“Kashmir is worse than hell!”
The 31-year old well-built man sat across the sparkling stones and jewellery neatly organised on the glass table at “Shabnam Arts” in Spencer plaza. With an equally measured amount of melancholy and apathy, Aarif Ahmed Khan, the shopkeeper exclaimed, “Kashmir is no longer a heaven; it is burning; it is boiling; it is worse than hell!”
Seated in the store filled with rainbow coloured pashmina shawls, embroidery work and stacks of extensive clothes and jewellery, two Kashmiri men poured their hearts out about growing up in Kashmir, the atrocities faced, their tales of migrating to Chennai and much more. These men have accepted the conditions in Kashmir like an unavoidable conflict. If there existed eternity, these men foresee nothing but reinforced violence till eternity in that part of the nation which was once known as “The Paradise of India”. Amid picturesque scenes carved by nature which defines the topography of Kashmir, common people reek with helplessness, blood-stains, bullet marks and pellet injuries.
People like Aarif Ahmed Khan and his ally 23-year old Irfan Sheikh have the shadow of despair and agony in their eyes whenever asked about Kashmir. They were redundant in their requests to visit Kashmir, each time enforcing that one cannot measure the magnitude of pain in the valley unless they see it.
Aarif: “If you come to Kashmir, you won’t be able to hold back your tears. You will want to kill yourself. There is so much military that not even a bird is free in Kashmir.”
Irfan: “Come to Kashmir and you will find people dying in front of your eyes. People being dragged out of their houses, harassed, injured and killed.”
Aarif took little breaks to explain the nuances of their business in Chennai. The hook-work embroidery carpets, the needle-work shawls, Pashmina work and jewellery which came from Jaipur, Rajasthan. Pashmina is what one might refer to as a delicacy, double star-marked in a restaurant menu. It is specific to Kashmir and old men aged 60–70 make these little pieces of wonder-clothes which are priced upto Rs.1–2 lakh INR in the market. Pashmina work requires patience, only provided by the serenity that comes with old-age.
He expressed his concerns about the loss of supply due to the 4-month long turmoil in Kashmir since 8th May, 2016 after the killing of Burhan Wani. Most of their customers are ‘foreigners’- the colloquial term for people beyond the national boundaries of India, mostly hailing from France, Germany, USA and England. Certain aristocrat Indian families with jingling pant pockets also visit their stores. With a disgusted lip-twitch and crooked eyebrows, Aarif criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s demonetization policy.
“Modi’s sudden decision to make 500 and 1000 rupee notes ineffective has driven a lot of foreigners away. Lot of them have gone back to their countries,” he said, explaining why there were no customers flowing in.
These occasional breaks when he spoke about his business would inadvertently be cut short as all he wanted to talk about were his experiences in Kashmir as he grew up. These two Kashmiri men, nestled comfortably in their air-conditioned shops in Chennai — an environment they call, “safer than Kashmir” — were desperate for their voices being heard; their tales told.
Aarif and Irfan grew up in the city of Srinagar and went to school and college like any other child growing up in an urban set-up. But what was different for them was that they saw people being killed, bullets being fired, and their friends being beaten up by the Indian army and police forces. The violence became overbearing and they migrated to Chennai to look after the family business established 50–60 years ago by Aarif’s grandfather.
Aarif looked at the tube-light with a slanting glance and in a distant voice narrated that he misses his friends and family in Kashmir. He didn’t want to leave Kashmir as he was never interested in the family business. He was satisfied with his job as a medical-representative in a company named “Full Ford” in Kashmir. He had the essential skills as he finished his college from “M.L Higher Secondary College” after he ended school in “Muslim Public School” in Srinagar.
“I worked for six years in Full Ford and they paid me well. The salary hiked from Rs.12000 to Rs. 25000 in 6 years as I did well and enjoyed my work.”
But his life in Kashmir was cut short when 50,000 protestors took to the streets to protest against the Indian Government’s decision to give 99 acres of forest land to the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board to build facilities for the Hindu pilgrims in 2008. The unrest in Srinagar wherein 6 people were killed and almost 100 injured in the open firing by Indian police forces, also took away the sales from Aarif’s company. Unable to find an alternate source of income, he had to let go off his hometown like a mother releases a child as he/she steps into adulthood.
Aarif entered the world of colourful embroideries in Chennai six years ago with a heavy heart and tales of Kashmir which did not interest anyone. He says that amid the unrest post Burhan Wani killing, he has been restless to contact his family amid the shutdown. The 3-month long internet and phone shutdown made him cringe as he travelled in his car from his house in Nelson Manikkam road to the store every day. The media flooded with explicit pellet-injury scenes and dead bodies instilled a fear in his heart. Every morning as he came to the shop at 11am and attended customers from foreign land, his heart worried for friends and family left behind.
He recalled an incident from his college days; an incident which taught him what humiliation could feel like in his youthful days. Aarif would have been a fair-skinned handsome man in his teens and he described that he had shoulder-length hair which he fashioned with a bandana. As he was walking back from college with his friends, an army man stopped him to enquire about his identity proof. The army-man taunted his hair-style, attacking his symbol of pride in youth. He shuddered in disgust and ‘thud’ came a slap from the army-man on his face. The slap had pierced his heart and he could not stop crying that night.
Irfan stood in a corner silently, nodding his head to most of the things that Aarif narrated. His silence was snapped by Aarif’s slap and his eyes broadened. He interrupted by pointing his slender fingers to the region above his right elbow and said, “My friend was shot here”. Moving his index finger to the stomach, he repeated, “Another one got shot here and instantly died.” He was part of a group pelting stones at the army-men in protest against AFSPA in 2012. Within minutes, the air in Srinagar had bullets flying. As he was escaping, he saw five boys drop dead in front of him.
“If we threw stones, they could throw stones in retaliation. Why bullets? And we didn’t throw stones for nothing. The Indian army randomly raided our houses, picking up innocent people for interrogation late into the night. Some of the men they picked up never returned. They killed our friends and injured our people. These were innocent people in the neighbourhood. We were angered enough to throw stones. But all they gave us were bullets, pellets, tear gas and batons,” said Irfan almost without pausing, in one breath.
Irfan was sent to Chennai two years ago when his father understood the futility of the struggle in Kashmir. He dropped out of college during his first year to work as a helper in the shop. He comes to the shop every day at 9.30 am, sets it up and helps Aarif with the customers in the day.
The owner and the helper only get to taste Kashmir through a Kashmiri cook who prepares their meal at their homes in Chennai. The conjured up black and white nostalgia define their existence amid the array of kaleidoscopic display of expensive cloth and jewellery. They long to go back to Kashmir, yet know that it is much ‘safer’, economically and politically, to stick to Chennai. Aarif looked up at the ceiling, fixed his vacant gaze and sighed, “I yearn for people to recognize Kashmir as paradise again, but deep within I know that’s a hopeless dream, a mirage that slips away every time we seek it.”