SRINAGAR: The odour is heavy and the taste, acrid and bitter but this is exactly what his customers have been asking for. For nearly 70 years, the rumble of the machinery at the Masala mill owned by the 45-year-old Bashir Ahmad Sheikh of Ownta Bhavan, Soura, in the outskirts of Srinagar, has been music to the ears of many, especially to those who wouldn’t compromise on the matters of health. Bashir has carried forward the mantle of his family tradition with all his sincerity and hasn’t let his customers down who visit his facility from all parts of the valley.
A mud-plastered tin-roofed structure that houses three ancient grinding machines is what still attracts a sizeable clientele at the mill. Cobwebs, old smells and a rippled floor greet a customer as soon as he steps into the facility, instantly wafting him to the hinterlands of the bygone era. Flour has seeped into the mill’s walls, the wooden rafters, the floor….even the machinery has a thick coat of flour on them. Bashir’s is one of the oldest mills in the city, surviving among a handful in an area that once teemed with such businesses.
Bashir is filled with the memories of his father telling him how his family got involved in the business. His grandfather, Mohammad Ahsan Sheikh, started the mill in 1950 where besides flour, spices of day-to-day use, such as turmeric, chillies, fennel etc were ground. “My grandfather was a spiritual man who considered health as the greatest blessing of Allah that needed careful nurturing as long as a person lived,” Bashir said. “Spices, to him, were like medicines which if adulterated would destroy the health of an entire nation.”
Bashir kept talking about his business when a customer walked into the mill and gave him a bagful of fennel seeds to be crushed in one of the grinders. Soon he switched on the machine filling the premises with a familiar roar. Bashir fed the fennel seeds into a hopper with a large opening at the bottom, filling a cylindrical container beneath with a coarse powder. He checked the consistency of the powder and decided to give it another go before packing it into a transparent bag. The customer, in the meanwhile, shared his experiences. “I was a child when my father, who’s 80 now, would send me to this mill to get different seeds grinded,” said Sajjad Ahmad Zargar, a businessman from Soura. “We don’t trust on the quality of packaged masalas available in the market. Taking the trouble to buy the raw stuff and get it grinded here is a time-tested practice started by our elders.”
Soon Sajjad left the mill after giving Rs 30 as grinding charge to Bashir. “This is a paltry sum but we’re happy,” a smiling Bashir said. “We earn something between Rs 20,000 to 25,000 a month and that suffices our requirements.”
Bashir has no plans to revamp the building or procure modern equipment to multiply his earnings. “My forefathers have led a simple life and I’d like to preserve the ancientness associated with this facility,” he said. “To me, it’s a relic of the past that gives us all a peep into our bygone era.”
Bashir’s son, Asif, a graduate, who assists his father in running the mill, echoes his father’s words. “This place is not going to change in my time though I wish to expand the business,” he said.
Adjacent to the mill, Asif runs a retail outlet where he sells rice and corn flour besides all kinds of masalas prepared exclusively at his father’s mill. Grinding mustard seeds to extract cooking oil has been the latest addition to the business. “We purchase mustard seeds in bulk and extract oil from it at a separate facility,” Asif said. “Our commitment to purity is unwavering and we stand in no competition to the local market. Our customers are happy, and so are we.”