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Thirty years ago, in 1988, when a 39-year-old had nothing but a mud-hut, where she lived with her family of four—struggling to put food on the table two times a day, sleeping in a cold corner—she reserved another corner of her hut for silkworms. Following the footsteps of her fellow villagers of Chittybandi in Bandipora district of north Kashmir, she tried her shot at sericulture to keep her boat afloat.

Rearing through day-to-day hardships, she has walked miles to weave the dreams of her family—via silk. Today, 70-year-old Malik Noor is an inspiration for her family and an icon of women empowerment in her area.

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Do waqt ki roti 

Ms. Noor, born and brought up in an economically backward family, was married at the age of 20 to Saed Wali Mir, a laborer by profession. The couple gave birth to five daughters and a son. Though, somewhere along, her husband’s health started deteriorating gradually.  “He became mentally unstable and lost the ability to work outside of home,” said Ms. Noor.

With the paralyzed income of family, Ms. Noor took the responsibility on her own shoulders and joined her fellow villagers in the silk-rearing business, or sericulture, wherein silkworms are cultivated to produce silk. “It was easy to work from home,” Ms. Noor said. “If I would have been at his (Mr. Mir) place, he would have also supported me. I started the business to take care of my husband and children.”

However, after her husband’s untimely illness, Ms. Noor had to face another tragedy—the death of her three daughters, two of them died due to chickenpox at the mere age of 5 and 3-months-old. “I was not able to buy medicines,” Ms. Noor said. “It was the hardest time for me as our financial conditions were worse.” Unaware of infections, and viral diseases, the family couldn’t figure a way out when their third daughter – 7-years-old, fell ill in 1978, she soon succumbed.

“I could only give my children do waqt ki roti (meal for two times) but not education,” she said regretfully, just as her husband, Mr. Mir entered the room with slow steps, murmuring something. “He is not able to understand and interpret anything,” Ms. Noor said.

Sidelining every problem, Ms. Noor worked to get her family back on track. Waking up early in the morning, without eating anything at all, she would walk till noon in the scorching heat to get mulberry leaves for silkworms—focusing entirely on establishing a livelihood.

Back then, working for at least twelve hours a day, she only aimed to improve her business, the only source of income for her family.

“I have seen my mother starving as we weren’t even capable of buying a roti (bread),” said Ms. Noor’s son, Barkat Ali Mir, 34, a laborer by profession. “But, she always made sure that we ate.”

Junior Mir cannot be thankful enough for his mother, and her hard work that gave shelter to the family. “My mother is an inspiration for me as well as for other women in the neighborhood,” he said. “My father never bought me a single pair of clothes in my entire life. It’s my mother who did everything.”

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Ms. Noor standing next to mulberry tree in her orchard. Photograph by Quratulain Rehbar for The Kashmir Walla.

‘I have never seen a silk cloth’

At the entrance of her two-storey brick-home in Chittybandi, Ms. Noor has grown mulberry trees on a small patch of land to feed the silkworm. Today, the aged woman walks tirelessly for two-to-three kilometers every day to get extra mulberry leaves.

Sitting in her hall, where newly bought white and pink curtains hang, wearing an olive-green dress with silver earrings, she delicately cleans the bunch of cocoons spread in front of her on a bamboo tray. “One needs to take proper care of these worms and save them from insects and birds,” she said. “I have to keep a vigil on them.”

Ms. Noor married her two elder daughters off, Hidayat Noor, 50, and Shah Begum, 43, and her son, Junior Mir, while also having built a two-storey house for the family through her business. “Anyone I come across in my village tells me that I am lucky to have a mother like her,” said Junior Mir, who is now planning to start a business of his own.

Ms. Noor, who once used to starve for days, flipped her own destiny and earned a profit of 60,000 rupees in merely fifteen days, a few months ago. “The payment brings happiness every time,” she said.

Chopping mulberry leaves with an axe, her wrinkled hands reflect her age and struggle. However, Ms. Noor has been into this for ages now, but she has never seen a silk cloth in her life. “I know that silk is one of the most expensive materials in the world, and I’ve heard from people that it is beautiful,” Ms. Noor said. “But, I cannot afford it.”

While making sure that the eggs are kept under suitable temperature and humidity, she is thankful to “the art and science of silk-rearing” that has made her realize the beauty of nature.

With time, her body is becoming weak to climb the stairs, but she somehow manages to reach the shed on the first floor of the house, where she has kept the cocoons on bamboo trays. She waits for the cocoons to dry completely so that she could sell it in the market. The price of a cocoon depends upon its quality and its purity. It has the potential to earn profit in lakhs. “A few months ago, we produced eighty kilograms of cocoons with 80,000 rupees price,” she added. With the money, she hopes to buy new things for the home. 

“Nowadays, competition is tough in the market and everything is expensive,” she said, walking through a small orchard outside her house and posing for a picture near the mulberry tree. She continued, “However, I work harder to earn more money.”

Ms. Noor’s life was full of struggles and hardships, wherein she also thought of giving up many times, “But, I always remained patient,” she said. “If you have enough patience, one day you will yield its fruit,” or maybe a cocoon.

This story originally appeared in 22-28 July print issue of The Kashmir Walla.