A pure British invention

July 19, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar on the English traditions of wearing hats and riding bicycles equipped with a cane basket and dynamo lamp

— Image : Supplied

The Raj brought with it a peculiar lifestyle and its paraphernalia. Bicycle, with a dynamo lamp and a basket made of cane, a raincoat, thermos, fishing tackles and, of course, that peculiar hat — or “sun-helmet” — made of sola pith, were some of the essentials.

Neela Gumbad was a hub of most of these items for those who could afford. Altaf Hussain’s Royal Cycle Mart sold best of the branded bicycles including Raleigh, Rudge, Philips, Hercules, Humber and Norman. The English manufactured vehicles were the best. The Americans were more into muscle cars. Japanese were yet to enter the market. Baskets made of cane from Burma were weaved by the blind. Vacuum flask thermos of Starvac from Pakistan, and Eagle and Diamond from Japan could be had from Thermos House run by Anwaar Ahmed in Anarkali. Best raincoats could be had from Sheikh Enayatullah.

Fishing enthusiasts visited many firearm stores on The Mall for the tackle. Any babu, whether he be a clerk or an officer, or even the principal of a college going to his office, could be seen riding their bicycles equipped with a dynamo, with a basket of cane containing a lunchbox and/or thermos, protected by a sun-helmet or the sola pith hat. He would wear a raincoat when it drizzled and also carried an umbrella for the sun when rain was forecast and for the rain when sun was predicted.

As for the hat, it was part of the uniform in many services. The guards and station masters at the North Western Railway (NWR) donned a white hat over their white uniform. All staff had to lower hats over their heads before saluting their seniors.

The hat was a climatic necessity. Purely a British invention, it seems. The locals donned pagrri (turban) for over thousands of years (as seen in some Gandhara sculpture pieces depicting the Bodhisattva), which is even more effective because the hanging part of it protected the spinal cord that is sensitive to sun strokes.

The hat was highly effective against the typical summer heat, with its holes on the sides and a frill of zigzag ring on the inside allowed flow of air. A generous shade on the front and back and on the sides provided protection from the scorching sun. Its frontal rim had a soothing dark green cloth piece on the underside. With the coming of celluloid, a piece of it came to be provided over the front shade held with a common pin on the two sides, which prevented it from being soiled (because it was the front shade you touched while donning or removing the hat).

The sola pith was the best insulator ever discovered. It was also biodegradable as against the plastic based foam material of the later days. For the anglers, it was part of the outfit as they sat on the riverside to drown worms for the fish.

The best outlet for the hats was at the crossing of Anarkali and Kachehri Road. It was called King Hat Manufacturing Company, and boasted branches in Madras, Calcutta and Dacca. Since pre-Partition days, it had been run by a Bengali family which the Anarkali merchants referred to as “Bengali seths”. Their residence was on Nicholson Road, in Nihalchand Sirki Building, which was built in 1929. Here they also had a big showroom next to the Aziz Bicycle Works run by Maulvi Latif who was also an angling enthusiast and dealt in fishing tackle.

The hats were manufactured in various houses as a cottage industry, providing jobs to the neighbourhood. It was a long and tedious handiwork. Reeds from the riverside were peeled or skinned for the pith. These were pieced together with some sort of glue that wouldn’t ooze through. The rest of the process was more of a sculptor’s job — a combination of both additive and subtractive methods. Over some frame, a mould or armature, the proper shape was given to fit four or more head sizes. Stretching of the cloth over it must have been an expert’s job. Absolutely wrinkle-free, it may be kept in mind that electric iron had not been introduced till then. Great care had to be taken not to soil the stretched cloth with any rust from the small iron pieces heated to medium Celsius over the coal and held with small handles. The seam of the stretched cloth too had to follow the curves of occipital, frontal and temporal bones all fused together. The inside of this hat was equally cumbersome to drape, letting the flow of air or ventilation through the side holes plugged with rubber. These hats were very light in weight.

The hats had thin leather straps adjustable with brass buckles, to hold it in place while riding or cycling. The only colour provided was khaki. The white was for the railways, produced only on order. It was for the gents only. Maybe the Victorian hairdos and gauze face covers made the ladies exempt from this kind of hat.

Carrying the hat in hand after parking the vehicle was as uneasy as the modern helmet, except that the latter is not air-cooled. Helmet designers have much to learn from pagrri as well as the sola pith hat when catering to the needs of customers in hot climate zones.

Initially, with the coming of auto/motorcycles, simpler felt hats (more in vogue in cold countries) came to be adopted. The traditional hats started to disappear. Moreover, hats could not be a substitute for prayer caps. The traditional hand-made hats being labour intensive, became too expensive to manufacture and, hence, to buy. Previously, the hair with ‘Bryl-cream-flattened’ style was compatible with the hat. Now men would rather risk heatstroke than conceal expensively ‘saloned’ hair.

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The Bengalis were our neighbours and family friends as we lived on Nicholson Road as tenants of Mazhar Ali Khan in the Muzaffar Mansions. Ghaffar Khan was my father’s friend. He learnt Bengali language along with its script from him. Being Bengalis, they were also ardent anglers. The fishermen too visited their residence regularly, because fish was an essential food item for them.

It was during the 1960s that they decided to gradually wind up their century-old business and return to their ancestral Dacca, maybe because people were no longer wearing sola pith hats or barsaatis (raincoats) and riding no bicycles with dynamo lamps and cane baskets with thermoses. Altaf Hussain of Royal Bicycle Mart and Anwaar Ahmed of Thermos House had died long ago. The Nicholson Road hats showroom remained locked for a couple of years. Ghaffar Khan returned to sell their property. He had established a transport company in Moti Jheel area in Dacca. He sold the Nicholson Road showroom, but local goon Achha Shukarwala, who had become very rich when his film Malangi smashed box office records, made him cancel the deal and return the money, forcibly taking over the property for free.

Little men remain mean. A dejected Ghaffar Khan gave his Anarkali property to his staff and returned to Dacca. In 1966, when my father went to Dacca to picturise the scene of a fisherman making a catch with a net in one of the many rivers, for a documentary film, he accidently bumped into his old friend. They exchanged pleasantries, he in Urdu and my father in Bengali, and had a meal at their residence. That was the last time the two friends met.

It is rumored that that the whole family perished in the ethnic cleansing operation that followed the breakup. Little would they know that the family had longed to return to Bengal.

Here, Faiz comes to my mind. He too had picturised a similar scene in Dacca for his film Jago Hua Sawera.

As for the goon who had deprived him of his property, he had to face poetic justice.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a Bengali nationalist who was killed by Bengalis)


The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

A pure British invention