The Cloth Merchants Of Ujjain

My father Zakir Hussain Kapadia. Khaitan, Kuwait, 1990

IMP Research Intern : Vaskar Mech, Tezpur, Assam

Image and Narrative points contributed by Taher Kapadia, Ujjain, India

This is a photograph of my father Zakir Hussain Kapadia taken in 1990, with his trunk box of items he would sell in the streets of Khaitan, a small township in Kuwait city in Kuwait. To reveal the story and the context of this photograph, it requires me to travel back to my ancestors’ story.  

In 1925, my great grandfather, Yusuf Ali, established a small cloth business in Ujjain, Gwalior State (now in Madhya Pradesh). The business sold shrouds, the white cloth that is wrapped around a corpse before being buried. Thick and heavy in texture the cloth is also called lattha ka kapda. My great grandfather was known to generously offer a metre extra of the cloth without any charge, and so he came to known as kaffan-chhorh (the one who gives away burial cloth free of charge) and it also effectively became his surname – he was Yusuf Ali Kafanchhorh

My great grandfather had five children- my grandfather Ali Hussain Kaffanchhorh, his three brothers and a sister. In the 1940s and 50s, the boys took after their father, and all four brothers began running the cloth shop together. In time, all of them got married and had kids. My grandfather had six children. Meanwhile they also began selling other cloth materials and fabrics, and the business was quite successful. Thus, now they began to be called the Kapda walas (the cloth merchants). 

My father who was named Zakir Hussain Kaffanchhor was born in 1964. He grew up with his siblings in the Bohra mohalla (neighbourhood) called Ibrahim Pura. Nothing much of note happened while my father was growing up, the extended family lived under one roof, and my father grew up playing with his siblings and cousins. At the age of 15, he began sitting at the cloth shop as most of the male youngsters sat in shops, because Bohra Muslims actively encouraged our people to do business rather than go into service. My father along with his brothers, expanded the business that began to provided an income for four of our families. 

Usually the pattern within our community was that the men would go to Kuwait, work there for two to three years, earn a lot of money and then return to India and establish businesses of their own. At the time, it was relatively easy to do business and get rich in the middle-east, and for many it was a recurring pattern of income in their lines of work. In 1989, my father thought he would do the same and explore better opportunities for the business. The process to travel to Kuwait was a tad different than a usual visit – one required a Qaleel – businessmen in Kuwait who would arrange the visa and job opportunities. So while that was being processed, a few months before he left for Kuwait on February 4, 1990 for three years, my father got engaged to my mother, Batul, who was also from Ujjain and had completed her B.Com – a degree that was a big deal at the time. My mother would wait for him to return to be married. 

From March to July of 1990, my father began to expand his network and business. He was provided with a paity– an iron trunk box he would sell stuff out of. He walked the streets selling clothes and household items like soap. It was a simple day in the life of my father, after which he would return to a room he shared with three or four other men, who like him had also travelled from India to earn a better living. At night, my father wrote several letters to my mother, which she has kept safely to date. My father had begun to earn good money, and decided he would settle in Kuwait and expand his business. But in August of 1990, Saddam Hussain, the president of Iraq, ordered an attack on Kuwait, and the country toppled into a state of emergency – everything came to a halt. Citizens from all over the world, including Indians were trapped in a country at war, and among the Indian community, the Bohras constituted a sizable proportion.

Our spiritual leader of the time, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, ordered the Bohra people in Kuwait to return to their homeland- India as soon as possible. Meanwhile the Indian Government also made attempts to bring its people back, similar to the story revealed in the Bollywood movie Airlift. While the movie, according to my father, was a huge exaggeration, the government of India with the help of Kuwait based Indian businessmen and bureaucrats did go above and beyond to safely evacuate Indians and my father, Papa was one of them. The evacuated people travelled a 1000 Kms to Jordan by bus, and lived in tents for three days waiting for Air India flights to take them back home. Papa returned to Bombay (now Mumbai) on one of those flights and came back to Ujjain. 

My father’s beautiful plans of establishing a successful business in Kuwait did not come to be, but somehow he believed everything would eventually work out. He was not left with much money, and the family business in Ujjain was not doing so well either. The cousins who had begun to move away from the singular family business and established their own endeavours- a hardware shop or another cloth shop recommended my father join them. But papa did not agree – he wished for something of his own; it had always been his dream to own a business, and be an entrepreneur. 

Now to establish his own business, my father needed cash flow, so he took a massive loan from the market, And on a whim, also bought a lottery ticket for the first time in his life, that he was shocked to discover actually won a whole One Lakh Rupees! Albeit he only received around Rs. 60,000 after taxes. Nonetheless, it was still a big help. My father opened his own shop, a first of its kind in Ujjain that sold new styles of designs for Rida (a traditional outerwear dress worn by the women in our community). 

Soon after, my chacha (father’s younger brother) joined him as well, and since then, 25 years after, our Burhani Cloth Stores is running strong. My father set out to dream better for himself and his family, and even if the Kuwait dream did not come to fruition, an Ujjain one did. Everyday he lives his dream of owning his own business. And his family – my mother, my sister and I are very proud of him, and our roots. So much so that when my sister and I went to school, we officially changed our last names to Kapadia (literally, cloth merchant) from Kapda walas. 

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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