On a busy street of Srinagar city, Mohammad Sonu Shah, 18, walks up to a passer-by and begs him to drop a penny in a cotton bag hanging around his neck. So has been the daily schedule and lifestyle of Mr. Shah for the past four years in Kashmir Valley.

On a fateful day of 2011, while walking back home in Purnia district of Bihar, Central India, Mr. Shah was electrocuted by a live-electricity wire. He lost both his arms in the accident and hasn’t been to school ever since. 

The subsequent treatment was costly for his father, a small-time tailor by profession. Not much later, the father also met with an accident and damaged his spinal cord — barring the means to earn anything. 

I don’t have arms — but if someday I get a chance to pay back to the people here, I will.

To take care of his family of six — parents and four siblings — Mr. Shah, along with a friend, in 2016, came to Kashmir for the first time looking for means to earn enough to support his family. Here, he ended among the 70,506 disabled beggars in the country, as accounted by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment.

“Unlike Bihar, Kashmir is a Muslim dominated place and I feel safe here,” says Mr. Shah, sitting on a bench and sipping a hot cup of tea. “I don’t have arms — but if someday I get a chance to pay back to the people here, I will.”

But the region’s political uncertainty gave him his share of setbacks. In the 2016 summer uprising, after the killing of a militant commander, Burhan Wani, he had to leave; only to return later helplessly. 

Everyone thinks I don’t have arms but they all are wrong. People around me are my arms.

After spending the entire day in the Soura neighbourhood of Srinagar, Mr. Shah returns to his ailing father, who would wait for him in a rented room in Rangil village, Ganderbal in central Kashmir, shared with another non-local laborer.

Despite facing problems, Mr. Shah always sports a smile on his face and socializes to make more friends. He has walked past the point of questioning — why me? “Everyone thinks I don’t have arms but they all are wrong,” he says, grinning. “People around me are my arms.”


Mohammad Sonu Shah posing for a photograph near an auto in Srinagar. Photograph by Bhat Burhan
An old ma giving money to Mr. Shah. Photograph by Bhat Burhan
Mohammad Mansoor Shah showcasing the disability certificate of his son issued by the Social Welfare Committe of Bihar. Photograph by Bhat Burhan
Mr. Shah having tea. Photograph by Bhat Burhan

Bhat Burhan is a Multimedia Reporter at The Kashmir Walla.

The photo-essay was published in our 9-15 March 2020 print edition.

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