Dilli Diary: What’s in a name? Ask a Khatri

Imagine if the owners of a Karachi Watch Co. or Lahore Stationers or Peshawar Cloth House were Muslim. Would their existence be so undisturbed?

A plush Karachi Bakery outlet at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi (Photo: Getty Images)
A plush Karachi Bakery outlet at the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi (Photo: Getty Images)

Akhil Katyal

As soon as you step out of New Delhi railway station on the Paharganj side, what greets you is a throng of eateries on Chelmsford Road. One of them, unmissable in bright electric orange letters, is called Lahore Dhaba. And as soon as you exit terminal T-3 at Delhi’s IGI airport and head towards the metro station for the Airport Line, the first shop you see on your left is Karachi Bakery.

That these key entry-points into Delhi should allude to Lahore and Karachi says something elemental about this city’s histories, its people and its growth. What is true of the thresholds of the city is also true of its interior—all you need is the eye to see it.

Decades ago, when I was a student in Delhi University’s north campus, I had not noticed that the Sabzi Mandi neighbourhood, a stone’s throw from my college, contained Rawalpindi and Multan, both jewellers.

But once you start noticing, these signs are everywhere. My current neighbourhood in Jangpura has a Lahori Paan (which also sells momos, burgers and milkshakes) while the lane behind my house still bears an old rusting signboard with the name Pashori Mohalla i.e. the neighbourhood of those from Peshawar.

As you move around the city, this network of place-names from (what is now) Pakistan thickens. An evocative geography begins to take shape. The city begins to tell you the story of watershed and tumult. The coordinates of this story keep multiplying as you drive around.

Ghaffar Market in Karol Bagh has a Lahore Watch Co., with Pindi Jewellers a minute’s walk away. In New Rajinder Nagar there’s Peshawar Sweet Bhandar. And, if the swarm of shoppers allows you a moment of pause, you will find that Sarojini Nagar market has a Quetta Store and Janpath market a Karachi Stationery Mart.

There are many more. On my way back one evening from Mayur Vihar across the Yamuna, there it was, another one—Lahorian’s Sweets & Bakers. In one sense, these names make up a phantom city which is there and yet not there. Such names are references without the text, longings without the beloved. Migrants, mostly from West Punjab, but also from Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who found their way to Delhi during Partition named these shops to hark back to the places they came from.

The shopfounders were largely caste-privileged folks, many of them Khatris, who wielded their own capital, if not financial, also cultural. For them, the allotments and compensations from the newly independent Indian state were, in many cases, healthy enough to set up these ventures in a new city, even under the considerable duress of the times.

“Our family had a sweet shop in Peshawar and my father started this shop in Old Rajinder Nagar from a small kiosk,” Subhash Sahni, son of Chunni Lal Sahni, told the journalist Manoj Sharma, speaking of Peshawar Sweet Bhandar, which was set up in 1950 when his father migrated to Delhi from Peshawar.

Shops in different parts of Delhi with names that ‘link’ their owners’ origins to Pakistan.
Notably, all of them are owned by Hindu migrants of the Partition in 1947.
Dilli Diary: What’s in a name? Ask a Khatri
Dilli Diary: What’s in a name? Ask a Khatri

Sharma also spoke to Raj Chandyok, whose father set up the Lahore Watch Co. in Ghaffar Market, after migrating to Delhi in September 1947, a fateful month of gruesome anti-Muslim violence in the city, particularly in the Paharganj, Karol Bagh and Sabzi Mandi areas. Raj was then nine.

His father first set up a stationery kiosk on Ajmal Khan Road, calling it Lahore Pen House. When they were allotted “a proper shop by the government” in the 1950s, they moved their business to Karol Bagh, started selling watches, and gave the shop its current name.

Many overlapping motivations inspire these names, not the least among them the migrants’ wish to create threads of connection to their places of origin. The names on these mnemonic signboards become the subject of pride, longing and nostalgia. They script a spectral return, made more and more impossible as the decades passed and the borders congealed. They account for the inevitable in-betweenness of the Partition generation.

