Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: A story of Mumbai's dynamic local enterprise that's a reminder of Bombay's past
Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis
Read more columns in this series here.
A Street of New Beginnings
In the first column of the new year, it’s apt to doff my hat to a family of traders that has been on TJ Road since mill times but whose chameleon businesses have changed with the millennium.
I first heard about ‘Petiwalla’ while researching the second column of this series. Speaking to our security guard who had worked in the China Mill where our housing complex now stands, I discovered a fascinating nugget. Yadav casually mentioned that millhands would deposit their pay with a particular shopkeeper for safe-keeping. “When we wanted to go home to our villages, he’d hand us the full amount. His actual business was selling steel trunks, so we would also buy a peti from him in which to take back stuff for our family. I don’t know his actual name, we all called him ‘Petiwalla’.”
So, who was this awesomely trustworthy guy? Asking an old-timer bidi-biscuits-baida (eggs)-walla across our gate, I had no trouble locating the shop. ‘Petiwalla’ had long since ‘left for his heavenly abode’ without need for a piece of luggage, but I found his second son, Bhupendra, who spelt out his father’s actual identity: Kanji Keshavji Savla. He too was a Kutchhi Jain like Tokersey Jivraj, after whom the road is named, and Rameshbhai of White Magic supermarket about whom I wrote previously. One up on the latter, who had flourished despite being ‘SSC Fail’, Bhupendra, as unselfconsciously, said he was ‘Khalsa (college) Fail’. No need for a college degree, the family dhandho awaited.
Kanjibhai’s story represents Mumbai’s dynamic local enterprise which holds its own amidst the unbelievable metamorphosis of areas such as Sewri. Families like his are an important reminder of the now almost-obliterated Bombay of the roaring cotton textile industry.
His son, Bhupendra, describes the journey. “Ba off thayi gayi hati (Mother died young), and Father began life in very hard times. He started a modest daily-rations shop. Thanks to his ekdum honest swabhav, the mill-workers began to have total vishwas in him, puchho nahin. Most of them stayed 10-15 to a room; when one went on shift, the one getting off it slept in his place. So they had nowhere safe to keep their earnings. They would give it to Father who would tie it in a paper bundle tagged with the chap’s name, and throw it into a dabba — one of those big oil tins. No hisab-kitab. When they needed their money, he would rummage and fish out the potli. No interest, no charge for the service. Na, na, we never had a theft, we lived at the back of the shop only. In Dussehra time, our business was also good since those who had families with them would stock up on atta, tel, etc with their bonus. Also, they would all buy the 15p khajoor na jhhadoo to give their tenements a thorough cleaning.”
In addition to his complete honesty, Kanjibhai was ‘hamesha helpful’. With the reputation he had acquired came influence, and he managed to get many migrant ‘UP wallas’ a job in the two mills of the area, China and Swan. Some years later, he was able to take over the adjacent shop where he diversified into the ‘petis’ which would give him his moniker.
His son, Bhupendra, joined the sleeker steel-trunk store since he wasn’t interested in the dusty-greasy rations shop. He too displayed the Kutchhi trader’s belly-fire, and started making their own branded ‘Eagle’ trunks. “I always wanted a quality business and sold them Fixed Price. No Bargaining.”
Next he branched into selling DM Pakitwala’s khaki school bags. After an altercation with the supplier, he began manufacturing ‘KK Umbrellas’, honouring the brand with his father’s initials. He even set up a repairer on the premises; customers could bring back those which had blown inside out in Mumbai’s fierce monsoon, and get them fixed — free of charge.
TJ Road has changed beyond recognition from when Bhupendra timed his chores with the siren and buffalos drank from a trough provided by a local philanthropist; changed from the shabbiness that came after the killer mill strike. Bhupendra’s boat is among the many lifted by today’s rising tide. As we’ve discovered, it’s not only on account of the unstoppable march of swanky towers. The kids of tenement-dwellers have studied and fared well; chawls have been redeveloped and attracted better-off owners. All this adds up to custom for upgraded goods. Higher rents can be charged for the shops which guys like Bhupendra inherited. He occupies one of his three, and has recently given it a total face-lift, switching today’s catchword, sanitising products.
His tech-savvy nephews are now expanding the business since he has no sons, and it’s still an exclusively male trade. However, his daughters are testimony to the old ‘Petiwalla’ family’s continuous mobility — and as much to the area’s upward trajectory. Bhupendra tells me that one of them is an electrical engineer in London.
Yet again, my smug presumptions clatter to the floor.
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