Monday, 30 December 2013

on Ittars... (Deccan Herald, 1 Dec 2013)

The fragrance of royalty

Delhi’s Nizamuddin is better known for Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya’s dargah (mausoleum). 

Walking towards it, one cannot miss the waft of fragrances that awaken and enliven our senses. During my last visit, instead of going straight to the dargah, I took a narrow lane and found myself in an exquisite ittar market. Glass-panelled shops with beautiful crystal bottles holding perfume oils enchanted the passers-by.

Walking into one of the shops, I started a conversation with the owner, Mohammad Faizan (23 years), who is taking forward his father’s business. “My father came to Delhi some 60 years ago from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh, and he started this business for Islamic reasons. There is sunnat in it, and no work is considered purer,” Faizan tells me. This reminds me of Eid, when it is customary for every Muslim man and woman to apply ittar. Muslim men also wear ittar on Fridays for their jumma prayers.

Ittar, a term with Persian roots, is natural perfume oil derived from herbs, flowers and wood. The Arabic word is attar. The oil, obtained through hydro or steam distillation, is aged. No alcohol is used in ittars. Hence, unlike synthetic perfumes, ittars are worn directly on the body: insides of wrists, behind ears, insides of elbow joints and back of the neck.

History relates that the Mughal nobles of India were great patrons of these oils. The Jasmine ittar was a particular favourite of the Nizams of Hyderabad. It is also mentioned in Ain-e-Akbari by Abul Fazal that Emperor Akbar used ittar on a daily basis. 

It is also said that a Mughal princess’ bath was incomplete without ittar; particularly Oud which was, and is, prepared in Assam. Legend has it that Mughal Empress Noor Jehan discovered one of the most expensive and exotic ittars, Rooh-e-Gulab, while in her bath. 
Faizan informs, “Our Indian products are home-based and mostly come from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh.” It is today the ‘Ittar city’ or the perfume city of India. 

“Our products have varied markets within and outside India. Oud is most in demand outside India, especially in the Gulf.” He tells me that Oud is like wine, gets better and more expensive with time. “Oud starts at Rs 10,000 for 10 grams and can go up to lakhs, often auctioned. This perfumed oil is mostly for the royal families of Saudi Arabia.” 

And that, “Arabs don’t use it as perfume 70 per cent of the time; they mostly use it as an aphrodisiac. The perfume increases the body pressure.” 

The Indian government apparently, reveals Faizan, has put a ban on the export of Oud since its source Agarwood (dark resinous heartwood) is a rarity. “Arabs mostly come all the way to Delhi and Mumbai to purchase them.”

The popular ittars within India, Faizan tells me, are the flower extracts Raat ki Rani and Bela. “But these perfume oils, in natural form, come very costly because of the processing mechanism. Hence identical products, not natural but made of essential oils, are in demand in Indian markets.” 

Though ittar has a steady clientele, Faizan states that pure ittar is almost a thing of the past because of its price. “People, especially youngsters, can’t afford pure ittar and so go for western perfumes available in good price.” But he does admit that they get clients from diverse religious backgrounds and not just Muslims. Besides, they get corporate demands too. 

“Denim makers approach us for water-based ittars. When denim is being processed, the heavy chemicals used leave a very pungent smell. To remove this smell, they use water-soluble ittars.”

Faizan shows me a bottle of Ruhkhas, which is used in summer for its cooling effect. “The more you sweat, more will the fragrance last,” he says. 

Then he dabs a drop of some bliss on my right wrist. It is Shamama-tul-amber, he tells me, which is priced at Rs 1,200 for 10 ml. “It is made of garam masala (Indian spices), amber (a rare extract from the Salmon) and sandal oil. It is in huge demand in the Gulf and India and all other cold places. It keeps you warm.” 

On my left wrist, he adds a dash of Oud. I came back smelling divine, with fragrances on me that survived two showers.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

My short story, "That summer" published by Writers Asylum

My short story story, "That summer" has been published by Writers Asylum. An excerpt:

"I loved Aita not only because she was my mother’s mother but mostly because she was a child like me, at least, at heart. I have always remembered her as this frail old woman with hair as white as cotton tied in a bun that looked more like a pig’s tail. She would be there at the gate in her starched mekhela chadars and toothless smile, waiting to welcome us every time we went. I have never known her in any other image. She would wait for me to come during my month-long summer and winter vacations, bathe in the rain with me, make bird houses with me, pick lice from my hair, make me sleep with her at night and tell bedtime stories. Grandma’s place at Digboi, in one of the northernmost corners of Assam, was my favorite playground. Every time, there would be a new calf or a pigeon, duck, cat, dog, or plant for me to get excited about. And there would be some new story too to keep me occupied during the stay.

