Rishi Majumder noses around Loban Gully to get consumed by its many scents

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Singapur Loban

Bolo behen churi?” “T-shirt?” “Gaari ka part — naya?” “Aam Chahiye?” “Kebab? Sherbet? Bolo bhai?” Lit like a carnival by 200 watt bulbs and cheap tube-lights at every stall, Null Bazaar, doling out the middle class consumer’s every need at lowest bargainable prices, could be Mumbai’s oldest mall. In which case Loban Gully, located at its far end, would be its thrust towards super-specialisation. The lane, flanked by wellweathered two storey buildings, comprises stalls spilling onto the road, leaving a four feet gap for pedestrians and two wheelers. Begun around a century ago with stalls leased from the British at Rs 2 per month for a one by
one metre stall, the grandchildren of those leasers, now paying Rs 750 a month to the BMC, continue providing loban, an incense, in greater variety and cheaper price than elsewhere in the city.
“First chemicals and natural elementsm taken from specific trees, are mixed, then heated and crystallized,” gesticulates Rafiq Agarbattiwaala, holding a loban crystal. “Then you heat, it evaporates, goes up… and comes back down as rain!” he ends, laughing at his take on chain reaction. The crystals then find their way to
homes for fumigation and perfuming, religious places, where they’re considered auspicious, and clay charcoal pots of fakirs, who roam streets, begging alms in exchange for a scented aarti. An important ingredient for rituals across religious faiths such as, Hinduism, Islam and Zoroastrianism, sales shoot up during festivals of each community.

Yusuf Bhai, one of the gully's biggest incense sellers
“The prices go from Rs 40 to Rs 400 per kilo,” states Deepak Merude, of Trimurti Kum Kum Bhandaar. “And we sell as little as 50 gm if the customer asks for it.” Each shop provides
30 to 35 kinds of the incense, as against the maximum of 10 types a regular shop elsewhere may provide. The incense is differentiated in grade and brand. An interesting controversy hangs over the most expensive loban: Singapur. Merude maintains, “Singapur, if original, has to be imported”. Yet those at Yusuf Bhai’s shop, Zam Zam Perfuming, contest: “Can you imagine the duty on such a product? It’s always been made in India, but just called Singapur. And thus priced only at Rs 400 per kilo.” Yet others say that Singapur is both a grade and a brand, and that while Singapur the ‘grade’ comprises Flying Eagle, Aerobrand and TT which are from the far-east, the ‘brand’ is an Indian replica. For the regular buyer however, who opts for the local 786 (the most popular) or Mayur or Tiger… or loosely sold ‘kauri loban’ (Rs 40 per kilo), such debates are irrelevant.
A peculiar characteristic of Loban incense is that while it pleases the senses from afar, coming closer to the source swamps one with smoke, making the scent indistinguishable. “Much like our business,” claims Irshad Bhai Agarbattiwaala, who has been running his shop for over 50 years. He highlights the future threats posed to this seemingly prosperous market: “While the middle and lower class still use loban frequently, the hassle of burning this on a stove and using it in an air conditioned room, is forcing many to opt for agarbattis or room fresheners.” This in turn is making these loban sellers digress to stock an assortment of agarbattis.
Even as we speak, Merude makes Fahad Ahmed, a regular customer, sample a variety of loban scents on a charcoal sigdi, kept there for the purpose. Ahmed buys a different scent every week for his mother and grandmother. “While electric stoves are available for those who can’t use charcoal… they don’t create the same effect,” Merude explains. “It has to burn gradually, not melt.” Ahmed pointing to the smoke adds, “ Khushbu dikhta hai!” This was better expressed by famous Urdu poet Bashir Badr…

“Talkin-e-ibaadat kee hai mujhein yun teri muqaddas ankhon ne, Mandir ke darichon se jaise loban ki khushbu aati hai. Kuch aur bhi saansen lene par majbur sa main ho jaata hoon, Jab itne bare jangal mein kisi insaan ki khushbhu aati hai.”

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India:


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