The Fragrant Trial – In Conversation with Abdur Rehman Attarwala

by tybmmjourno

The ittar shop, in front of the mosque

The ittar shop, in front of the mosque

R. Attarwala is one sole compact ittar shop tucked in a line of others. Located inside the labyrinthine network of Crawford Market’s bylanes, next to a cream-coloured mosque, it attracts a diverse clientele, from the upmarket crowd to religious believers (ittar being a form of devotional offering in Islam), a distinguished Middle-Eastern crowd to college students.

“This shop is around fifty years old,” says Mr. Abdur Rehman’s son, Ahmed, “but our family has been in this business for over two hundred years.”

“But before you write about the shop,” says Mr. Rehman, shopowner and family patriarch, “you should understand the origins of perfume.” Borrowing my notebook and pen, he proceeds to make notes for me. “Don’t worry,” he said at my weak protest, “I will explain in detail. If you make notes as I speak, you are bound to miss something.”

And thus, he begins to write key words for me in English, even as his masculine scrawl curves leftwards, with a hand accustomed to the Urdu script. “In the olden times,” he began, “they would burn wood. The residue that remained was used as scent. Therefore-” and here he hyphenated the word, “- ‘per-fume’ refers to ‘from smoke,’ you understand? Because ‘fumes’ is ‘smoke.’ it comes from the Latin word ‘per fumus,’ you understand?”

Very soon, I realised that was going to be his catchphrase. ‘You understand?’ became my cue to nod eagerly and wide-eyed. By now, ‘I understand’ that fragrances and their origins have found mention in the Vedas and the Quran. “There are three sources of perfume,” he rasped. “Natural from flowers, trees, roots and leaves. These yield fragrances like jasmine, mogra, nargis, etc. Second are animal sources wherein musk is derived from deer. Third are synthetic sources made from chemicals to make essences like cardamom, vanilla, cocoa butter, etc, which are used to flavour food.”

The inside of the ittar shop. Mr. Rehman’s son, Ahmed is sitting on the right.

In his abject enthusiasm to drive the point home, Mr. Rehman drew a funnel to explain to me the process of distillation. “An ingredient, say sandalwood, is boiled in a pot. The fumes travel through a tube into a funnel where the oil settles it down. Cold water is poured to harden the oil. The hardened part is extracted to manufacture the ittar.”

“Your son tells me that your family has been in the ittar business for over two centuries,” I remarked.

“Why, yes we have!” he boomed with emphatic pride (his flowing white beard wobbled in the same rhythm). “But we did not have a shop back then. We carried our wares with us, on our heads. We served royalty and aristocrats. The scents were dipped on cotton swabs which the ‘Kaneez’ (female retainer) carried to the women inside the ‘purdah’ (curtain) for approval.

A fascinating feature of the shop is the vast array of ‘branded’ ittar replicating some well-known fragrance brands from across the world like Chanel-5, Dior, Gucci, Brut and Polo Sport. The scent remains concentrated and long-lasting in ittar form. The price varies with the size of the ittar vials (the cheapest starting at Rs. 30). After much deliberation, I select a D-Delicious, an Obsession and a Polo Sport to take home with me. Upon my selection, each vial is ensconced in a velvet pouch.

“Come here for a moment,” says Mr. Rehman and leads me to the inside of the shop. “Smell this,” he insists and thrusts a vial under my nose. The contents smelt of fresh fields and dried grain. “It’s Basmati,” he said, before smearing a dash of brown substance on my palm. “Taste it,” he smiled. ‘It’ was tangy with a minty freshness that circled the inner cavity of my nose.

“That’s a synthetic paan flavour,” he said. “You can write about it in your assignment.” I nodded amicably, even as I discreetly gargled the pungent flavour inside my mouth a bottle of water. “If there is anything else, then call me after ten at night,” he said. “Until then, I am pre-occupied with the shop and the customers.”

I thanked him for his guidance and inched my way through the grimy crowd as I left the shop. If I had any lingering doubts regarding the potency of Mr. Rehman’s fragrances, they were quashed by the time I reached home. For the ittar menu I had carried from the shop still had that whiff of ittar. And it continues to… even after a week of bringing it home!