Raghu Nandan Dhar on Karachi salt in Kashmir and fake Cross pens in Mumbai’s suburban railways" />
Worth Its Salt
The word ‘salt’ conjures up innumerable images for each one
of us. Primarily, it reminds us of food. As one delves into the source and origins of salt, it can safely be concluded that few condiments have played as multi-dimensional a role as this wonderful seasoning. Mark Kurlansky, in his insightful book on Salt (Penguin, 2002), says that it has been the central element in human civilisation’s march through time and has established itself among the prime trading commodities, perhaps even ahead of gold, spices and crude oil.

In the valley of Kashmir, from where I come, finely powdered iodised salt is commonly available, but there is a huge demand for Karachi noon (Karachi salt) considered many notches above the many brands of common salt available in retail stores. The problem is: Karachi salt is not readily available. It is reportedly smuggled out of Pakistan on mule back, brought to various border towns along the Line of Control (LOC) and then retailed to specific households and chefs (or wazas as they are called), who use this salt for special occasions. Almost the entire Kashmiri cuisine (Muslim and Hindu) of meat, fish and poultry, tastes far better if Karachi salt is used.

This salt sells at about Rs60 a kilo and there is not enough of it to go around. The sellers deliver it on pushcarts or on bicycles to households that have pre-ordered it. Interestingly, this salt was available in many valley towns even during the peak of the insurgency against India.

Karachi salt originates in rock form, pinkish to purple in colour (the darker it is, the better it is supposed to be); smaller households buy fist-sized rocks while the bigger establishments are known to order it in quintals. The trade runs into crores of rupees annually. One daily preparation that every Kashmiri worth his salt has is salted tea or ‘noon chai’. Karachi salt is known to work magic on this tea. The tea preparation begins in earnest after lunch. The tea is simmered on a low fire and the decoction is ready to be served after an hour or so after adding a small granule of Karachi salt. Milk is then added and, voila, the colour of the brew turns into a deep pink. The ‘noon chai’ is ready to be slurped. Salt is always in demand.

i’ What is more interesting is that nobody seems entirely sure where this salt comes from. Is it really sourced from Karachi as its name suggests? Does Karachi really have salt mountains like many places in Europe where salt used to be mined? The retailers, unfortunately, have very little information about its origin. There are whispers that this rock salt actually comes from certain regions of Ladakh, but the seller will have none of this. He attributes these ‘rumours’ to propaganda by the branded salt companies. He is content that he can earn an average of Rs1,000 per day when the supply is good, because demand is always robust.

To the salt trader, border skirmishes are an opportunity to peg the price a few notches higher. The many unsettling times during the past decades have helped him to salt away a neat profit. Modern dietary notions about the bad effects of salt are limited to big cities. For the toiling masses of Kashmir, salt is the most important seasoning in their cooked food and to their lives. The mules will continue to negotiate mountainous terrain carrying sacks of rock salt to cater to the taste of people in those parts.

Cross Pens in Suburban Trains
Let us call him Mehul. He lived in Mumbai and had a first-class, three-way, pass from Virar on the Western Railway’s line up to Churchgate and up to CST (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) on Central Railway’s Harbour Line as well. He used to vend Cross pens on Mumbai’s mobile township, also known as the sub- urban railways. His style was interesting. He would sidle up to a commuter, flash open a largish maroon-coloured velvet box with an array of lovely, finger-itching Cross pens – both, the ball pen and ink varieties.

He would watch you intently as your eyes caressed the pens and then flick one out and scribble on a thin strip of white paper to demonstrate how well the pen wrote. If the commuter was still uninterested, he would whisper in a conspiratorial tone that these were Cross pens and you could give them away as gifts. A set of two would not cost more than Rs250.

The minute the price was mentioned, interest would grow. Several pens would be taken out one by one and touched, twisted, scribbled with and returned to their cases. Many a times, all this did result in a sale; Rs250 collected, Mehul would move on… one customer at a time. A couple of sales later, Mehul would alight and catch a train to another destination. His target customers were first-class suburban train travellers. A question lingered inside the compartment long after he was gone: how is he able to sell Cross pens at Rs250, when a genuine set could put one back by Rs2,000 or more in shops and outlets of ‘writing instruments’.

Was this set of two really for Rs250? Well, Mehul carefully put together the pens including some models that had a fine chrome body with super thin ridges. The truth was that he was an enterprising scavenger. He had been scouring trash and often found pens like these that had been junked. After ‘serious’ market research, he realised that these were no ordinary pens. With help from some associates, he put the things together – electroplated pens and found cases – at Virar (over 50km from Mumbai) and sold them for a ‘good’ price.

Emboldened by the positive response, he and his friends ventured further into understanding why these pens cost so much. After a Eureka moment with ‘foreign goods vendors’ along footpaths at Fort, a strategy was evolved to sell them on the suburban trains. No business school could have taught this lesson in business development, marketing and sales. But Mehul succeeded and some customers kept coming back for more. He contemplated copying Montblanc pens as well and wanted to know more about other esoteric brands. Waterman was ‘pronounceable’ (if there is a word like that), Conway Stewart did not appeal to him, Cartier did, but curse Caran D’Ache! He never got it right. He earned, by his reckoning (no one audited him), about Rs5,000 to Rs7,500 a month. His group even began making tubes that would become the outer casing for the pens.

He then trudged from office to office to sell his ‘imported’ pens. Churchgate station was his regular haunt and South Mumbai a special target zone. But the story ends here. After the Gujarat riots of 2002, Mehul has not been seen. Maybe he changed his business and moved on to something more challenging or went backto scavenging. Leads have gone cold.

A veteran journalist Raghu Nandan Dhar has an easy knack of seeing everything in a different light.

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