One of the noted characters of Srinagar of yore was Master Rajab whose garage continues to hold the imperial charm amid the rise of upscale shops and stores in the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir.
In the din of traffic and trade at Srinagar’s iconic Polo View street, an old address is still brandishing some traces of antiquity.
What once was a haven of vintage vehicles is still managing to keep up with reputation of its Master with ‘golden hands’.
The legend of Master Rajab still resonates in and around the market for his sharp instincts and magical touches to feel the pulse of a vehicle.
It was during 1940s when Rajba’s Popular Motor Works shifted from Regal Chowk to the Polo View site. A British ambassador had suggested shifting garage to a better place after her vehicle got stuck in a pothole.
A few decades later, during Bakshi’s rule, almost 32 shopkeepers were rehabilitated at the place after their shops were gutted in a fire incident.
Since then, the iconic street has been an address of the unique brands in the city centre.
Most of the shops and stores in the market have installed LED boards, bright coloured lights and glass doors but the gate to Rajba’s garage merely has a rusted tin board with the same brand name.
Inside sits the third generation mechanic and caretaker of the garage, Riyaz Ahmad attending one of the clients, desperate for the big ride.
The simple talk between the two turned into a negotiation after client’s eye spotted an antique vehicle in the corner.
The client throws open a checkbook to Riyaz for any amount for the antique model, Mercedes JKA-5132: “The call is yours.”
Riyaz tells him, with a smile, that the car was once owned by Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s family.
“It has been here for almost two months now and since it belongs to a friend, its repairing parts are to be ordered from abroad,” the mechanic while excusing the bargain for the car says.
Keeping up with his commitment and work is what Riyaz believes has come to him from his grandfather.
He’s quite vocal about his grandpa’s legend. “During early 1900s, a machine became defunct due to some snag in the Silk Factory and a special team of engineers from abroad had come to fix it.”
For weeks, according to Riyaz’s late father Ghulam Rasool, the team couldn’t spot the fault.
Working as a part-time mechanic, a young boy asked for a chance to fix the glitch.
“He’s just a kid,” the local workers responded the foreign engineers.
The head of the team ignored the alarms and asked young Rajab to take a shot at the defunct machine.
“For four days my grandfather’s magical hands curdled with the machine parts,” says Riyaz. “And finally, the fault was fixed.”
The surprise earned young Rajab the title of ‘Little Master’ from the head of the foreign team of engineers.
Years later, the ‘Little Master’ was the owner of one of the first garages in Srinagar and a must stop for the four-wheelers in the city.
“It was in 1918 when my grandfather started his own garage.”
Riyaz adds that the vehicles that time were only owned either by visitors and royal families.
The skinny man with thick spectacles was no less than a specialist whose skillful touches always measured the pulse and accordingly diagnosed a remedy.
Mostly rushed with foreigners driving what are now antique class models from brands like Mercedes Benz, Morris, BMW, the place resembled the classical garages of West in every way possible.
One of the garage’s fixtures was its manager, Ahmadullah.
The tall blonde man was a fluent English speaker and always comforted foreigners with his talks and gestures.
“I have a faint memory of Ahmadullah who would drop me home if anytime I did show up at the garage,” Riyaz recalls.
During 1950s, with Imperial times done and dusted with, Master Rajab passed away, not before passing the baton to Riyaz’s father.
Ghulam Rasool, the second generation mechanic, lived up to the expectations.
“They called my father the gifted son of a skilled father,” says Riyaz who grew up watching his father’s “flawless” work and hearing his grandfather’s legend.
Following suit, Riyaz’s choice became clear when he failed in Math and Urdu subjects in his Class 10.
He didn’t hesitate to tell his father that his heart and soul always was in the garage.
“Since then I have been here,” he says.
The treasure Riyaz feels blessed to have are the collection of imported tools from different parts of the world from his grandfather.
“The clients from abroad would often gift my grandfather and father the tools that a mechanic in this part of the world can only dream of,” says Riyaz, keeping the name of tools and gadgets secret.
After failing to buy the Bakshi’s ride, the eager client leaves Riyaz with his garage’s imperial grace. The grease-smeared mechanic shortly takes a walk around the workplace filled with classic vibes and vehicles.
Pointing at the late Prime Minister’s Mercedes, the master mechanic’s grandson makes a parting remark: “At the end of the day, these big toys become the grace of the garage. And this garage had them like no other.”