CHAKWAL: A narrow winding lane in Mohalla Hajvery of the old Chaklala city takes one to a compound nestled between crumbling buildings.
Filling the air is the tantalizing smell of freshly baked roti, mingling with the smoky aroma of burning wood. A frail old woman with sun burnt blonde hair sits hunched over the opening of a clay oven. Using two metal rods she swiftly pulls out fresh tandoori roti from the oven.
Each o roti is cooked to perfection, soft from the top and crusty at the bottom. Ready to be wrapped around a kebab, scooped in a curry or simply to be had on its own, these rotis are considered a delicacy in the area.
Men and women from all walks of life are queued here each day to buy these famous rotis.
The cook, Siftian Bibi known to those in the city as Phuphi Siftian, is in her late seventies. The wrinkles etched into her aged face tell the tale of the days she has spent labouring over these flames, even while her expression remains jovial. “Sixty kilograms of wood are burnt in the tandoor daily,” she says.
Politicians, businessmen and ordinary people alike find their dinner tables incomplete without Siftian’s famous tandoori rotis. Siftian says that it was fate that led her to open this famous shop.
She was young when her husband died forcing her to become the breadwinner for her family. “I didn’t just have to take care of myself but also feed my two orphaned nieces who had been left in my care after the death of my brother some years earlier,” she said.
Like most other women, I had been baking chapattis at home. I decided to use this skill and installed a tandoor.
“At that time I was young and energetic and used to be able to bake more than 2,000 chapattis a day which earned me enough money to get by,” she says smiling as she recounts forgotten memories.
She started selling one chapatti at the rate of 4 ana, one fourth of a rupee. In the beginning Siftian, a young woman in a patriarchal society, faced many problems. “Some male customers used to harass me, making me burst into tears,” she recalls.
“After my husband died I resolved to never be dependent on a man again, so I never let any man seduce me. They say no woman can live without the support of a man but I proved them wrong,” she says, her face glowing with pride.
Years over the tandoor earned her enough money to build a house where she now lives with her niece. Her daily interactions with male customers made her confident enough to handle their advances through humour. Today she entertains her customers with Punjabi proverbs and sometimes even swears at them.
Her swearing never deters her customers who know they are delivered in good humour. “This swearing and abusing is really just expression of gratitude,” she smirks.
The people of the area help Siftian, some women help in kneading the flour and others fetch water. While in times of need the men provide financial assistance. “People of the locality are very kind to me,” she says.
When asked what she does for them in return she jokes “I just abuse them”.
Over the years her tandoor has become a meeting point for the women of the locality. The price of each chapatti is ten rupees and for her special customers Siftian glazes the rotis with clarified butter, making the appetizing tandoori paratha.
The 500 rupee and 1,000 rupee notes are not accepted at Siftian’s tandoor. “Phitay wa tay nainh” (Have you turned haughty?), she retorts whenever a newcomer takes out a note of Rs500 or Rs1,000.
Siftaan’s eyes have lost their sight and she can no longer stand straight. She remains in the watchful eyes of the drug addicts in the area who steal from her whenever they find an opportunity.
“My whole life has been spent at this tandoor. Now I have only one wish and that is to die while walking on my own legs as dependence on others is the worst thing,” she maintains.
Published in Dawn, September 30th, 2014