If one wants to know the history of Mumbai’s tragic tryst with the textile industry, one needs to make a stop at a humble paan stall – one of the city’s best kept secrets – in Bhuleshwar.
Our journey down memory lane begins almost a hundred years ago in 1920 somewhere in Ayodhya. Gauri Shankar packed up his belongings and left his home in Bola Ghat (today known as Tulsi Ghat) forever. It was the year that Mahatma Gandhi launched his famous Non-Cooperation Movement, the largest peaceful protest – of hundreds and thousands of citizens – that had ever been held in human history. Life in the bustling metropolis of Bombay came to a complete shut down several times during this movement. It was to the very heart of this ‘Maximum’ city – Bhuleshwar – Gauri Shankar headed.
98 years later Devendra Shankar sits in his father’s regal paan stall – the oldest paan shop in Mumbai and, quite possibly, the oldest paan shop in India…! The ornately carved saal-wood stall is burnished a deep, dark brown by the many years it has witnessed. It’s nothing like the ordinary wayside stall one is used to in Mumbai – it is more of a sprawling palanquin that doesn’t fit into the puzzle that is the derelict bazaar making up its surroundings. Devendra himself is an oddity – a relic and a reminder of a Bombay (now, Mumbai) long-gone.
Devendra Shankar, Owner of the Oldest Paan Shop in Bombay, Which Was Established by His Father Gauri Shankar, in 1920.
“I started working in this paan stall when I was 22,” Devendra tells us, his face wrinkling into a thousand lines and a splendid gap-toothed smile. “My father stopped working in it when he turned 80. In my father’s days, Gandhi Ji and Nehru Ji were holding their rallies in this area,” Devendra nods at the streets around him, “This area is home to some of the oldest structures in Mumbai – some of them 150 years old.” We’re standing outside the gate of Madhav Baug – a 150 year-old block made up of a labyrinth of by-lanes that lead you past ancient Jain and Hindu temples, shops selling idols, and a gaushala called Bombay Panjrapole. The Panjrapole itself is almost two centuries old set up in 1834 by animal-loving Bombay personas, Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy and Amichand Shah, to give shelter to stray dogs and pigs that were being rounded up and killed by the British. Today it is home to some 350 cows, and a handful of donkeys, hens, geese, parrots, goats, ducks, and rabbits.
Mulji Jetha Market
Like the Panjrapole, Devendra Shankar’s presence in this chaotic neighbourhood makes no sense and simultaneously makes all the sense in the world.
Bhuleshwar was like a Noah’s Ark in the early 20th century, to which humans and animals alike gravitated and seemed to find a home. Enterprising Gujarati and Marwari families descended upon it and set up shop among the humdrum of religious and political activity. “I was from a purely Hindi-speaking Brahmin family,” Devendra tells us, “But I ended up picking up Gujarati because everyone who moved here spoke it. They were garment traders mostly, from Surat, Baroda, Ahemadabad, and Rajkot.”
As he relays the tale of the garment traders of Gujarat, we find it hard to believe that this ragged bazaar was once the cynosure of all textile trade in India. When Devendra’s father, Gauri Shankar, had moved to Bombay the city had 136 textile mills employing about 250,000 workers. Today, the mill areas are haunted precincts – emptied and abandoned since the Great Bombay Textile Strike of 1982; those that are not lying in ruins have been redeveloped into luxury malls like Phoenix Mills in Lower Parel. The few teetering mills that continue to operate employ less than 25,000 people today.
Mangaldas Market Entry from Crawford Market
Textile trade in Bombay was at its zenith when Devendra Shankar was a young man running his father’s paan stall. A young Gujarati textile trader called Dhirubhai Ambani moved to Bhuleshwar in 1958, where he lived with his family in a rented two-bedroom apartment. For a steep Rs 150 per month, this struggling entrepreneur who would go on to become the richest man in India, rented space in Mulji Jetha Market, a few blocks south of Bhuleshwar, and started his business in the export of textiles and other commodities. This was the humble beginning of his empire that was to soon consist of textile mills, yarn plants, and textile brands across India. The Ambani family today is in every industry conceivable, be it oil and gas, telecommunications, or retail. Dhirubhai’s eldest son, Mukesh, earns something like Rs 400 per minute – more than twice the monthly rent his father barely scraped together for matchbox-sized space in Mulji Jetha!
A hop, skip, and a jump south of Gauri Shankar’s paan stall is Mulji Jetha Market, supposedly the largest wholesale textile market in Asia. Mulji Jetha is a 144 year-old structure in the neighbourhood of Kalbadevi, which can easily be missed for its derelict appearance and its unassuming entrances on Sheikh Memon Street. The painted sign on the roof of the building has all but peeled off. Ironically, some of the fabrics that are sold here are from China, epitomising the decline of India’s textile industry. Mulji Jetha is just one of the markets sandwiched between Kalbadevi and Bhuleshwar, the others being Mangaldas Market, Zaveri Bazaar, and Crawford Market. It is supposed to have 24 entrances, but only 2 are at all visible. As one enters it, one is taken back in time to the sights and sounds of the 1960s. Here, about a thousand shops, all built by Gujarati families from Kathiawad and Saurashtra, sat on mattresses across which they would fling and display their fabrics for all passers-by to examine.
At Mangaldas Market.
Busy stalls at Mangaldas Market.
Fabrics everywhere at Mangaldas Market.
Smiling Customers at Mangaldas Market.
Stalls in Mangaldas Market.
The many alleys of Mangaldas Market.
