Cold childhood, begging meals, and weighing odds

“At first, I was really ashamed. But now, I have accepted that I’m doing this. I'm begging. It is for my children.”

Representative picture by Muzamil Aftab for The Kashmir Walla

Under a scorching September sun, the ice-cream is too sweet, a little lumpy too – but the boy has quick hands. His face wears a look of unwavering concentration as he churns the cream from his cart in Srinagar.

To build a conversation, I bought another cup.

Just seven weeks ago, 14-year-old Zubair Ahmad Khan was attending a government school nearby his home in Rainawari, Srinagar – his bag had second-hand borrowed seventh standard textbooks, and sincerely done homework. Today, he pushes a lopsided ice-cream cart around the city – hoping to earn a small sum of money.

Khan, of course, is well aware of the news that spun the tale of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) – and of his own. On 5 August, the special constitutional status of J-K was dragged down and it was bifurcated into the union territories: J-K and Ladakh.

The subsequent lockdown and communication blockade in the Valley led to empty classrooms, firmly closed shop shutters – and vexed hearts.

English was… is my favourite subject. I haven’t seen my friends since the lockdown. They must be playing cricket somewhere.

Since the past three weeks, Mr. Khan has stationed his cart outside Lal Ded hospital, Srinagar or frequently made rounds around Jahangir Chowk, from 9 am to 5 pm every day. “Business is much better this week,” he said, with the air of an established businessman. “The first two weeks were really hard.”

His family moved to the capital from Uri, Baramulla (north Kashmir) six months ago to make a living, after Rouf Khan, Mr. Khan’s father fell ill. Ever since, Henna Khan, his mother had been selling bread at a roadside shop – to send him and his 11-year-old sister to school and to meet the expenses of his ailing father.

But that all changed on 5 August.

In the initial days, Mr. Khan watched – helpless – his mother struggle with the bread business. Then one day, when she returned home empty-handed and wouldn’t say a word, he got up and walked out of the door; in those brief moments of silence, the boy grew up.

After arranging an ice-cream cart with the help of one of his neighbors in Rainawari, he stood at Jahangir Chowk the next morning with factory-made orange wafer-cones stacked up on the little counter. In the evening, he walked back home with sixty rupees in his pocket – to his mother’s falling tears. Now, on a good day, he earns around two hundred rupees – still, barely enough to feed his family.

Though, his mother still packs him lunch every day – “just like school days” – but a single roti now.

Remembering school, he smiles and says, “English was… is my favourite subject. I haven’t seen my friends since the lockdown. They must be playing cricket somewhere.” On the top of his cart’s counter, scratched on the wood are his initials, “ZAK” – a habit, perhaps carried on from the school bench. Running his fingers along with the letters, he says, “Anyway, winter is coming. Nobody will buy my ice-creams then. And I will be able to go back to school again.”

From hearing the school bell to ringing an ice-cream bell, Khan has come a long way since the lockdown. With the situation tense and classrooms empty, children like him have been longing to get back to school and to old routines.

On 17 August, principle secretary of J-K, Rohit Kansal, had announced to reopen primary level schools from 19 August and middle school from 23 August. However, as per a report published by The New Indian Express, only 0.01 per cent students attended school in Srinagar in the last week. While in Ganderbal, the stats stood at 0.1 per cent, and 0.48 per cent in Kupwara.

Furthermore, in the Valley, while the middle-class families, especially the ones dependent on business, have barely been managing in these times, the poorer families like that of Mr. Khan’s have been pushed to rock bottom – forcing even the children to earn for the family.

Looking for change

Two burqa-clad women sitting under adjacent lamp-posts that provide little shade from the harsh noon sun, near the Bund, Lal Chowk, have their palms outstretched – begging. As I squat down beside one of them, searching my wallet for some change, the woman starts to sob.

Her words are unintelligible but her tear-rimmed eyes, visible through the netted slit of her burqa, say it all.

