When the son of a Kashmiri military man fled to Bombay to become a spy in the dramatic seventies, he ended up losing his Z to J in the film city and returned home as a significantly different man. A man who loved fragrances.
A few meandering lanes behind the famous Sharma Tyre House in Srinagar’s Magarmal bagh, one shop has put up an interesting billboard: Jaffer Bhai ittar walle. Inside sits a man, sporting a white beard and thick glasses.
Roughly above the age of sixty, the man is surrounded by different bottles of ittar—perfumes. The name is Jaffer Bhai, who in the name of living spreads fragrance. He comes across as a commoner, but there are no common threads in his startling life journey, making him a class of his own kind.
To begin with, Jaffar Bhai emphasises on a fact that he merely “assembles” all the perfumes—rather than “making them”. Assembling a perfume is an art to him, a “god’s gift”, which he feels he is blessed with.
Rather than seeing himself as a maker of perfume, he likes to think of himself as a sort of alchemist who has an effective knowledge about the alchemy of different fragrances. “I’ve a certain sense through which I am able to create a unique and strong fragrance from different perfumes,” he says.
Jaffar Bhai’s story starts when he decided to run away from his Batamaloo home in his twenties. He did so to escape his father’s strict disciplinary regime who was a military man back then. His father worked in the British army and later shifted to Insurance business.
In the early seventies, he went to Mumbai, which was Bombay back then, to become a spy. He was highly inspired by the life of a spy about which he got to know by reading various spy novels of that time. He couldn’t figure out how to become one so he thought of trying his hands in films.
He managed to get a job in the film industry as a crew member. Subsequently, he was even offered a role of a ‘ghost’ in a film, which he refused to play.
“I should’ve got the hero’s role in the film,” he says. “I was quite good looking in my youth. Don’t know why they offered me the role of a ghost!”
He was jobless for sometimes and decided to learn martial arts. It was during this time when he injured his hand, while breaking a glass, that he met a Doctor who introduced him to the art of making ittar.
It was under the apprentice of this doctor who revealed to him, the world of perfumes, that he discovered his gift of assembling unique fragrances. “From there it was no looking back,” he says. “I discovered my gift. I was chosen to do this and this is what I’ll do.”
Once introduced to the business of selling fragrance, he forgot about being a spy, an actor, or anything else. He immediately understood that this was his calling. During his rookie days, he first assembled a perfume combining of different basic fragrances as its ingredients to collectively form something unique. He named it “Kashmiri Gulab”. It was an instant hit, and got him on a track.
One may assume that his real name is “Jaffer”, which in reality is Zaffar Mahiudin. The reason why he uses Jaffar Bhai as a business name is because people in Bombay pronounce Z as J. Hence, Zafar Bhai became Jaffar Bhai.
Along the years, he developed an immense knowledge about fragrances. He has developed a craft of deciphering different perfumes and studying its ingredients and trying to reassemble something which has a better aromatic impact.
It is like a good song, he says, which is remembered for nice melodies. When you try to break it down further, the melodies are made up of musical notes which when you reuse in a crafty way and can create a new good melody with it. The same holds true for perfumes.
A person like Jaffer Bhai is not much interested in the marketing gimmicks of selling a product. It may be a reason for his lack of popularity but that hardly bothers him. “Those who know me—know me, because of the purity in my product and those who have a certain taste for it,” he says. “I’ll never degrade my craft because people in the market are selling at a cheaper price. I don’t compete with them. If you put my perfume on, you will get to know where the extra money went.”
Unlike a businessman who sells a product pertaining to the demand-supply chain and for the intent of procuring profit, Jaffar Bhai has a different approach. He has developed a strong relation with his craft and believes he was chosen by fragrance to play with it, to caress it and to skim it to create something which he can call of his own. He sees it as an art, as an experiment and as a passion.
His one major concern is that rookies entering this field to make quick bucks are ruining its charm. He also has observed that the big companies branding all ittar products as Arab imports is what is ruining the indigenous feel and essence of this specific craft.
“It is not necessary that the ittar has to be from Arab to smell good,” he says, in a voice filled with amazement. He also sees this as a result of lack of authenticity in the makers of perfume. “They want to sell a product. They don’t want to make fragrances which are good and pure.
A man like Jaffer Bhai is least concerned with the notion of making profit in terms of selling in huge quantities. He believes his success resides in the smile one gets after smelling the fragrance of his ittar — days after you’ve put it on your clothes.