking dust from Peshawar
to Calcutta. They were no buccaneers but the first tea traders from Amritsar.
They owned a small, decrepit shop in Katra Ahluwalia, sold their products in Peshawar
and Kabul and stashed a fortune. Their progeny, Ratan Chand, took tea trading
to such heights that he was honoured with the Order of the British Empire.
Singh and Kalyan Singh's shop still stands in one of the several lanes in Amritsar;
lanes so small that there is just enough room for a bullock cart, the wide open
sewers and a buffalo - maybe a pregnant buffalo, if she could nudge and jostle
a little. The lanes have umpteen manholes and the path is so bumpy that at the
end of it all the body wails.
Business deals are hurried
affairs generally thumped around dusk, but on the streets the English language
falters glumly. They accord a "hartiest" welcome, the actor is named
"Prienka Chhoppra", you can visit the "Bar Bar Shope" for
the latest coiffure, the juice bars sell "cole dranks" and you can order
food from a "Cater's". Strangely, Simco Hair Fixers are always impeccably
turned out. They are never ever spelt incorrectly.
But in these lanes
moolah flows. They host the biggest wholesale shawl market in the world and is
one of the largest trading dry ports for tea. The Golden Temple Road that hosts
nearly 50 wholesale shawl shops alone does a business of Rs 20 crore annually.
It is difficult to figure out how they keep the accounts,
there are no computers, all records are maintained in hand-stitched red books
that stretch roughly two hands. There are hardly any chairs either, men sit on
gaddis on the floor, most sullied with barefoot traders, loaders and the occasional
guest. There are no women in these shops, but name any god from the Hindu pantheon
and they are all staring down from framed photographs adorned with dust-laden
You might not see women in these shops, but quite
a few young things ride the scooty, looking pretty in their vibrant, always synthetic
patiala salwars, their long braids lying like paper weights on their fluttering
semi-transparent kurtas. They weren't any women steering four-wheelers, nor were
there too many in jeans and tees.
A lot of wisdom floats
around in these lanes. Ask Ravinder Singh why he recommends Hyson green tea and
he would rattle off the advantages with great élan - if you eat raw meat
like the Kabulis do, this green tea would help in digestion, you would shed the
extra lard, if you have a bad appetite this tea would bring hunger in truckloads
you can blink Ravinder adds that he stocks some 20 different kinds of tea and
sells to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Germany, Russia. His family has been in this business
for nearly 70 years, perhaps it is tea that runs in his veins.
the sham pregnant buffalo that I fitted in the lanes of Amritsar, I nudge and
jostle a little, hold on tight to my camera, get off the car and take a rickshaw
to the famous Ujjagar Singh Karam Singh papad and wari shop. There's a woman in
the shop buying enough papad to feed Somalia. While she haggled in her grated
voice, I look around - there's pasta (pasta in Amritsar!) squatting over Maggi
noodles and hutch full of waris plonked on plain, timid-looking papads.
every other shop in the busy lanes, this again was a legacy from Ujjagar Singh
to his son Karam Singh. For 90 years the family has been selling four different
types of papad and waris. Perhaps Karam Singh, with flowing white beard and sunken
eyes, did not take kindly to the legacy. When I asked him who Ujjagar Singh was,
he smirked, "Mera Baap". Guess, I scraped an old wound and before it
bled I walked to his neighbour selling plastic containers, household items and
something that looked like a piece of rock. I liked the color of the rock, it
was dark charcoal. When asked, the shopkeeper is curt, "It is a rock from
Iraq and the only answer to cracked heels." What is the name, I ask. "It
is a rock from Iraq", he says again. But I am sure it has a name. "It
is a rock from Iraq."
He scowled, I scampered.
a not so crowded corner sits Azad Singh, son of the "world famous" Balwant
Singh Majithawale, the jooti maker. Azad Singh who can barely speak Hindi revers
his father's dexterity and laments that he is 95 and ill, yet goes on finishing
a pair of embroidered jooti that can sell for more than Rs 450 a pair. Interestingly,
the embroidered bits are made by women in Pakistan and brought by pilgrims who
travel to the other side of the border. Singh, whose family has been making jootis
for 200 years, can stitch two pairs a day - plain or embroidered. Before I leave
he reminds me that Balwant Singh Majithewale is "world famous" and that
I could "ask anyone in the world and they would know about my father."
I did not know I was in the company of a celebrity's son, the eminence did not
gleam through the old tattered lungi and jute sacks that kept the sun away from
As I walk up the steps of Amritsar Pagri House
in the busy main market, I make way for three Nirankaris who have come to pick
up blue pagris, completely ignoring the 100 other shades including the beautiful
fuchsia, the turquoise and the lime green. Pinks and maroons are the favorite
for the weddings while black and blue are the most often picked, informs Satinderjit
Singh, who sported a black pagri, nearly six meters long and 44 inches wide.
was getting dark, my body was wailing, I was sweaty as never before, but half
finished stories about Amritsar and its people came staccato from Balli Singh,
the rickshawwallah. He was not jaded; smiles still gleamed from his bushel of
a mustache. I should have known, I was in the land of the fulsome Sikhs; maybe
I should have also guzzled two foot-long glasses of lassi in one of the bylanes
in Discover India magazine, August 2004.