Letter From The Hills: Our bakers at Christmas

For some inexplicable reason at Christmas, this hillside resounds with simple courtesies, politeness, manners, decorum and decency. They return, year after year brushing aside the tsunami of the New Age’s could-not-care-less attitude. It reminds me of the old days when folk were known by their trades: doodhwala, dahi-makhanwala, andawala, sabziwala, acharwala, kapdawala, darzi, chooriwala and even the ping-pingwala — who fluffed cotton in the verandahs of our homes.

Anxiously we awaited the double-rotiwalas or Landour’s bakers, who would go all over town with their green or blue tin-trunks balanced on their heads. Inside you would find milk-bread, fudge, stick jaw, chocolate éclairs, naan-khatais and pastries; chocolate, pineapple, vanilla and strawberry cakes.

“Forgotten those scrumptious cream-rolls?” asks my friend the late Mapu Singh of St. Helens’ Cottage, with memories bubbling to the surface. “Our old cook used to sneak him some rum to lace the cream!”   Charles William’s in The Mussoorie Miscellany of 1936 tells me: “Have you ever thought on how much prosperity of Mussoorie, or its trades people at least, depends on these institutions? Estimated on a conservative basis with one of our poorest schools as a criterion, the domiciled schools in the station consume in their nine months’ term: loaves of bread 11,88,000! God bless our schools!”

Azim had his bakery near Gospel Hall, while Ghulam and his brother Karim Baksh helped Maula Baksh run his bakery on Camel’s Back. Sundown would see the smoke rising from the oak-wood fired ovens in Mansa Ram Flat. First the kneading together of flour, sugar, salt, yeast and water, followed by the leavening, then proving or ‘the second rising’ before baking bread.

By the 1970s, our bakers felt that life would be much better abroad and one of them was so popular with the young ladies on the hillside that a pretty one decided to marry him and take him to America. From running the Sunshine Bakery in Landour, he went up in life and was last heard of as the Bun King of Montana. Like him, other left the hills in search of better prospects in the Gulf. Though their original home was in Ghoghas, a small village some forty miles east of Tehri, from where their ancestor’s came in the summer of 1658 with the refugee prince Suleman Shikoh, son of Aurangzeb’s liberal brother Dara Shikoh. When the Moghul came to know of Suleman’s escape to Garhwal, he found a willing accomplice in the crafty heir-apparent, Medini Shah who betrayed the Prince.

The courtiers and servants, what happened to them? They settled down, leaving their imprints you now find in baking or in the the making glass bangles. But the culinary skills survived the journey from generation to generation. Bakery Hill — we have that too — in Kulri but it’s a car park now. To run away from the hordes, I walk to the top of the hill to catch the whiff of freshly baked Christmas plum cake from the ovens of A. Prakash & Co. or the Landour Bakehouse.

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