Bohra merchants of Bohri Aali

17 September 2017, The Times of India (Pune)

Mohammed Wajihuddin

Bohri Aali is a buyer’s delight. From pins to sanitary fittings to canvas covers and hundreds of utility items in between, the cramped lane has almost everything on sale.

This ‘aali’, probably a corruption of the English world ‘alley’, is easily the hub of the Bohra community in Pune. Shops selling hardware, industrial and agricultural tools, paper, paint and adhesives, flank the lane between Subhan Shah Dargah and Sonya Maruti Chowk in Raviwar Peth on both sides.

If the Sufi shrine, Subhan Shah Dargah, in the middle of the road is a landmark in Bohri Aali, the nearby Saifee Masjid is the city’s oldest Bohra place of worship.

“Since both our makaan (residences) and dukaan (businesses) were located here, the area came to be identified as a Bohra hub,“ says Mansoor Lokhandwala, secretary of Taiyabi Mohalla Jamaat and owner of a shop selling hardware supplies.

He adds that around two centuries ago, during the rule of the Peshwas, Bohras settled here. “Special pipes were laid from Katraj Lake to Raviwar Peth to resolve the problem of water scarcity. All former Syednas (spiritual heads) and the current Syedna (Mufaddal Saifuddin) have been preaching harmonious living and loyalty to the country we reside in,“ says Lokhandwala who was honoured by the Pune Municipal Corporation this Independence Day for his services to the city.

This year, in June, the community launched a plantation drive and members decided to plant 3,000 saplings -with each sapling to be tagged with the name of the individual who plants it. The Bohra population in Pune numbers around 18,000 and several families have moved out from Bohri Aali to other areas such as Gultekdi and Kondhwa over the years. But they remain a close-knit community .

In recent years Jains, Marwaris and Gujaratis have replaced Bohras with their own shops at Bohri Aali. But for most Hindu traders, buying new account books during Diwali from Tayyab Mohsinbhai – the oldest chopdawala or seller of account books at Bohri Aali – remains an annual ritual. “Business is down as people have moved from maintaining accounts on paper to storing them in electronic gadgets,“ says octogenarian Mohsinbhai, whose father started the business over a century ago.

The account books business may have fallen on bad times but what has not, is the paper and stationary business. The Kings Paper & Stationary Mart here is a century-old establishment. Owner Qusai Hakimuddin Kanchwala says his grandfather started it and his daughter, Maryam, is the third generation to join the family firm.

A graduate in Fine Arts, Maryam says she loves her association with the “family business“. Apart from giving professional satisfaction, it also provides her emotional support as building upon an inherited business makes most people feel good. But since the hardware business is what Bohri Aali is most famous for, no story of the lane is complete without a mention of the Poonawala Family, owners of the oldest hardware shop here.

Hashim Fazleali Poonawala is the fifth generation in the hardware business that started 130 years ago. He deals in almost everything – industrial products, nuts and bolts and agricultural equipment. Poonawala says his youngest brother branched out to become an engineer and is now in the United States. Another famous shop in the lane is owned by Zohair and Murtaza Hakim, who sell paints.

Change though, is palpable in the over 200-year-old lane. Many hardware stores now sell readymade clothes. A delightful tradition in Bohri Aali, according to the locals, is how they celebrate all festivals together. Hindus buy lights and crackers for Diwali and gulal for Holi from shops owned by Bohras. And as another Muharram arrives, Bohri Aali will descend into a period of mourning. Muharram is the month Bohras, who are Shias, spend mourning the tragedy that occurred in Karbala many centuries ago. The Bohras spend the hours remembering the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Husain. They will recite poetry, beat chests or hear sermons of their Syedna. This year, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin will deliver sermons from a mosque in Karachi.