ND Moolla and Sons is the kind of shop you crane your neck to look into. And it’s not just the intricately carved chess sets at the entrance, the old wooden cabinets lining the walls or the scent of sandalwood wafting out of the store. Its appeal lies in the fact that it probably looks the same as it did in 1931 when the owners relocated to this spot because of rental woes. If some of the objects displayed seem unfamiliar to non-Parsis that’s only because the store prides itself on stocking every conceivable item a Zoroastrian will need from birth to death. This includes the shiav or funerary offering of garments, explained proprietor Noshir Darabsha Moolla, whose grandfather set up the store in 1893.
At that time the shop was located in the Adamji Peerbhoy Municipal Market on Dr Cawasji Hormusji Street and was called Moolla Ni Kapad Ni Dukaan (Moolla’s Cloth Shop). In 1911, the shop moved to Kalbadevi’s post office lane until the rent soared when the area transformed into a flourishing silk market.
Though it’s not apparent at first glance, even this stubborn little store has had to occasionally relinquish its hold on the past. In 2002, when the price of Malabari sandalwood rose, Moolla introduced the option of cheaper Tanzanian sandalwood and is now considering stocking cedar or camphor after checking if the Parsi scriptures permit their use for the holy fire. Similarly, the sudreh or religious vest was sold in three different sizes for men, women and children until two years ago. “About once a month a pretty portly [gentleman] or lady would come and I would say sorry I don’t have a sudreh for you and I felt bad,” said Moolla, “so I introduced the extra large size.”
In the 1960s, Moolla witnessed the disappearance of a traditional weaving technique from China called tanchoi. Three Parsi brothers, sponsored by Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, went to China learned the skill and set up a factory in Surat. Thus the name, explained Moolla, since “tan” means three and “choi” is an abbreviation for China. “In my grandfather’s time there were nearly a hundred designs and it was made by hand on a loom,” said Moolla. “[The men] would sing songs which would tell them what colour thread they needed to use for the waft and weave.” Today, instead of tanchoi topis the store sells caps trimmed with millwoven brocade. In 2000, Moolla also stopped stocking sapats (red or black velvet slippers) after almost a hundred years because he couldn’t find a cobbler who would make them for less than R250. A price Moolla felt was exorbitant since he was still selling the largest size for only R190.
An electrical engineer by education, Moolla has a wide range of interests. He operates ham radios, dabbles in photography and designs wooden chess sets, which are for sale in the store. Despite occasionally needing a creative outlet, Moolla is certain he would never want to do anything else but run his family’s store. After all, who else can claim that their father stitched Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw’s dagli (traditional Parsi overcoat)? “I have been here 53 years and I know I am not going to retire,” said Moolla, “I’m going to die in harness.”
By Nergish Sunavala on August 17 2012 11.12am
Photos by Mohnish Dabhoya