City Landmark – Perfume Cart, Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti
The cart of scents.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
Our Delhi streets can tick you off. But at least one of the city’s street corners is permeated with perfumes. Roadside carts tend to be loaded with fruits, vegetables, discount clothes and sandals, but this cart in Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti’s main lane, facing Bhai Jameel’s hair cutting saloon, is stacked with jars and glass flasks containing various kinds of aromatic ittar, each with a unique scent.
“The thela is very old, but this business is new,” says hawker Abdullah, who used to sell combs and nail clippers on the cart until five months ago. These scented offerings belong to an Ittar shop nearby, he explains—in fact the nearby Karim Hotel wali Lane in this historic neighbourhood is lined with similar ittar showrooms, their windows displaying perfume jars as huge as milk pans. You ought to visit those shops just for their picturesqueness.
As there are no customers at the moment, Abdullah condescends to identify all the perfumes he has on sale. Hearing him list the ittar varieties is like reading that famous chapter in Iliad in which Homer catalogues the ships and warriors of the Achaean army. Some of these Ittar names are lifted off straight from designer labels. The perfume seller renders his complete index in the song-song tone of a country bard: Gucci, Armani, Golden Dust, Aseel, Sultan, White Oudh, Kashmiri Oudh, Assami Oudh, Ittar Magnet, Zam Zam, Mukhallat Badar, Sandal, Zafran, Majmua, Salma, Sadar, Favake, London Night, Yasmeen, Itriful, Rooh Khas, Ruh Gulab, Shama Tul Ambar, and Western Kokobelly.
And which of these smells of the exact moment when long awaited monsoon rain falls on our parched cracked summer-stricken land? Abdullah promptly picks up an aluminium bottle labelled Rooh Khas, and uncorks it. It indeed is smelling of geeli mitti (wet earth).
These perfumes, Abdullah says, are from India as well as abroad. He lists the places in a single breath—“Kannauj, Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Mumbai, Turkey, Dubai, Saudi (Arabia), France.”
Now another hawker passes by. His cart comprises of bowls containing cut fruits. The contrast between the two carts makes for a memorable sight, and also for memorable scents.
Perfumes on street