THE current leaders of the various naanbai associations in Pakistan have displayed an unprecedented determination in holding off the official negotiators comprising the deputy commissioners and other government officers otherwise known to ensure the state’s writ in everyday affairs. Or this is the message the hungry masses get from the reports about ‘unsuccessful’ talks between roti and naan makers and the official side that has been trying to keep prices of the favourite staple within reasonable limits.
It has been going on for perhaps a year now? Maybe more if memory serves one right. The price has been on the rise and in accordance with the old formula, the roti has been stealthily shedding its extra pounds. The latest stand-off between the naanbais and their detractors who are equally adamant to deny them their rightful succour can be traced back to the beginning of the year.
This is a tough one to fathom. It is a jumble of threats and promises: threats mostly by the bakers but sometimes by the officials trying to almost coerce these proud tandoor craftsmen with shiny bright foreheads into selling at government rates. Promises, mostly by officials to a public forever ready to queue up at the tandoors for their daily fill of pateeris, khameeris, naans and what not, but sometimes by the naanbais, too, who say they are eager to sell and serve.
Various rates and weights and varieties and qualities have been thrown into the mix in the last six or seven months of apparently intense negotiations. Various regional and geographical angles have come in, such as the one where KP is blaming poor old Punjab for scuttling the supply of flour.
While so much else around the tandoor has changed, some topics of discussion are eternally the same.
There have been stories upon stories about mismanagement and unavoidable situations spiking the prices of wheat and making all these requests and warnings by the government to naanbais look unreasonable. Even when it is to be kept in mind that tandoori rotis have become quite a burden on domestic budgets.
In any case, the issues must be insurmountable for these talks between naanbai associations and the government have been inconclusive so far. Not to forget the wheat scandal which was thrown in somewhere in the middle to complicate things at such a basic unit signifying life in the city — and perhaps villages — in Pakistan.
The debate at the tandoor is unending and it is a tribute to our consistent taste that while so much else around the oven has changed, some topics of discussion are eternally the same. For starters, there’s one buyer who is always in a hurry because he has guests waiting at home, another who is mission-bound to dash back to his kitchen before his curry gets cold and his mum loses her temper.
And yes, the size of the roti and the designs of those who fix prices are an inevitable topic of heated exchange every now and then. At least this is how it has been often at our tandoor or tanoor which, like so many other shops in the same business here in Lahore, is occupied by polite Kashmiris from AJK. They feed us for a few months before they are replaced by a fresh team from home.
They, like other outsiders to the city, are happily allowed the occupation because manning a tandoor for long hours the whole year through is not something you would readily recommend to your dear ones. It takes patience, and often requires some of the staff to live on the premises, if you can use the term ‘live’ to cover the few wee hours the tandoor is closed for during the night.
It is as if they are always there, with a T-shirt or a vest on taking the heat day in and day out. It is a jail-like routine they have to follow, until they have paid their penance with a smile on their faces and are good for a few weeks’ reprieve in their cooler homeland.
I, for one, have not been able to spot them in these marathon dialogues by their associations. On evidence the naanbais’ associations — of which the country seems to have many— are solely there to talk prices of roti and gas with the government. They are hardly a trade union worth the ‘association’ tag. Worse, they are in partnership with those who exploit emigrants to sustain urban life.
The visible does not matter too much when the folklore created over time has cast such great spells on people so fond of get-rich stories. The legend goes that these tandoor families, meaning the contractors who manage these tandoors with the help and services of close relatives, mint millions and are supposed to live prosperous lives back home.
In popular wisdom, those running tandoors are considered well-off, with a guaranteed source of income throughout the year. All curious attempts at finding out the secret to their fortunes are responded to with the same final statement that is fuel for idle ambition: ‘Such a big profit margin with so little investment. You cannot imagine.’
And you cannot imagine the tandoor near your home running cold on a hot July afternoon just because the government couldn’t reconcile to the old theory of fundamentals. The basic theory is that the conditions must be created to make sure that the most basic sustenance item — bread — is available to the people at reasonable, in fact, cheap, prices.
The people will buy. They will buy the pateeri roti made of a coarser brand of wheat flour at Rs10 or Rs8 just as they would buy the khameeri roti that is ideally supposed to be made of fine atta raised with yeast or varieties of naan which have maida as their base.
Down at the tandoor, the changes will show as they always have before making an impact anywhere else. A few loyal old-school connoisseurs will be exposed before a battery of knowing, familiar faces for making the abrupt switchover from the elitist and increasingly elusive khameeri to an ever-shrinking pateeri one can simply not live without.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2020