How Darjeeling became home for this Kashmiri family

Story by  Rita Farhat Mukand | Posted by  Aasha Khosa | Date 28-03-2024
Iqbal Mullick at his shop
Iqbal Mullick at his shop


Rita Farhat Mukand/Darjeeling

Walking into Habeeb Mullick & Son, an antique shop run by a Kashmiri family since 1870, now seated in Chowrasta Mall of Darjeeling is like sailing into another exotic dimension - a powerful experience.  This is no ordinary shop but an antique curio sphere exuding ancient energies with each exquisitely carved artifact extolling its secret mystic tale.

As I sauntered around the shop exploring its magnificence, with the exquisite ancient curios gleaming on shelves with delicately chiseled brass gods, Buddhas, Shivas, Tibetan gods, healing and lucky semi-precious stone bracelets, the fad of today, rudraksha beads made from seeds of the Elaeocarpus ganitrus tree that grows in the foothills of the The Himalayas, ornate camel seats crafted from beautiful wood and brass, elegant sandalwood elephants, graceful ornaments, wooden and semi-precious beads, Kashmir and Tibetan bags and carpets, paper mache crafts to magical lamps, sparkling pure diamond, sapphire, topaz, amethyst, opal, pearls, garnet, ruby, aquamarine, jasper, beryl, onyx, jade and myriads of precious and semi-precious stones, silver and brass kettles embellished with precious stones, exquisite brooches, chains, pendants, Tibetan masks, silver, copper, gold and brass, stoles, pashmina shawls, one can take hundreds of exciting souvenirs home.

All exotic artworks are ethnically sourced in a rich cultural mix crafted with artesian magnificence that is very rare to find in modern times. Strolling around the antique arena, this is no ordinary shop but an experience that exudes powerful energies.

Habeeb Mullick & Son shop in Darjeeling

Iqbal, the great-grandson of Habeeb Mullick told me the story about how his family came from Kashmir to Darjeeling. “Towards the close of the 1870s, there was a massive famine in British India hitting Kashmir. Caught in the ravages of starvation, my great-grandfather Habeeb Mullick and his family were nearly perishing in Kashmir.”

“There was no food in Kashmir and my great grandfather in a desperate endeavour to save his family’s lives decided to travel to Amritsar, which is a distance of 463 kilometres from Kashmir. It was a harsh and perilous journey mostly by bullock carts and it took several weeks with stops along the way. All the time he was worried, wondering whether his family would make it alive through that famine.”

Iqbal continued, “While most of the famines in India were preceded by drought, the famine in Kashmir was very different. Instead of drought, it started with untimely heavy rains and snow. Crops were harvested improperly and hastily stocked and the officials did not allow the shifting of the crops to safer places, dreading that the peasants may have more access to the grain. The result was when Spring arrived, most of the crops perished, and the bad weather did not allow sowing the next crop, so while the State salvaged whatever they could, the hungry peasants got nothing. Earlier, in 1865 a severe famine occurred, and at that time, grain had to be imported from the arid Punjab, but in the 1870 famine, there was nothing.

“My great-grandfather finally arrived in Amritsar and though very tired went straight to meet his uncles who lived there. My great-uncles were wealthy and when they heard the plight of Kashmir, they were horrified. As we know, in those days, news did not travel as fast as now, with no television, newspapers, or Internet today, so they had no idea things were so bad in Kashmir.  Filled with compassion, they said, “We will send food for your family immediately, and right now, we will give you some money to go to Darjeeling instantly. Listen, we hear that in Darjeeling, there is a British Rest Camp in Jalapahar and Katapahar. We are giving you Rs. 300 and these woolen patkas, now go there and sell these to the British Army, maybe you will have success. Send us the money you get, so we can send you more patkas.”


Inside the shop

He continued, “My great-grandfather gratefully took the woollen patkas, and money and set off to Darjeeling. It was a very long journey by bullock carts. Alone, and a little afraid, he left Amritsar and travelled via Pakistan. It took him approximately two and a half months to reach Darjeeling from Amritsar, a distance of over 2000 kilometers. On arriving, he reached the Jalapahar Army Camp and met with the British officers, who were glad to buy the Kashmiri warm woolen patkas in the freezing temperatures. The woolen patkas were a tremendous success and sales started to soar.”

Habeeb Mullick was delighted to discover that the British Army officers fancied the patkas. With his huge profits, he sent back money to his uncles who once again sent him patkas and more money for trade. With this business taking a big turn of success, he settled to live in the lower bazaar of Darjeeling called Judge Bazar and opened a shop there.

“By this time, my great-grandfather decided he had made enough money and left his business to his son, Ahmed Mullick, my grandfather and my great-grandfather Habib Mullick returned to Kashmir. Incidentally, my great-grandfather had only one son, thus, it is called Habeeb Mullick & Son, if you notice.”

He later started a new trade with fur coats made from wild red foxes, tigers, rabbits, and other animals which was a raving success, and the British, in particular, were their biggest customers. “Well, the British Raj still made a heavy line of demarcation between the Nepali and Tibetan locals, and all of us lived in Lower Bazaar while Chowrasta above was specially designed for the elite English and no Indians or any other Asians apart from the English and Europeans could enter there. It was at this juncture that my grandfather decided to focus on precious stones, jewellery, artwork and curios, antiques, and trinkets. Our dealers were all Indians and our customers were mostly British. My grandfather, creatively and industriously made friends with the British, who were already his huge customers and asked them if he could move his stall up to the aristocratic Chowrasta.  It was a Herculean task and unheard of, but due to his big success, especially in precious stones, it was a win-win situation.”

Just before 1947, the shop had moved to Chowrasta and it was a big privilege. Over the years, celebrity customers like Queen Sofia from Spain, the Queen of Greece, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, etc. bought stuff from Habeeb Mullick & Son.

Later Iqbal said warmly, “Darjeeling is the best place in the whole world, the people are wonderful. Life is good, and there is so much peace and harmony between all people, no matter what caste, ethnicity, or religion. He also praised Mount Hermon School, the old American missionary school of the 1800s where he studied, and said, “The teachers were so kind, where will you find such compassionate teachers nowadays?”

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Iqbal shared something his father had taught him and that he never forgot. He taught me, “All customers are like trees and we have a eat a little fruit from that tree. We must never cut the root of the tree, meaning the roots of customers, never hurt, harm, lie to them, or cheat them, whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, whether the customer buys from us or not, treat them well, value them and treat them equally.”

Iqbal said with a sigh, "Today, the world is greedy, they don’t care about customers. This is why I am always honest and true to all customers, our quality of material and jewels are pure and our reward is great because of this!”

Rita Farhat Mukand is an independent writer