Sprinkled across Delhi, shops hold on to family history, pre-Partition legacy
Even as the country saw a flurry of name changes after Independence, the owners of these businesses have stuck to the original names -- many for emotional reasons, the names being the markers of their personal histories, others for purely business ones
Five years ago, Bodhraj Babbar was sitting in his shop when he got a call from Faruque Chishti. The caller said he was an artist and an event organiser from Sialkot, Pakistan, and expressed his desire to meet him. “He was curious to know why our business was named New Sialkot Jewellers,” says Babbar.
In fact, New Sialkot Jewellers is among many old establishments in Delhi named after Pakistani cities -- Karachi Sweet Shop, Karachi Stationery Mart, Quetta Store, Peshawar Sweet Bhandar, Lahore Watch Co., Lahore Bakery, and Sialkot Jewellers -- among many others. All of these businesses were set up by families that settled in Delhi after Partition.
Even as the country saw a flurry of name changes after Independence, the owners of these businesses have stuck to the original names -- many for emotional reasons, the names being the markers of their personal histories, others for purely business ones.
The name of their business, they say, invites more curious questions now than it did in the early decades after Partition. Delhi took in nearly half-a-million refugees from Pakistan in the months before and after August 1947. Last year, the central government declared 14th August as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day.
“My grandfather owned a small gold refinery business in Sialkot (now in Pakistan) before he moved to India. The reason he named the business after Sialkot was to ensure that his business was easily identifiable among thousands of others who had crossed the border into India from Sialkot, many of whom were his customers,” says Babbar, sitting inside his shop in Moti Nagar. While my grandfather had an emotional connection with the city of his birth, my father and I kept the name purely as we are a well-known brand in the area,” says Babbar.
Raj Chandyok, 83, who came to Delhi when he was nine, just cannot get Lahore out of his system.
His father came to Delhi from Lahore in September 1947, and a few months later, set up a stationery shop in kiosk on Ajmal Khan Road, and christened it Lahore Pen House. In the 1950s, the family shifted the business to its current location in Gaffar Market, where they were allotted a proper shop by the government. The same year, the family started selling watches and renamed the shop Lahore Watch Co, one of the oldest watch shops in the city.
“The name was given by my father who was incredibly proud of the city he had left behind. Lahore was so neat, clean, and well-managed,” says Chandyok, 84. “Je Lahore Nai Vekhya, O Jamyai Nai,” he adds in Punjabi --- a popular saying among people from Lahore, which means one who hasn’t seen Lahore is not even born.
“The name also helped us attract a lot of business from fellow refugees who had migrated from Pakistan. Until the 1970s, we used to have many visitors from Lahore too when travelling between the two countries was not so difficult,” adds Chandyok, whose son and grandsons run the company, which opened another branch in South Extension in 2019 with the same name.
Has the family very thought of changing the name? “No, and there is no question of it; we are very proud of the name,” says Jatin, Chandyok’s grandson.
But the name of their business has been a matter of debate for the family of Bhimsen Mamtani, 71, whose father, Awat Ram Khemchand Mamtani, started Karachi Stationery Mart in Delhi in 1951. The store is located at Janpath.
Bhimsen Mamtani says while the family has been under no pressure so far from any quarter to change the name, they have thought of changing it on many occasions.
“My father was a proud Sindhi and named the business after the city of Karachi, where he was born and raised. But over the decades as the communal tensions in the country rose and relations between India and Pakistan deteriorated, he got worried about people mistaking our loyalties and identity,” says Mamtani. “In fact, in his last years, he told us to change it. Many a time we thought about it but legal work involved in changing it in NDMC records was daunting, so we could never come around actually doing it,” he says.
His concerns are not unfounded. Following the Pulwama attack in 2019, Karachi Bakery in Ahmedabad and Bengaluru were told by vigilantes to hide the word Karachi, from their signboards. The bakery also put up a tricolour along with posters reading that the brand was established in 1953 by a Sindhi, Khanchand Ramnani, who migrated to India after Partition and is “absolutely Indian by heart”. Last year, Karachi Bakery in Mumbai’s Bandra shut shop after protests by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) workers over its name. The owners of the chain of bakeries, however, said they had shut because of a Covid-related downturn in business and increasing rent.
Bhimsen’s son Mikil Mamtani, 33, who now runs Karachi Stationery Mart, says he has no plans to change the name. “It is a marker of our identity. I have not had any problem because of it and I have no desire to change it,” he says.
Many of these businesses have become local institutions. Take for example, Peshawar Sweet Bhandar in New Rajendra Nagar, which was set up by Chunni Lal Sahni in 1950 after he migrated to Delhi from Peshawar.
“Our family had a sweet shop in Peshawar and my father started this shop in old Rajendra Nagar from a small kiosk,” says Subhash Sahni, 62, Chunni Lal’s son. “Our earliest customers were families who like us migrated from Peshawar in 1947. Earlier, they were concentrated in Karol Bagh and Rajendra Nagar but over the next decades, they moved to different places in Delhi and NCR. Their third generation still come to our shop for sweets,” says Sahni.
Pre-independence, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan of which Peshawar is the capital, was home to approximately 50,000 Hindu families. But after the Partition, people migrated en masse to India. According to the 2017 Census of Pakistan, there were 5,392 Hindus in the province. “Our shop used to be a meeting point of the Peshawari community in Delhi,” says Subhash Sahni.
The shop, which has won several food awards, is famous for its Gulab Jamun, Pista Barfi, and Puri Chhole. Over the years, the Sahnis have tried to recreate many of their Peshawar recipes. “On Lohri, we make khajoor, a cookie-like sweet, which was quite popular in Peshawar,” says Tarun, Subhash Sahni’s nephew.
In south Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar, Ashok Kumar, who runs Quetta Store, a kitchenware shop, says he has to often answer questions from curious customers about his Quetta connection.
“I am tired of answering this question. But surprisingly people know quite a lot about Quetta, a city sandwiched between Pakistan and Afghanistan. My father was fond of the city and often told us about it. But he never visited it.”
When asked why not? he says: “It has never been for Indians to travel to Balochistan because of the insurgency there.”
While there are few accounts of the Punjabis of Balochistan in the available Partition literature, encouraged by the British, a lot of them had migrated to the region from Punjab in 1901 as traders, civil servants, teachers, and doctors in government service.
Back at New Sialkot Jewellers, Bodhraj Babbar says that he has lost touch with Faruque Chishti, the man from Sialkot he met five years ago. “Somehow, my family was not very comfortable with our relationship.”