Like that summer, in the early 1990s, when Aita took me to the gooseberry tree by the pond behind the house. “Living in the town has destroyed your skin. Look at you!” she told me, holding me by the hand and leading me through the backyard towards the pond. “Your skin hangs on you like a tortoise’s shell when it should be soft and glowing. You need to eat lots and lots of gooseberries.” As we neared the pond, Aita let out a strict, “Be careful now! I don’t want you in the pond. Just follow me!”
As I nodded, she placed a step on the tiny patch of land between the gooseberry tree and the pond, her foot slipped and she went sliding into the pond. It all happened so fast that Aita’s shout came out only after she had landed in the pond. I thought I was imagining things when a little fish leapt out of the water and almost fell into her open mouth crying out in horror."

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Cherra in my mind

I blurted out "Cherrapunji" when a couple of us were discussing our favorite places in the world. It's not that I've grown up there or keep visiting it every now and then. It was just a visit in 2008, with my parents and Dulu jethu and Munu jethai, that did it for me. The wettest place on earth before Mawsynram (also in Meghalaya) claimed the title, Cherrapunji is about 4-5 hours from Shillong (by road) and we were wondering, as we made the trip, why on earth had we not visited it before! Considering the fact that we often traveled to Shillong, which is at a two hour drive from Guwahati, my home town. 

Here, I get together a photo essay from my 2008 trip. I don't know why but Cherra is in my mind today!

on the way to Cherrapunji from Shillong

a shop by the roadside selling mustard green pickles, my favorite!

the beautiful Cherra sky

the Cherra hills

in Meghalaya, a common sight is of women running shops and stalls by the roadside and at marketplaces

women running the show in one of the roadside stalls at Cherra 

a bunch of interesting people we met. I (extreme right, standing) pose with them.

megaliths (burial mounds) inside a village in Cherra
the Cherra sky - clear and blue

such fresh air that when I look at these photographs even today, I can smell the crisp air!

We stayed at the breathtaking Cherrapunji Holiday Resort

here I am taking in the beauty of the place!

at Cherrapunji Holiday Resort

the little lady who made our stay at the resort comfortable :)

Carmela, who along with her Andhra husband Dennis, owns the lovely Cherrapunji Holiday Resort

we pose with the village boys who came to the resort in the evening to sing for us. they were so talented! 


Tuesday, 3 December 2013

My latest short story published - "The cabbie and the Madamji"

My latest short story "The cabbie and the Madamji" has been published by Writers Asylum.


"He said his name was Dharam Pal Singh and he showered Neha with utmost respect. “How far have you studied, Madamji?” he once asked Neha as he took her to The Claridges for a meeting. “PhD,” she replied.
“Have you done B.A.?”
“Oh. Yes,” Neha tried not to laugh.
“My son’s also done his B.A. and has now joined my taxi service. He can speak in English, you know!” Dharam Pal announced proudly. And then he went into the story of how diligent and efficient his son is and that they got him married right after his B.A. because he was quite a catch and there were many parents of girls after him. “His B.A. fetched him quite a dowry, you know?” he winked at Neha when their eyes met in the rear view mirror. “He now has a two year old daughter and his wife is pregnant again; hopefully it will be a boy this time.” Neha wanted to say something, but she deemed it better to keep quiet.
As they were about to take the turn towards Claridges, Dharam Pal said, “I am sure my son could have got a job like you. After all he is educated like you. But I need him for my taxi service, you see, to expand my business. So he had to make a sacrifice for his father. I am sure God will reward him well for this.”
Neha’s office is located in Noida, across the Yamuna. But she has to move around the whole of Delhi NCR on official duty. On a few occasions before, Dharam Pal had chauffeured her to and fro from the office to the ministry offices at Nirman Bhavan. He wasn’t an employee with her organization, but his taxi stand was close to their office and so his services were taken for most of the traveling around by her colleagues. So a kind of unwritten contract existed between Dharam Pal and her office. And if ever Dharam Pal got to know that her office has used the services of another taxi provider, he would come over and create quite a tantrum at the reception. In the last six months that Dharam Pal had got to know Neha, he had also taxied her to the Indira Gandhi National Airport once when she was flying out of the country on work."

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...