City Life: Delhi - Doorstepped by the many Mr Khans

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The Independent Online
AS SOON as it starts to get cold in Delhi, the Khan men arrive unannounced. Thousands of Kashmiri merchants come down from Srinagar to hawk handicrafts door to door in India's capital. So many are named Mr Khan that they come up with some memorable monikers, printed on business cards, to stand out from the crowd.

Each Mr Khan is apt to be obliging and very persistent. He will eventually turn up on your doorstep with a bag of home-grown walnuts plus a handful of "chits". These well-thumbed letters from satisfied customers are shown with pride. Mr Khan, whatever his commercial alias, will press you to recommend other mem sahibs to see his silk carpets, cashmere shawls or papier mache boxes.

Honest John has a solid reputation, but not everyone can stand his grandiose spiel. He has plenty of imitators, to add to the confusion: Honest Jon, Honest Gyan and, my favourite, Honest Injun.

Honest John Khan claims: "Our shahtoosh wool is found on twigs, where the delicate chin hairs of the Tibetan antelope get caught and then gently yanked while they graze." He holds up a plain, biscuit-coloured wrap which is fine enough to pass through a wedding ring. "Price? As you like, Madam. This is pure 'toosh just like Sonia Gandhi wears." Pure tosh. Selling shahtoosh, from a protected species, is outlawed.

When a Mr Khan comes calling, talk turns to the troubles up on the border. Since the atom bomb tests by India and Pakistan six months ago, these travelling salesmen seem more melancholy than ever. It is not just nostalgia for Kashmir's snowy peaks and achingly pure air. Some Mr Khans actively fear for their sons back in Kashmir, where over 34,000 have died since insurgency flared in 1989.

Many men get caught up in the militancy, either fighting as guerrillas or jailed as collaborators. Others flee and send the odd cheque back to their beleaguered families.

There is not enough commerce to sustain local craftsmen in Srinagar, so many descend to Delhi. The most discerning handicraft buyers are in the capital. What's more, for a few chilly months, woollens are suddenly required in Delhi, and soft cashmere is coveted.

For Kashmiri pedlars who revisit old clients, times are opportune. Bargaining is ritualised, and Mr Khan invariably complains you get his treasures at cost price.

Silk carpets are a specialty of Srinagar, though I happen to prefer knotted wool rugs, so every Mr Khan tries to alter my opinion. The word "silk" is always pronounced with three soft syllables - "si-li-kh", ending in a breathy whisper that implores you to see the shimmer. Invariably, Mr Khan flutters the end of the carpet, but I won't give in.

Yaseen Khan washes and repairs my rugs, and visits thrice a year (more if he suspects I have house guests from London). I once tried to trade up my old rug from Tehran towards a splendid carpet he was offering. He collapsed in giggles when I flipped my rug over to demonstrate its tight knots and, yes, waved the end in full sun to show off its sheen. Was I trying to out-Khan him?