Noora Jan, in her mid-50s, had her last meal – a cup of chai – two days ago. She has three hungry mouths to feed back home – in downtown Srinagar, where she lives with her daughters aged fifteen, twelve, and eight. After her husband passed away a few years ago, Ms. Jan had been running a local tailoring business, stitching and patching up clothes for her neighbourhood.

Since the past two weeks of the lockdown though, when she realised that her needle and thread wouldn’t earn her enough to put warm meals on plates for her daughters, she had “no choice but to step outside, wearing the burqa – and beg.”

“At first, I was really ashamed. But now, I have accepted that I’m doing this. I’m begging. It is for my children,” she says, clinking the coins in her hand. Walking around the city from 9 am to 4 pm, she barely collects a hundred rupees a day.

Back at home, the ration stock is over. Her children, who used to go to a government school – now sitting at home – are awaiting their mother’s return, to have the once-in-a-day meal that she prepares for dinner.

Initially, before her venture for food, her 8-year-old daughter would stop her – asking questions. She would tell her, “I’m going out to get food. I will try my best.”

Meanwhile, the other woman walks over to listen in – Rafiqa Bano, in her late-50s, a resident of Rainawari. Her husband and 19-year-old son, who sell hand-made cloth bags to shops, among other daily-wage jobs, have been struggling to meet ends since the revocation. To do whatever little that she can to add to the family’s income, she too, took to begging, a month ago.

“During the initial days [since clampdown], one wouldn’t see anyone out on the streets. I was too scared to step out,” she says. “But now, with the little money I get, we are able to at least buy a few rotis each day.”

While attempting to console Ms. Jan, she too breaks down; arms raised towards the sky, Ms. Bano sighs, “Only Allah will save us now.”

With small-scale businesses like that of the families of Ms. Bano and Ms. Noora trampled upon in the lockdown, people have taken to desperate means to earn. According to a report by The India Today in August 2019, quoting a member of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI), the average loss of business per day owing to the clampdown is at least 175 crore rupees.

I’m going out to get food. I will try my best.

Moreover, with the communication blockade in place, for over a month now, in the Valley, people are still trying to cope; youngsters are still getting familiar with the feel of a long telephone handle against the ear; people who run businesses outside the Valley are desperately trying to reach their families.

Weighing the odds

On the night of 4 August, Razia Ahmad, 23, talked over the phone from Srinagar to her husband, Rahim Khan, 30, who survives on a livestock business in Rajouri area of Jammu region. She then slept through the night while the communication blockade quietly engulfed J-K; little did she know that it would be three weeks before she could contact him again.

Ms. Ahmad and her eighteen-month-old baby, Shubana, live near the Nowgam bypass in Srinagar. The family of three came to the Valley six months ago – to earn a living – after which Mr. Khan has been traveling to and from Rajouri to look after his livestock business. Now, owing to the lockdown – and bad timing – he is stuck there since 5 August, while his wife and daughter are miles away.

Every day, Ms. Ahmad hoists her baby on her waist, a feeding bottle in one hand and a weighing machine in the other, and comes to Lal Chowk and sits down by the roadside.

I’m trying to get to Srinagar to take you back home. But I’m not able to do so as the situation is really bad.

The baby, with big, kohl-rimmed eyes, looks up, amused, as people tower over and step on the machine to check their weight – five rupees per reading. Sometimes, when she is bored and throws tantrums, Ms. Ahmad makes her sit on the machine (it reads five kilograms), which seems to please her – a toothless smile.

The child’s pants are soiled with piss and it won’t be until six in the evening that her mother will take her back to the bypass and change her into clean clothes. With the few hundreds she earns every day, Ms. Khan buys food and essentials for her child. “I have to sit here for the whole day and earn. It is going to be winter soon and I need to buy warm clothes for her,” she says, rocking her baby. “I don’t know when my husband will come here.”

Ms. Ahmad had contacted her husband from a government office this week. He had told her, “I’m trying to get to Srinagar to take you back home. But I’m not able to do so as the situation is really bad.”

“I will come soon, I promise,” he hung up.

This story originally appeared in the 30 September – 6 October 2019 print edition of The Kashmir Walla.

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