Boulevard of topee dreams

Hatworks Boulevard on Cunningham Road is a sprawling bungalow in a time warp. As I pass it, I see that this 180 year old retains its aristocratic old world ambiance. With its art shops and boutiques, today it boasts visits from Bangaloreans who appreciate quality and have deep pockets. 70 years ago, as a teenager, I had acquired my first hat from here.

That name Hatworks was given as it was a home of the wealthy Parsee Minocher family, but doubled as premises to hand craft hats for India’s military and civilian markets. It used to be the only place in British India where you could get pith helmets (also known as sola topees), caps / hats needed by army men, jockeys, policemen and sportsmen. For instance, in pre-independence India, the peelee pagdi (yellow hats) worn by Bombay policemen of yore came from Hatworks, Bangalore.

The quality had to be such that it could keep one’s head cool, allow many comfortable hours during cross country rides by cavalrymen on horseback, absorb your sweat, and was soft to wear but strong enough to protect the head in case of a fall.

The author wearing a Hatworks purchased sola topee astride a horse in Calcutta in 1948 at age 13.

I get nostalgic when I pass Hatworks: it was where I had ordered my sola topee as a teenager in Calcutta in 1948. As a boy, I had wanted to learn riding, had joined an equestrian school in Ballygunj that was run as a private club by genial British gora sahibs.

The members were mostly managers or high officials in English and Scottish firms trading in jute, gabardines, textiles, watches and such, with company names like Anderson Clayton, Jardine Henderson, Whiteaway Laidlaw, Balmer Lawrie. I was the only member who was not white skinned.

The riding club went under the bombastic name ‘Indian Society of Equitation and Horsemastership’, with a riding ring and stable for a dozen horses in Ballygunj. The grassy open maidan nearby was often used for horse shows,jumping competitions, dressage tests, and polo chukkers.

Major Fred Coster, retired from the British cavalry in Burma, was the club’s manager-cum-instructor, and advised me to get “kitted out” – get riding boots, riding breeches known as jodhpurs and a sola topee. Coster explained the protective pith helmet: “Young man, if you knock your head against a rock after a fall, then tum mar gaya (you die),” and helped me to acquire a sola topee from Hatworks,Bangalore.

I had many falls from horses and did not mar gaya, thanks to the sola topee. My memories of nippy Calcutta winter mornings at the riding school are fresh with those panting horses, their breath vapourising at their swollen nostrils in little white clouds. Coster‘s booming instructions in the riding ring were to a dozen of us: “Whole r-i-i-i-de…. trrrrot,” and “Leading file, l-e-e-ft incl-i-ine” and sometimes a barked order : “C-a-a-nterrr”.

To be firm while riding, we had to learn to balance. We were taught not to be solely dependent on the knees tightly gripping on the saddle. While we were astride our horses trotting around the riding ring, Coster would make us leave our right stirrup, bend our right knee and put our right ankle on the horse’s neck. Sitting and wobbling awkwardly thus while the animal was at a trot, we learned balance quickly. Mrs.Winterton, a gora me’m saab had toppled. She didn’t come for the next lesson.

There were other riding lessons. On occasion, a group of us would be taken for cross country rides, ten or twenty kilometers from the city. One accident was at Behala on the city outskirts when a bull frog suddenly leaped out from under my mount. Startled, the horse let out a resounding neiggghhh and bucked, and zig zagged and reared. I was thrown off, it bolted, ran helter skelter, and landed on the edge of a muddy pond where it got its rear legs stuck in the mud.

With the help of some friendly locals, we managed to extricate the animal, and took a breather to calm him. Then we spotted some blood oozing on his leg. A leech had gone to work on my poor horse, sucking his blood and wriggling. Fully bloated, the bloodsucker soon dropped to the ground. We sighed in relief.

While steadying my nervous horse, I adjusted my sola topee that had just saved my skull, and had come from Hatworks, Bangalore.

Arun Bhatia is a resident of Bengaluru and an avid reader, writer, and photographer. He has also modeled in TV commercials.

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