This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Tailor of Shillong

My father, as I said once upon a time in one of these posts, was a man who would never admit he was wrong. This led to some showdowns between us. At other times the change of circumstances left him stranded in any case. 

At one time he used to take a newspaper called the Amrita Bazar Patrika, published from Calcutta. It was a venerable paper, some 140 years old in the late seventies. It was also a completely Calcutta-centric paper; one of these days I really must write about it. I used to say that if a dog bit a man in Calcutta it would be front page news in the Amrita Bazar Patrika. I used to urge him to change to another paper, but, true to form, he would refuse. The point became moot when the paper finally collapsed in the mid-1980s (good riddance), and he had to shift to another rag, like it or not.

Another of his fixations was his tailor, one Maqbool Ahmed (for some reason almost all tailors, at least in this town, are Muslims). For non-Indians, a word of explanation: I don’t mean Savile Row; to this day, in India, the cost of tailored clothing tends to be the same or less than off-the-rack clothing if you know where to go. For some reason his shop was named, of all things, Geoff & Ken’s.

Anyway, this Maqbool Ahmed (that is not he in the photo) was from Lucknow; but he was a pure Pathan (a Pashtun from Afghanistan) from his features – tall, hook nosed, with the look of a frontier tribesman. He was also, even at the time my dad first began going to him (early 1980s) aging, and increasingly erratic as the years went by. It became a rare occasion when he could manage to stitch something without making a mess of it. On one famous occasion, in fact, he was asked to fix up a set of curtains with slotted tapes so they could be fixed on hooks on runners. What he did was sew on the tapes along the sides of the curtains, not the tops. But still my dad would not learn.

After my father’s death I bought my clothes mostly off the shelf and in any case if I needed a tailor I went to another (a Muslim, naturally; as though I had a choice on that). But if I was finished with Maqbool Ahmed, he wasn’t finished with me.

He turned up in my clinic in 2004 for the first time, over four years after my dad had passed into the great beyond. He had dentures that were ill fitting and troubling him. He wanted me to adjust them. I did. Then he came back for more adjustments. And still more.

It was then that I really got talking to him, found out a little of what drove the man. He talked of how he had come to Shillong, over one and a half thousand kilometers from his native climes, and made a life here, and how he still maintained connections with his birthplace. He never explained the “Geoff & Ken’s” though, and I never asked him.

By that time – he told me – his daughter had taken over the business. He admitted frankly that he was no longer up to the job. I had never met his daughter but if she really had taken over she must have been the only professional female tailor I have ever heard of (and so much for the alleged natural lack of emancipation of Muslim, specifically Afghan, women; because Maqbool Ahmed was a hundred per cent Afghan in his genes). But the daughter, however good she was, had to contend with a business failing from the long years of the father’s declining standards. It’s not easy to woo back custom you’ve already lost.

It was Maqbool Ahmed, on one of his visits to Lucknow, who brought back for me my first Koran. I still have it. It’s a remarkable book, written in Arabic (in Arabic script), in Arabic (in Latin transliteration) and in English – all three in vertical right-to-left columns so that the last page was where the first page of an English book should be, and vice versa. Not the most reader-friendly of writing styles, but I went through it.

Meanwhile, Maqbool’s landlord (he rented premises) ordered him to vacate. The landlord wanted to construct (he said) a commercial building on the land. Maqbool, owner of a failing tailoring business, obviously couldn’t pay the lease on premises elsewhere. Saddened and disillusioned, he finally wound up his tailor’s shop and left Shillong. I suppose he is in Lucknow now.

Recently I drove past the place where the old ramshackle building where Maqbool had his shop used to be. It’s been demolished, of course; but there’s no swank building there now with shops selling cosmetics and branded lingerie. There are piles of mouldering bricks and sand covered with weeds and a few pools of stagnant water.

It looks like the graveyard of more than one dream.  

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