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The special profession of Lal Bahadur
Lal Bahadur enjoys a monopoly of sorts in a job that requires him to make and repair hats for regiments from Assam and even beyond. They include regiments from the Gurkhas and Garhwalis.
AT 63, Lalbahadur Kharki is a contented man. His three sons are all well-settled, two are in the Army and one is a lawyer. Being self-employed , his business has not been prone to the tsunami-like wave that has shaken economies the world over. Infact, his profession is recession-proof. If you’re wondering what his business is — he is a hat maker for the Army. A very specialised profession with not many takers. He enjoys a monopoly of sorts in a job that requires him to make and repair hats for regiments from Assam and even beyond. They include regiments from the Gurkhas, Garhwalis, Kumaonis, Ladakh Scouts and Guides, Assam Rifles and more recently the Nagas.
It was in 1968 that Lalbahadur resigned after eight years in the Assam Rifles, and relocated from Dimapur to Dehradun’s Dakra Bazar in the Garhi Cantonment. In search of a vocation, he stumbled upon a retired NCO from one of the British Gurkha regiments who taught him how to make hats you often see these soldiers wear. Broadbrimmed and made of felt, they are built to survive all sorts of weather and terrain. The NCO had by then taken to drink, but Lalbahadur took him home and from his “guruji” he learnt the art of making hats for the Army. The process of stitching, according to Lalbahadur, has remained unchanged for more than a century.

All the material like felt, leather lining, badges and flashes are sourced by the regiment and are cut to designs perfected over the years. Each hat is handmade but must look identical and pass the hawkeyed subedar majors who do the final check. The work has taken him to Delhi, Ranchi, Roorkee and Lucknow where he also does maintenance work on the hats. He has stayed for a few weeks at a stretch as a guest of the regiments concerned. In turn regiments from as far as Mumbai, Thiruvanthapuram, Ferozepur, Rangia and Shillong send their orders and materials to him.

The quiet-spoken Nepali of Indian origin rolls of the list of VIPs whom he has ‘crowned’ among them Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw, Lt Gen FNBilimoria and Lt Gen PK Rampal. He takes pride in the fact that Victoria Cross winner Agan Singh Rai of the 2/5 Royal Gurkha Battalion placed an order on him and praised the quality of the end product. Operating from the small shop that he rented in 1973, Lalbahadur still follows the same routine he set himself three decades ago. Home includes a wife, who works beside him, his lawyer son, his wife and a young grandson.

So the next time you see the Republic Day parade and see a troop of crack regiments swivel their heads in unison, remember all those hats were made by Lalbahadur right  Dakra Bazar of Dehradun.

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