Forty-one-year-old Ali Mohammad Baba sat idle in his shop in Noorbagh area of Srinagar, from where he provides tents, copper utensils, coolers on rent, mainly for wedding functions. The bulk of his earnings are made during the wedding season but even as weddings continue to take place, there have been fewer customers in recent months.
Mr. Baba runs the Baba tent house in four shops; each shop has multiple shelves to stack his goods, however, only for the brief few hours that they are returned from one family and before another rented those out, he said. Every year, about 300-500 families would rent his goods.
Today, the shelves are stacked with plastic baskets, several rolls of white sheets, and many other shelves are filled with bone china plates, copper utensils, coolers, tablecloths, and many other items that are required in marriages. Some are even laid down on the floor. “I used to earn around 35 lakh rupees every season. Now, we are not earning any profit,” said Mr. Baba.
Weddings in Kashmir are a grand affair, involving a series of rituals observed at the bride as well as the groom’s residence. Huge rented pandals (temporary structure used for gatherings at events) and tents are clustered in the lawns or open areas to host, usually, 400-500 guests. Traditional cuisine, wazwan, is served and shared by four guests on a large traem (copper plates) laid down on long spreads of a white tablecloth.
However, in the last two consecutive seasons — from April till September — celebrations at several marriages in Kashmir have been downsized, earlier because of the clampdown in August 2019 and later, after the outbreak of the coronavirus prompted not only another lockdown but the fear of the disease’s spread in large gatherings.
The seven months-long shutdown, beginning August 2019, was extended further as COVID-19 lockdown on 19 March 2020. Many customers of Baba tent house had booked the items for their ceremonies but were forced to cancel them because of the clampdown.
Mr. Baba is preparing to close again as the wedding season is nearing its end, with the onset of Kashmir’s harsh winters. “In the lockdowns, when our shops were closed we couldn’t provide transportation for our items to customers [who still required tents] as transport was shut, we used to turn down our customers,” he said. “We even returned the advance money to our customers.”
Mr. Baba has received booking of only twenty wedding ceremonies this year as compared to 400-500 weddings every season. “Earlier, there used to be huge wedding celebrations and we used to give a lot of items on rent,” said Mr. Baba, adding that from last year wedding celebrations are scaled-down and only close family is invited. “We hardly give anything on rent to them.”
As a result, Mr. Baba’s profits have taken a nosedive. It‘s not just the drop in the number of bookings but the rents Baba tent house used to take earlier for services also went downhill this year. “We used to take rent of about 100,000 rupees extending up to 300,000 rupees but this year, we have been taking 4000-10000 rupees per wedding,”
Mr. Baba hails from a Zamindar family of Barthana, Qamarwari, and has been in the rental business for the past twenty-five years. Over time, his rental business has become one of the leading names in providing essentials for weddings and other large gatherings such as funerals.
Before the successive lockdowns, Mr. Baba had a team of ten but currently, he has only three workers. “We used to give our workers 700 rupees per day. Now the new ones don’t take as much but there is really less work,” said Mr. Baba as he looked at the rolled carpets lying on the floor of his shop.
This season, Mr. Baba has earned 150,000 rupees, from which he has to pay the salary of his team besides managing his family’s expenses. “I couldn’t even pay the school fee of my children on time,” he said, shaking his head.
“Our hopes are tied with next year now”
As every other business sector experienced loss in Kashmir for the past one year, the servicing sector has also been hit badly. “Like other sectors, I think people who are associated with the service sector have not earned anything this year,” said Sheikh Aashiq, President of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI).
Mr. Aashiq said that there is actually no cash flow in the market. “Though we have unlocked our shops we have very less reported businesses. We have information that out of 100 percent there is a 25 percent running business in the market right now,” he said, adding that it is because of the pandemic and the less cash that people have now. “Whatever capital was left with people, they have spent it over the year because they haven’t been running their business since August last year.”
Mr. Aashiq believes that there is definitely very little spending on marriages as well because people have no income. “People are trying to save money if they have. They are only spending 30 out of 100 on their weddings this year,” he said, adding that obviously means the business of the service sector has turned out less.
When Kashmir was about to come out of the first lockdown of seven months, another lockdown started. “It’s not just the pandemic. Our situation is different. we have come down from one lockdown to another,” said Mr. Aashiq, adding that Kashmiris suffered because of the constant lockdowns.
Mr. Baba, who always used to be busy and had very little time for his personal life during the wedding season now waits on a fancy red colored chair in the corner of his shop for a customer to show up. “Our customers used to be countless and we used to be really busy at work in these four months but currently, it’s not the same,” he said, disappointment clearly visible on his face.
“I think we are going to take some time to revive now. It can’t happen this year at least,” said Mr. Baba, adjusting his dark blue shirt’s collar. “Our hopes are tied with next year now. Let’s see.”
The story originally appeared in our 21-27 September 2020 print edition.