The art of baking in the Subcontinent was traditionally confined to creating one of our staple foods – ‘Naan, Kulcha and Roti’ These bread cakes were fashioned out of kneaded wheat meal of various refinements and cooked in clay ‘tandoors’, embedded in hearths. The fuel used in these ovens was firewood, which gave the bread a marvellous smoky flavour. Many of these ‘bakeries’ in urban cantered diversified their products and sold a popular breakfast accessory called ‘baqarkhwani’. It was however the village ‘tandoor’ that was an institution. Normally run by a middle aged female, it was a meeting place, where people could have an affordable meal (many of these establishments served spicy lentils), hangout with members of their community and get the latest news (read gossip). For the village females it was a place that provided them with a little spare time away from household chores and making ‘chapatis’. Round cakes of dough were brought to the ‘tandoor’ and baked on a first come first served basis. This rule was never set aside and violators were put in their place by the female owner and head baker without any reservation. Payment was often made by clients in cash, but uncooked cakes of dough were also accepted by the ‘tandoor wali’ as compensation. Sadly, while one may still find this traditional baking spot functioning in its old world ambience, the urban ‘tandoor’ has embraced modern design and fuel resources losing its rustic charm.

Mai Heeri had an establishment at the Imperial Cinema intersection in Multan. She was a dark skinned, wizened woman, with a complexion turned leathery because of exposure to heat. I often visited her ‘bakery’ not only to get hot, crispy ‘nans’, but also become privy to what was going around town. This amazing woman spoke little, but when she did, she cowed down even the most imposing amongst her patrons. On one occasion, I watched with great amusement as a black Datsun pulled up and a distinguished looking gentleman leaned across, loudly placing his order, adding that he was in a hurry and should be served out of turn. To my delight, the ‘Mai’ continued dealing with people, who had arrived earlier; seemingly oblivious of the new arrival in the swanky car (Datsuns were swanky in the 1960s). To his bad luck, the man in the vehicle committed the cardinal error of issuing a loud reminder, re-asserting that his order be prepared earlier. What happened then was bedlam, as the ‘Mai’ let loose a string of words that could shrivel the greenest of trees and ended by telling the victim to ‘buzz off’ and find another tandoor. I watched as the car speedily disappeared round the corner chased by a couple of choice words.

I came across ‘Ratto Mai’ while passing through a village near Muzaffargarh. Dusty, hot and terribly hungry, I spotted a ‘tandoor’ and well aware of the custom, parked my vehicle some distance away to foot my way to the place. I had to patiently wait till such time that my turn came to place an order of ‘Daal Roti’ for myself and my driver. The two of us sat down on a nearby charpoy listening to the ‘Mai’ and her customers. With each passing minute, my amazement grew, for the old lady could have featured in any international magazine as the ‘problem solving aunty’, with absolute success. Here she was, telling one middle aged woman, how to handle a difficult marriage and compromise, so as not to break up the family and destroy her children’s future. I was surprised and impressed by the wisdom of her arguments and their lucidity.

Once on a visit to a ‘dera’ in Southern Punjab, I surprised my host by suggesting that it would be really nice to have lunch at the village ‘tandoor’. True to my expectations, I saw that the establishment was run an old lady of indeterminable age. We sat down under the thatched roof and ordered the usual ‘daal roti’. As I sat enjoying the spicy sustenance, I mentioned to my companion that the figure producing the ‘rotis’ was strangely silent. On being told that the woman was deaf and dumb, I began noticing that some female customers were sidling up to her, exchanging a few sentences in low undertones and then walking away clutching slips of paper. It turned out that the ‘tandoor wali Mai’ was running a thriving side business of issuing ‘taaweez’. Hesitant to question, if her remedies did any good, my host quietly commented that perhaps, her this activity could be termed in modern parlance as marketing, for this was the ‘Mai’s’ effective strategy to create and retain client households.

 

The writer is a historian.