The many stalls of Mangaldas Market.
Nothing has changed in Mulji Jetha as far as the way business is carried out. Fabric merchants are still sitting there on their mattresses, some chewing paan, languidly reaching out and yanking out swatches from the piles of fabric arranged around them. Some of them look like they may have been lounging on the mattresses for about half a century during which time the glamour of the area has clearly faded.
“This was a happening area in the 1970s,” Devendra Shankar reminisces, “My father’s paan stall was well known. In fact, the Gujarati Chitralekha and Times of India both wrote about our paan stall in 1974 and 1975. Bollywood scions like Rajesh Khanna and Sanjeev Kumar frequented it.” Devendra’s pride is evident. Spread out before him are several silver vessels that hold an array of condiments, herbs and spices for making paan. We ask him to make us the most popular paan recipe from his assorted offering. “Calcutta paan it is,” he tells us matter-of-factly, and proceeds to deftly pack bits of goodies from the numerous silver pots into two betel leaves.
As we chew on the juicy delicacy Devendra has conjured up, many passers-by halt for their own paan-stop for the day. They all seem familiar with Devendra and their halt is more of a social stop and an excuse to catch up on local gossip and banter. Devendra Shankar’s paan stall is the neighbourhood’s watering hole where people from all walks of life appear to rendez-vous. “It’s all for the love of paan,” he tells us gleefully as he dextrously prepares this and that recipe for various paan-lovers. “I mean, things have changed. People don’t wear bell-bottomed pants anymore, and nowadays people don’t seem to have the time to simply linger. But it’s the paan that will always have people coming back here for more.”
Devendra Shankar is old. Like the markets around him. He attends his paan stall from 2pm in the afternoon onward. Devendra’s son, Vikas, has started helping his father run the paan stall. Vikas Shankar does his round from 10am to 2pm. A serious shopkeeper, Vikas is keeping the family tradition of paan-making alive. Around him, everything is ancient, also finding ways to repurpose and reinvent itself to bring textile traditions back to life. Mangaldas Market is one such anachronism. Jam-packed with textile retailers from around the country trying to coax choosy women into buying Chikankari embroidery from Lucknow, Benarasi brocade from Uttar Pradesh, Ikat from Bihar, and Chanderi fabric from Madhya Pradesh, the 126 year-old market is sheer mayhem. Made up of over 100 shops lining 9 criss-crossing lanes, the old ways slowly give way to the new as shopkeepers grudgingly accept credit and debit cards from customers.
A walk through Mangaldas Market is nothing short of a sensory overload. It is not unlike Devendra’s paan stall that proffers paan recipes from Benaras and Calcutta and some concoctions of his own. Mangaldas is also brimming with fabrics from every corner of the country and the savvy shopkeepers have kept with the latest trends selling those colours, styles, and embroidery designs that are now in fashion. In one stall a gentleman is showcasing magnificent tent fabrics that will festoon Ganesha idols during the upcoming festival of Ganesh Chaturthi. Stubborn customers are at every stall bargaining mercilessly with embattled shopkeepers. Everywhere fabrics are tossed, unravelled across mattresses, and ballyhooed. The pandemonium is overwhelming and exhilarating all at once. Rather like India – rather like Devendra Shankar’s paan stall; too many colours and varieties to take in, too many options on the menu to keep count of.
B Ashok Store at Zari Galli.
Inside B Ashok Store at Zari Galli.
Shop windows at Zari Galli.
Trimmings at Zari Galli.
The entrances to Mangaldas Market are many – 19 to be exact – and they are more visible and ubiquitous than the entrances to Mulji Jetha. One of the entrances is accessed through Crawford Market. The most prominent entrance is the one facing the busy thoroughfare of Janjiker Street. Crossing Janjiker Street is a near-impossible feat as motorcycles screech, cars honk, vendors and hawkers call at passers-by, and sweaty labourers drag carts piled high with bundles of fabric. Upon exiting Mangaldas, we manage to cross over to the other side of Janiker Street after much dodging and bolting. Sheikh Memon Street takes us in the direction back to Devendra Shankar’s stall past Mumbadevi Mandir, the temple of the local goddess after which the city is named.
We decide that we must have one more paan before calling it a day. But before that, it is worth exploring some of the many alleys that are like vital arteries pulsating with business, leading to the main markets. One of these is Shamsheth Street, nicknamed ‘Zari Galli’ for the cluster of shops that are devoted entirely to zari and other types of accessories and decorations that popularly adorn Indian apparel. We stop at B. Ashok Kumar and Company, which, like most of the other shops in Zari Galli, source its entire stock of trimmings and lace from Surat in Gujarat. It’s impossible to resist buying just a little something – a meter of silver-patterned saree border – that I’m certain I can use on some piece of clothing somewhere. The shop glitters from floor to ceiling with adornments that make a Christmas ornament store in London look like child’s play.
With much difficulty, we tear ourselves away from Zari Galli, and back to Devendra Shankar’s paan stall. Having done a full circle – a darshan, rather – around his neighbourhood, it is time to bid him farewell. Two classic black-and-white photos – sepia-hued by the years – of his father mount the saal-wood roof of the stall. Gauri Shankar would have been proud to see his legacy endure the ravages of time.
“What will it be this time?” Devendra asks us with a twinkle in his eyes.
“Something different,” we request, “Something with a new flavour.”
“Right,” he uncaps a bottle of Hershey’s chocolate sauce set aside from all the vintage silverware, “Something old with a bit of something new – my chocolate paan is just what you need.”