An excerpt from ‘Understanding India’s Northeast – A Reporter’s Journal’ by journalist Rupa Chinai who has spent decades reporting on health, development and communities in the region. Rupa’s long relationship with our world has meant that her Reporter’s diary is full of quirky and yet ‘optimistic’ insights. For instance the excerpt below from 2004 about Modi Masala of Shillong, apart from being a ‘feel-good’ story carries within itself reflections on outsider/insider relationships, possibilities of entrepreneurship and even a sideways glance at exile. We would be publishing some more extracts from the book. If you want to order the book please write to [email protected]
It’s a quaint little shop in the heart of the traditional Khasi area of Mawkhar in Shillong. The fragrance of fresh, roasted spices envelope and entice, as the elderly owner, dressed immaculately in a three-piece suit does brisk business. He greets his customers with a warmth that emanates from long association. Modi Masala in 2004 completed 25 years of tickling the taste buds of the Khasis. In these remote frontier areas, where custom and way of life follows its own unique rhythms, this spice shop has introduced them to the ancient delicacy of India’s flavours—a subtle blending without overpowering—maintaining difference, yet creating the space for commonality within the Indian kitchen.
Hasmukh P. Modi and his wife came with their young daughter to Shillong in 1979. A Gujarati family from Rajkot, they had settled in Africa, but were forced to leave during the civil war in Ethiopia. Their quest for a suitable school for their daughter, a place where they could strike roots and establish means of livelihood ended during a holiday in Shillong. In Ethiopia, Hasmukhbhai had worked in the marketing department of French and British firms selling everything from pins to jet planes. In Shillong he decided to take up the business of his grandfather— grocery—and deal in spices imported from Kerala—cardamom, cinnamon, cloves—and from Gujarat—coriander, cumin, fenugreek and fennel seeds (jeera, methi, sauf ).
Assembled in the small ‘Nat Cottage’ in Mawkhar (Shillong), painstakingly cleaned, minced, roasted, ground and packaged according to standardized measures with a strict eye to hygiene and highest quality of freshness, Modi’s ‘Musla Doh Babha’; ‘Special Super Meat Masala’; ‘Achar Masala’; black pepper powder; fish masala and a multitude of other spices, raked in an average turnover of Rs. 5000 a day.
It took 20 years of hard struggle for Modi Masala to turn the corner and it was only since the year 2000 that the profit had begun to roll in. And just when a quarter of a lifetime’s work was bearing sweet fruit, age, health and the call of the native soil saw the Modi’s preparing for their return to Rajkot and retirement. The new owner of Modi Masala, Sun Katwa, is a young Khasi, whose grandfather was a tax collector for the Syiem (king) of Mylliem (the traditional institution of kingship is still alive in the Khasi Hills).
‘Nat Cottage’ was rented to Modi Masala by Sun’s father at a most reasonable price and meticulously maintained. “We could not have hoped for a better landlord,” said Mrs. Modi. And it was during the course of their long association that Hasmukhbhai watched the young Sun grow up and become a commerce graduate, while demonstrating all the qualities and breeding of a “fine and cultured family,” said Mr. Modi. The long quest for a suitable successor to Modi Masala had been found!
Sun’s father was eager to buy the business for his son—its reputation for highest quality was now established and the business was fast heading for its peak. Modi Masala was reaching all corners of the West Khasi Hills and receiving orders from neighbouring regions as well. Sun had spent the past two years receiving rigorous training in handling every aspect of the business—from learning the secret recipes to blend masalas; handling accounts; mastering norms of hygiene and quality control; to management of the eight-member staff —the young girls all Khasis, who cleaned, roasted, ground and packaged the spice packets.
Sun’s hard work and desire to learn appears to have justified the Modi’s confidence in him as a worthy successor to the business, which will continue in its original name. The story of Modi Masala stands out as special in this hill state where the ‘outsider’ is decidedly unwelcome and is often reviled, leading to some extremely ugly situations over the past two decades. Modi Masala and its proprietor have however weathered the storms, never losing track of what brought them there in the first place.
“People from various communities have come to live and work here, with a view to earn their livelihood, to remit money to families back home. That goal is legitimate as long as one seeks to do business with honesty; offer the highest standards of quality; not interfere in the internal affairs of the community or disturb one’s neighbours and seek to live in brotherhood. One’s presence is then accepted and it is not difficult for such people to stay here,” said Hasmukhbhai.
The Khasi care very greatly about good quality products and though Hasmukhbhai openly told them that they were paying Rs. 3 more for his products, as compared to others in the market, they did not mind. Although traditional Khasi food does not use spices, people have, over the years, begun to develop a taste for Modi Masala in their dal, meat and vegetables. Nowadays food prepared for marriages, funerals and all other social occasions, makes use of the Modi spices and it has, in this process, been introduced to the common people.
When the community has confidence in the good intentions of the non-local person living within their midst, they also protect them, said Hasmukhbhai. Once when some students came around demanding a donation, he told them to get a letter from the local headman permitting them to collect such donations. The extortionists did not show up again. The traditional community institutions of the Khasi play a powerful role in encouraging and protecting those from outside, who live there with legitimate intentions, he said.
“The commercial community here—mainly Marwari and Benga- li—paid money to extortionists. They started to pay Rs. 5 but now even Rs. five lakhs is not enough. I have tried to create an understanding with community leaders—that there are good people and they are in a majority. If they know of your good reputation they will protect you,” said Hasmukhbhai.
Unlike other communities that tended to live in ghettos within the city, the Modis live in the heart of an old Khasi neighbourhood. “One way of getting to know our neighbours and seeking friendship was attending every funeral taking place in the neighbourhood and inviting them to celebrate all our occasions of joy—both of which mean much to the Khasi,” revealed Hasmukhbhai.
Meghalaya’s vast development potential cannot be harnessed without the help of other communities, Hasmukhbhai said. There was need to develop the knowledge and skills base of young people here. It was for this reason that Modi Masala was not sold off to the first highest bidder. Time and energy spent over the span of two years, provided training to the new owner.
The Khasi must ensure that they attract the right kind of people who can invest in the development of the region, Hasmukhbhai said. They must simultaneously ensure that there is transfer of knowledge and technology and sustainable use of natural resources with land re- maining as their own capital; with laws ensuring that they retain control over the development process.
“Unfortunately we are seeing too many people who are out to short change people in the Northeast, providing them sub-standard materials that are a health hazard. This is an inhuman approach and no one is punished for such unfair practices. At the same time government agencies here do not care to look into the problems of the small scale cottage industry sector or support them with meaningful redress of their problems,” Hasmukhbhai said.
The non-tribal who seeks to set up a small industry here is subjected to several unfair rules. For instance they are required to register themselves with the District Council but though he himself had visited their office at least five times in these 25 years, no one was present who knew how to register him, Hasmukhbhai said. Every non-tribal running a commercial enterprise is required to buy a license, but this differential should not be allowed within the commercial community, he said.
The story of Modi spices stands out as a small beacon on the hillsides of Shillong. It’s a story of creative economic development and points to the role ordinary Indians can play in these sensitive areas working towards common survival and benefit of all neighbours.
Hasmukh P. Modi passed away two years ago in Gujarat