But simultaneously, the names also had more pragmatic, commercial implications: to signal familiarity and continuity. An MBA student today would call it ‘brand recall’. “My grandfather owned a small gold refinery business in Sialkot … before he moved,” Bodhraj Babbar, who owns New Sialkot Jewellers in Moti Nagar, told Manoj Sharma.

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.”

Signposting familiar names, these shops also became meeting places for those who had left the same region, and often served as informal nuclei around which religious and caste migrant identities were consolidated in a new city. The resilience and the bouncebackability of the (upper caste) Punjabi refugee has become a bit of a popular cliche. I encounter it everywhere, including in my own Punjabi Khatri family, hailing from Jhang, Lahore, Sargodha and Sheikhupura.

Like all cliches, it unmistakably has its hook in truth, but it serves to drown out the concurrent contexts of how—as Ravinder Kaur writes in relation to Regharpura in Karol Bagh—‘untouchable migrants were separated physically from the upper-caste Hindus through a maze of governmental policies of resettlement between 1947 and 1965’.

Or, as Vazira Zamindar and Gyanendra Pandey recount, of how the early years of Hindu and Sikh ‘success’ in Delhi came after, and are inextricably linked with, the phase of enormous anti- Muslim violence in the city, looting, stabbing, arson, forced evacuation and, in innumerable cases, an inability to return to their homes, despite wishing to.

The writer Krishna Sobti was a college student in Delhi at the time. On the eve of Independence, her father’s house became a transit point for about forty to fifty relatives who had migrated to Delhi from west Punjab. In her memoir, one of them says, “Jo hona thha ho chuka. Hum log Dilli pahunch gaye hain toh aage ka kuch silsila banayein (What has happened has happened. Now we’re in Delhi, let’s think of what we make of our future here).” These shop names are part of this ‘silsila’.

Janus-faced, they cite the past while remaining grounded in practices of futuremaking and refugee resourcefulness. My own grandfather, Mulk Raj Katyal, having lost his father and brother to communal violence, survived a near-fatal journey to arrive in Delhi from Jhang and Lahore in west Punjab.

Family lore tells me that he had tried setting up a cigarette shop in Panchkuian Road in Delhi, before being allocated a railway clerk’s job in Lucknow. I don’t know what the name of that temporary cigarette kiosk was, or if it had a name at all.

One question stirs me constantly. In these times of rampant name changes— Allahabad to Prayagraj, Mughalsarai Junction to Deendayal Upadhyaya Junction, Aurangzeb Road to A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road, Habibganj railway station to Rani Kamlapati railway station and many more such—driven by the impulse to ‘other’ Muslims—how have these shop names survived (thank god for that!) the scrutiny of a majoritarian State and its vigilante hordes?

After all, these shops are in the same city where members of the extremist outfit Bajrang Dal recently asked a Najafgarh landlord to change the ‘Hindu’ name of the juice corner run by his Muslim tenant, so that it would be identifiable as a Muslim shop. This, before sharing their conspiracy theory about ‘thook-jihad’, the vile canard that Muslim workers in eateries spit in the food before serving it.

Apart from sporadic incidents of vigilante violence around Karachi Bakery (founded in 1953 by a Sindhi migrant) stores in Hyderabad, Mumbai and Bengaluru (the last in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack in 2019), and some misgivings “about people mistaking our loyalties and identity” (as the founder of Karachi Stationery Mart in Janpath told his children, who in turn recounted it to the journalist Manoj Sharma), these shop names have survived in their neighbourhoods.

Imagine if the owners of a Karachi Watch Co. or a Lahore Stationers or a Peshawar Cloth House were Muslim. Would their existence be so undisturbed?

(Akhil Katyal is a Delhi-based poet, translator and teacher)

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