Doff your hat for the good old topi

The Rampuri and Hyderabadi caps, symbols of elegance, are still worn while the tasselled Turki topi, that came into fashion after the revolution by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, aided by his Young Turks is still sometimes seen. But the sola topi has vanished. It adorned the heads of such men as Col Sleeman, who eliminated the Thugs, Jim Corbett (100 years younger than the colonel), Rudyard Kipling, Lutyens and Baker and, besides others, Sir Henry Gidney, who went to London to plead for Anglo-Indians with George VI. A search for the sola topi following a request from a retired professor yielded a blank. Mumbai and Kolkata had none, Delhi sold its last one 10 years ago and Sumer Chand’s firm, which marketed it in Kinari Bazar, stopped making the topi 20 years ago.

Prof Rajendra Singh, former Head of the Department, School of Social Work, Delhi University, an avid reader of The Hindu (to which he sent his plaint), began searching for a sola topi after retirement. The reason being that as a child he used to break his father’s topis with the old man’s silver-headed walking stick. Now in his declining years the professor wants to repent for his folly. He says, “I went on searching for the sola hat at almost all the possible shops like Mohan Ram at Connaught Place and Topi-wala at Chandni Chowk, just at the entrance of Ghantawala (Halwai) Gali, but failed. So also one of my students in Bombay”. Journalist Keith Flory suggested another shop of dealers in CP but they had stopped stocking it, though Ian Stephens, newspaper editor and author of Partition book, “The Horned Moon”, Kenneth Webb (khaki-knickers Sahib) and Vice-Chancellor P.D. Gupta were among those who bought their ones from them.

Father used to wear one and so also our uncles. As for us, it was part of the school uniform with Headmaster Merriman and his predecessor “Fanny” Finamore too donning it. So also McLeod Sahib, famous for annually building the “Altar of Repose” during Phoolan-ki-Id, as the November feast of Christ the King is known. In the 1970s the shikari Cyril Thomas presented a strapless sola topi to this scribe which came in handy while going for afternoon newspaper duty in mid-summer. Cyril roamed the jungles wearing the khaki sun hat with a thick straw padding. Once, the topi saved him from an attack by a wild boar though his shoulder was injured before he shot it. Cricketers like Lala Amarnath, Syed Mushtaq Ali and Vijay Hazare could be seen wearing white sola topis as they protected the head in an age when there were no helmets in use during Test and other matches.

Going to school with the topi (squirrel’s tail as a plume) sometimes looked odd and while returning home students often played footie with it, making the hat soft because of kicks from Naughty Boy shoes. Henry Maguire and Julian Francis leading the group home would pass on their topis to juniors for safe-keeping while they plundered the chokie-plum trees or the jackfruit ones in Akbar’s church garden. Sometimes parish priest Fr Leo, sola topi on head, emerged from his quarters and scolded the boys. He was sent to the concentration camp in Dehra Dun for domiciled Italians during World War II, though hunched Fr Louis was spared the ordeal because of his age. “Louchi”, as he was called by the boys of the school, in which he was Vice-Rector, would come suddenly, soli topi on head, to herd the boarders to the dormitory.

Would you believe it that a railwayman, who had been a mail train driver, was buried wearing the topi as per his last wishes? Naman Khan safely passed off as Norman, as he used to don a sola topi during the 1947 riots and so did Rafiq Mian, dressed in sherwani and pyjamas, a contrast to Seth Sita Ram clad in a dhoti and protected from stone-throwers by the hat. Saeed Ahmed of the Royal Air Force, and later Pakistan Air Force, shot a tiger in Bah along with Nawab Faiyaz Khan, both conspicuously photographed with their sola topis.

Girls too used to wear them, decorated with feathers as part of the school uniform and looked cute, attired in short skirts, with love letters hidden in their white socks over dainty legs. If one went to the Presentation School near Delhi Main station or even to the Convent of Jesus and Mary one found the girls collecting Morsali buds, shed by the compound trees, in their topis.

One feels sorry that the headgear has disappeared altogether and Prof Singh is not the only one regretting it. But someone may still help him find one so that he can complete his penance.

(The author is a veteran chronicler of Delhi)

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Printable version | Jul 1, 2022 6:52:43 am |