Monday, 8 April 2013

my very first story for Deccan Herald (Dec 2010)

Confluence of cultures

Juanita Kakoty
Back home in Assam, we knew Saharanpur (Uttar Pradesh) for its great wooden furniture.
PERCEPTIONS Though a small town, Saharanpur has a beauty of its own. So, when I first visited the place with my then-boyfriend-and-now-husband, the wooden furniture market remained the primary attraction. Rows and rows of shops selling wonderfully carved wooden artefacts, very characteristic of Saharanpur. When I finally decided I had enough of anything in wood, I was taken to Nakhasa Bazzar — the paradise of sarees, salwar-kameezes, bangles and spicy north Indian snacks. I learnt later that it is one of the huge wholesale markets for clothes in the whole of north India.

I came back to Delhi with the idea that Saharanpur, after all, is an old town, flashing like trophies woodenwares, clothes, people with skull caps and women in burqas, and bursting with people and two-wheelers.   

Soon after, my parents, done with six years of negotiations, finally agreed to my marriage with a Muslim from Saharanpur. All fears were put to rest when my in-laws travelled all the way to Guwahati for the wedding, conducted in Assamese style. The marriage was blessed by both sides of the family, and henceforth, I and my husband embarked upon a beautiful journey of discovering each other’s region, religion, culture, and cuisine.

In the small town of Behat, at a distance of 20 minutes  ride from Saharanpur city, all of my husband’s elderly relatives at the Shah family’s ancestral 500-year-old haveli blessed me, including Shah Mansoor Aijaz Sabri, Sajjada Nasheen (head) of the Sufi Shrine ‘Kaliyar Sharif’. 

Behat turned out to be quite a fascinating place. It was home to several great feudal families in the medieval times, evident through the remains of havelis and descendants clutching close to their hearts what remains of their glorious past. In some dilapidated corner of my husband’s ancestral haveli, I found a wall clock, a bed, a table, a few chairs, silver spittoons, an almirah and silver cutlery that were a 100 years old. I also found several abandoned rooms and stables; and parts of the haveli where Punjabi refugee families have been living since 1947, a gift by the British to them as compensation for the trauma created.

Saharanpur, as legend goes, is named after the Sufi saint Shah Harun Chisti. The Imperial Gazette of India (1901) states that Muhammad bin Tughlaq, the Sultan of Delhi (1325-51), visited the saint and was so touched that he named the region ‘Shah-Harunpur’. Today, the Jain and Baniya communities that reside in the Badtala Yadgar area, where the sage once lived, look after the maintenance of the saint’s shrine. Hindus and Muslims from all over the city come to pay their respects. A few stones away from this sacred place is the famous Nakhasa Bazaar. It is now a huge wholesale market, but once upon a time, it was famous for beauteous courtesans who stole hearts with velvety voices, poetic expertise, betel-red lips, kohl-lined eyes, and ghararas adorned with rich gold-silver embroidery. As nobility died in later years, most of these women moved away to distant places to start life afresh. Many joined Bollywood as actors and singers. The rest, who stayed back, shed their past and struggled with the poverty that was slapped upon them. And slowly, the naqqasas (a word derived from ‘raqs’, which means ‘to dance’), after whom the area was named, disappeared without a trace.   

I discovered that there is more to Saharanpur than the famous wooden artefacts. Like any other place, it is the people who make this place enchanting. 55-year-old Nargis khala (name changed) came to Saharanpur from Lahore in the late 1950s as a young bride. She came with her Pakistani passport and continues to live with it. Life got her so busy that passport issues became trivial. Her husband, a washerman by profession, recites Urdu poetry like the great Ghalib himself. So does every other man, old and young, in every nook and corner of the walled city. Urdu shayari is like an inheritance here. 

From the terrace of my in-laws’ Saharanpur house, I have witnessed little boys in kurta-pajama flying kites from their terraces on eid while pretty girls in salwar-kameezes make the customary call at every house in the neighbourhood with a plate of sweets and sewaiyya. My mother-in-law works magic in the kitchen; and eid is after all a special occasion. She fills the house with the aroma of yakhni pulao, mutton korma, and home-made kebabs. And when she has the time, she takes me around in a cycle rickshaw through the narrow lanes of the walled city of Saharanpur. She has grown up here and has fond memories of the place. 

The area is full of old beautiful havelis, stuck to one another, set upon narrow lanes. They even arch over the lane at some places. I wonder who lives in the room right over the lane, as people walk by beneath, or as cycle rickshaws clang past. Considering the romantic picture I have already created in my mind, I will try and find out someday.


  1. Love the post...😊 I am from Behat and have played cricket in the courtyard of the 'haveli'.. hoping to read more posts like this about my town....

    1. Thank you so much! I really appreciate that you have written to me and I am so happy to learn about the little detail :)


My short story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018

My short  story 'Where is Arsalan Miyan?' in Himal Southasian on 27 April 2018 Right in the middle of the sprawling Nakhasa Bazaa...