Into the Tiger’s Den

by N.A. Bhatti

January 1999

“To phir mithai ho jae!”

-All Pakistanis as the slightest pretext

His name was actually Sher Khan but everyone called him Sheroo.  He used to stand with his chhabri laden with barfi, orange and lemon drops and toffees in front of Happy Urchins Academy in Rawalpindi.  When the school bell rang for a short recess, kids used to dash out with whoops of delight and part with their pocket money in exchange for the goody-goodies displayed in the chhabri.  Usually it was almost cleared of the mithai during the break but if not, then by the time the bell rang for close of school, the chhabri had almost nothing left in it.

Dam Fortune had been very kind to Sheroo and had rewarded him liberally for his patience and diligence.  Within the span of five years, he had earned enough to launch Twenty-First Century Sweet Mart at the junction of Murree Road and the what’s-its-name gali.  And within the same span of five years, the same Happy Urchins sported sets of thoroughly rotten teeth.  One man’s meat is another man’s poison, as the proverb goes.

I was first introduced to Sheroo by a mutual friend who took me to Twenty-First Century Sweet Mart.  The huge painted board shows a hippopotamus-sized wrestler of the Mughal era, with fierce mustaches, stripped to the waist and carrying the traditional gurz with which the famous father and son, Sohrab and Rustum, went for each other’s blood.

Under an announcement that everything in Sheroo’s shop was made of khaalis desi ghee was a list of what he had to offer:  laddoo, barfi, jalebi, ghulaab jaaman, patessa, ras gulla and other exotic-sounding yummies to gladden the heart of any blue-blooded Pakistani celebrating a happy event.

Twenty-First Century Sweet Mart sparkled with its glass showcases with stainless steel borders, uniformed salesmen, an efficient-looking cashier and, towering above the staff, Chaudhry Sher Mohammed Khan Sahib with a flowing grey beard counting the beads of his tasbeeh: a picture of exemplary piety.  He said he was honoured to have been introduced to me and in all the humility he managed to muster, related to me how he had risen in life from a mere chhabri-wala to sole proprietor of Twenty-First Century Sweet Mart: the so-called fulfillment of the American dream!

What surprised me was Sheroo’s claim that many of the halwais of Islamabad’s Blue Area who sold their mouth-watering delicacies to the federal capital’s elite in fancy packaging actually bought their mithai from him.  He was one of the very few confectioners in the country who held the secret of preparing khoya of superb quality and it was this ingredient that was the basis of all excellent sweet-meats.  He said he possessed several documents from highly-placed people testifying to the exceptionally high quality of his product from the laboratory of Twenty-First Century Sweet Mart.  One of these was what he called a saartifitak from the Military Secretary of a former Prime Minister.  It had been framed and mounted suitably from where it could attract the attention of customers.

Sheroo ordered a saucer with half-a dozen different kinds of sweetmeats to be brought of my sampling.  I tried two of three and although I am not a connoisseur of desi mithai, I put up a show that I was and gave vent to an audible M-m-m-m-m! Maza aa gya! I also indicated that henceforth I’d always patronize Twenty-First Century Sweet Mart whenever the occasion demanded it.  I’d also let it be known throughout our mohallah that whenever anyone needed mithai, Sheroo was his man.  My friend and I then took leave.  Sheroo, no doubt, would have patted himself on his back for having done some very successful salesmanship.

A week later, I paid a visit to Rawalpindi and having survived the Murree Road obstacle course, drew up opposite Twenty-First Century Sweet Mart.  My shopping list included a kilo of mixed mithai so Sheroo was the right man.  Unfortunately, he was out but his No 2 recognized me and hastened to meet the order: Half pao barfi, half pao ladoo, half pao baaloo shahi, half pao this, half pao that…

“Where’s your karkhana?” I inquired from Rehmat, Sheroo’s deputy.  “May I have a look?”

“Bismillah ji, bismillah!  How can we refuse a friend of Chaudhry Sher Mohammed Khan Sahib?  Oye Nikkay, show this Sahib our karkhana and return futafut!”

The teenager escorted me to Twenty-First Century Sweet Mart’s laboratory at the back of the shop and left me there.  I had imagined a gleaming glass-stainless steel-formica setup similar to the showroom displaying the finished products, but never was I so badly mistaken.  In a hellhole dimly lit by a single bulb hanging from a length of twin-flex from the darkened ceiling, were three men at work at large iron cauldrons bubbling and frothing with what was probably milk.  Clouds of steam rose from them as the liquid evaporated and gradually assumed the consistency of khoya.  Chunks of plaster had dropped from the ceiling and walls, some of it probably into the milk, fortifying it with calcium so necessary for human health.  Blackened cobwebs hung all over the place and I expected bats to come screaming out of the odd crevices in the walls and felt as if I had been trapped in a medieval dungeon.

I saw no bats but something else.  At this stage let me warn readers with weak digestive systems to wait until their last meal has been absorbed into their bloodstream before venturing further.  I won’t hold myself responsible for that wild feeling inside their stomachs with the possibility of a good meal being wasted down the bathroom sink.  You see, the flying cockroach dived into…

I took the accompanying photographs, snooped quietly into my car without collecting my mithai and drove hell-for-leather away from Twenty-First Century Sweet Mart.  Sheroo must be wondering what happened in his absence.

Mithai?  Never again, even if it is from Islamabad’s Blue Area confectioners.  Here’s to hoping you haven’t thrown up!

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One response to “Into the Tiger’s Den

  1. Barfi! How apt. And we need a saartifitak, futafut!

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