A Tiny Corner of Living History

  • Nayeem Rather
  • Publish Date: Sep 13 2017 8:40PM
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  • Updated Date: Sep 13 2017 8:40PM
A Tiny Corner of Living History

The dingy Hotel Lala Sheikh on Residency Road, Srinagar, serves more than just fine tea

 

Hotel Lala Sheikh serves fine tea, and large slices of history. Time and divisions among the inheritors may have whittled it down to a dingy hole-in-the-wall tea shop, but the 137-year-old restaurant on Residency Road in Srinagar remains a cultural icon. A living one too, for it still does brisk business.

Mohammad Altaf Sheikh, the owner, says they sell at least a thousand cups of tea a day. The customers are mostly salaried professionals, traders, students, writers, street vendors. There’s also an occasional bureaucrat or politician.

The shop was established in 1890 by Lala Mohammad Sheikh, a young man from Handjan village in Budgam who had married a girl from Old Srinagar and settled there. Back then, the Bund area was yet to be built upon. There were just a few shops around. In fact, Lala Sheikh’s earliest customers were local shopkeepers. As government offices started coming up around the Bund, though, business boomed.

The historian Zareef Ahmed Zareef says Lala Sheikh’s best years were around World War 2. In 1939, the British set up a transient camp for their frontier infantry in Naseem Bagh, which now houses the Kashmir University campus. The soldiers would come to the Bund to ride shikaras on the Jhelum and stroll around. So, early mornings and evenings, the restaurant would be filled with soldiers. “The soldiers were particularly fond of fried kidney with butter toast and ginger biscuits,” Zareef recalls. The soldiers didn’t carry money so they would pay in gold.

It was around that time that Lala Sheikh is said to have hosted Ali Mohammad Jinnah, who would found Pakistan a few years later. Zareef says he has heard the story but could not verify it. Altaf is certain. “I heard my grandmother say that Jinnah had tea in our hotel, right in front of the antique mirror,” he says, referring to the reportedly 137-year-old mirror that overlooks a pair of sofas at the far end, which once served as the VIP section. Mohammad Yousuf Chapri, 90, who was until 2015 the chairman of the Houseboat Association, claims he took part in the procession of boats that took Jinnah from Dalgate to Lala Sheikh. “Jinnah took a walk on the Bund and then entered Lala Sheikh and had tea,” Yousuf says.

The 1940s were also when a generation of “progressive” writers came of age in Kashmir, says Zareef. Dina Nath Nadim, Bansi Nirdosh, Mirza Arif, Akhtar Mohiuddin, Amin Kamil, Pran Jalal and other greats would gather at Lala Sheikh in the evenings and discuss poetry and politics over endless cups of tea. Sometimes, the discussions would go on past midnight. “Lala Sheikh has seen some of the fiercest literary and political discussions in Kashmir,” Zareef says. “It is a witness to our history, political and cultural.”

In the 1950s and 60s, Lala Sheikh became popular with leaders and supporters of the National Conference. Mehboob Ali Sheikh, who co-owns the restaurant, recalls that after major rallies of the party, its leaders and workers would gather at the restaurant and discuss their politics and strategy. “While serving them tea and fried kidney plates, I would overhear talk about many political issues. I learned so much about politics and history by serving tea to those people,” he says.

In the 70s and 80s came a different kind of customer – the cinemagoer. Also, Mehboob says, since the Doordarshan TV station and Radio Kashmir were located nearby, famous singers like Raj Begum, Ghulam Ahmed Sofi, Abdul Rasheed Hafiz, and prominent broadcasters like Makhan Lal Saraaf, Prana Shonglu would come to the restaurant in the evening.

The 90s brought the gun. As an armed rebellion erupted against Indian rule, militants would roam the streets of Srinagar. Many would come to Lala Sheikh for tea. Altaf, who waited tables then, says, “Militant commanders would come in the evening. They would put their guns on the chairs and smoke and talk.” Altaf recalls serving famous militants such as Farooq Dade, Mushtaq Padroo, Jafar Kashmiri and Yasin Malik. “Even today, when Yasin Malik is jailed, he sends for tea here,” Altaf says.

Lala Sheikh is now split among the three great grandsons of its founder – Altaf, Mehboob and Farooq. “The other two parts are just for name. The main Lala sheikh is still the tea house,” says Muneer Ahmed, 45, who has been coming to the restaurant for the last 15 years.

However, even the “main tea house” retains little of the original Lal Sheikh, and not just in ambiance. Gone are the famous fried kidney and liver plates, as are the ginger biscuits. “The 90s made people forget everything. It was no time for eating delicacies. The people no longer wanted to have anything except tea,” says Altaf. “And after we stopped making them, we also forgot those dishes even existed.”

In recent years, Lala Sheikh has seen increased footfall from the young. “Now even teenagers come here. This is new,” says Abdul Hameed, 60, an old patron. Altaf, who has been with the shop for 29 years, too has noticed this change. He says in the last five-six years, young people, particularly journalists and students, have started frequenting the place. He believes it is because his prices are low.

But Kashmir University student Mohammad Waseem says there is more to Lala Sheikh than pocket-friendly tea. “This place has no pretensions,” he says. “It is a simple place, not elitist. The food is cheap and you have freedom to do what you want. No one judges you here.” Besides, Waseem adds, “it’s part of our heritage. A small slice of ‘concretised’ history; the history you can see.”