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Snuff Money – a facet of our culture history




‘Snuff Money’



Stories of our childhood, when shared with grandchildren sound to them as fairy-tales. Many of them like the festivities that accompanied marriages with a bridegrooms on horsebacks and brides in palanquins – a wheel-less vehicle carried on shoulders by humans and a platoon of kerosene-light torchbearers read to them as tales from the Arabian Nights. Stories about some of my classmates, school dropouts, who dropped in class four,  like Khaliq with charcoaled face roasting water chestnuts or buffalo nuts in dry grass and selling same outside the school  look to them as comic strips.   That, these stories are not fairy tales nor comic strips but of men and women who strutted across the streets of the city just sixty years back is hard to explain to them.

 Those days that is in the fifties the city with garden roof houses in full bloom artistically designed latticed windows, carved doors had retained not only its medieval ambiance but also preserved social ethos and traditions born out of confluence of streams of cultures in all their purity. One of practices that was in fashion in our boyhood and remnants of which still exits was paying ‘snuff money’ to the workforce at the end of works or on doing jobs.

In our childhood, in our parts of the city, there were many shops that sold snuff – tobacco in the form of fine powder. Couple of them were just two hundred yards from our house.  Those days   inhaling snuff into nose was very much in fashion.  Both men and women, natives and immigrants inhaled it for a ‘swift hit of nicotine and a lasting flavored scent.’ Those day inhaling snuff like smoking from Hubble-bubble had social sanction. Some clumsily rubbed pinches of this powder on their gums and teeth, but it was not seen as a good habit. My grandmother, like few more of her friends dextrously held a pinch of snuff between her thumb and index finger and inhaled it in one breath inside her nostril. And repeated the process for the next nostril.  Sometimes, she would keep a pinch of snuff in the middle of her left palm sniffed it deep inside the cavity of the nostril. She had a round silver snuff box with mirror fitted in its carved lid. It was one of her prized possession- and she had a story to share with us about it   that it was brought by our grandfather for her from Lahore. The word Lahore and Punjab often made her nostalgic and she talked about many artifacts and souvenirs that grandfather had brought from Lahore and Penji (Rawalpindi). She always carried Nas-ti-Daba, snuff box in the pocket of her pheran. That was true about all women in habit of inhaling the tobacco powder.. Compared to women lesser number of men used snuff, nonetheless, they enjoyed puffs of tobacco from the Hubble-bubble- a fully carved copper hubble-bubble used to be the precious possession of almost every family.

Those days in our part of the city there were vast tracts of vegetable farms.   The main crop, in fact, all season crop used to be ‘hakh,’ the collard greens.  Nonetheless, after the collard greens, tobacco cultivation was the cash crop.  In the vicinity of our school, there were lots of tobacco farms. The huge leaves were sun-dried in an open ground. Impressions about   pounding them with wooden pestle in wooden mortars are as fresh as dewdrops in narcissus in early spring.  Perhaps snuff was not manufactured in the city. Nonetheless, grandmother always sent me to top snuff shop for buying ‘Peshawari snuff’ just next to my tuition center, the Unique Academy in Bohiri Kadal. The small snuff shop packed with tins of the fine powder usually remained crowded with customers from the rural areas. Snuff perhaps had arrived in our land from China where it was   considered   to be a remedy for common illnesses such as colds, headaches and stomach disorders. I remember, having seen my grandmother inhaling extra pinch of snuff to cure her headache. Chronicles say that the ties between Kashmir and China date back to pre-historic times when earliest dwellers of Kashmir during winters traveled to Tibet- that is before Brahmins from outside came to Kashmir and settled here. Nonetheless, the most popular snuff was oldies that imported from Peshawar.

Social sanction of inhaling snuff had added one more phrase ‘nas-ti-hara’ to our lingua franca – it was seen as prize money. Those days when wages of a labor ranged between two to three rupees, of a mason and a carpenter between four to five rupees, this workforce on the weekend ask for ‘snuff-money’ – for having done satisfactory work. Even tumbrel-laborers after bringing the building material besides fixed wages asked for the ‘snuff-money’- so was true boatman propelling barges loaded with firewood, paddy, and other stuffs and Ashpazs cooking wazawan. Those days snuff money ranges from eight Annas for daily wagers to five rupees for Ashpazs – the practice has almost died, but it is now only Ashpaz who now demand snuff money.

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