In the recent past, people from Sheikhpora travelled across Kashmir with their handmade winnows. They were much-sought after artisans around. But now, they are caught between abject poverty and baffling blindness.
On the banks of the roaring Lidder River, a hamlet is apparently suffering from a curse. Sited at some 22km from southern Kashmir’s Islamabad town, villagers here are losing their eyesight to a ‘mystery blindness’, and are being pushed to a forsaken state.
The description might sound sensational, but Sheikhpora is all that, and perhaps more.
In this pastoral community, the wretched-looking inmates continue to live in single-room mud houses with thatched roofs. The hamlet would once house a contended class of traditional winnow-makers. They would go around the valley, and provide winnows to families, for removing chaff from grain. But with time, most of them were rendered blind.
Many blamed their toiling task, which at times wouldn’t even be enough to fire their hearths, for the illness. Some tend to believe it has something to do with their lifestyle. Others say it is the contaminated water which is causing the blindness.
Fazi Begum wakes up to the same lifestyle every morning.
At 65, she routinely puts a pitcher on her head and goes to the nearby Lidder River—the waters of which aren’t the same because of rampant pollution—to fetch water for drinking and cooking food.
On her return, she prepares tea on a hearth, torched with scraps of firewood that she collects a day before.
Ever since she lost her husband, a winnow-maker, she has been struggling to survive, fighting her widowhood. Inside her dingy house, she lives with her 25-year-old ailing daughter, Sarwa.
With cracked walls, messy utensils and long faces, the gloom of her shelter becomes ominous.
“We don’t have any source of income. We depend on others,” says Fazi, avoiding eye contact. “My husband died when my daughter was just an infant. My son was a small kid then. He now lives separately.”
After her husband’s death, Fazi took up the winnowing work and would go to peoples’ houses, to work and earn bread for the family.
But a few years back, the winnow-maker’s curse struck the widow. She developed a disease in her left eye, clouding her sight, and eventually rendering her blind in one eye. It forced her to quit winnowing.
“We were not financially well off, else I wouldn’t have lost my eyesight,” says Fazi, in her broken voice. “My other eye still has some sight. I can see a little in the day. But when the sun is down, I can’t go outside, I can’t see anything.”
She has been diagnosed with a chest ailment too, and has been advised to stay away from dust and smoke. But she doesn’t seem have a choice.
“I don’t have an option,” she says. “Rice winnowing is what helps me earn.”
Her daughter is around, sitting silent and sullen. She wears a frail body structure, an apparent sign of their poverty. Like her mother, Sarwa too is unwell, suffering from persistent headache, and thyroid.
“We can’t afford medicines for ourselves,” the distraught daughter says. “I prefer to go to a Hakeem in a nearby village, rather than a doctor.”
At times, because of poverty, the mother-daughter duo skip their meals. “This is not something new to us,” Sarwa scoffs. “At times, we remain out of food for days together.”
In desperation, Fazi often visits her neighbouring village to collect a bag of rice from a generous woman. “Two days back, I received two to three kilos of rice from her,” says Fazi, gesturing toward a tote-bag on the windowsill.
In Sheikhpora, a majority of the 33 families face a similar condition. Most of them lack basic facilities, like toilets.
Some years back, the villagers say, a tube-well was installed in the hamlet, now lying defunct. As a result, the villagers consume water from the Lidder River.
The polluted waters of Lidder, especially after the Amarnath pilgrimage is over, has in the past triggered a wave of water-borne diseases in many downstream villages. Whether the blindness at Sheikhpora is occurring due to contaminated water remains a matter of medical investigation, but the problem is grave.
At the moment, most of the winnow-makers of Sheikhpora can no longer continue their ancestral work. Like Fazi, many of them have already lost their eyesight.
Beeba, 75, lives a few yards away from Fazi’s house. She too dwells in a single-room mud house, along with her 45-year-old blind son, Ghulam Mohi-Ud-Din Sheikh.
“This house will collapse anytime,” Beeba says, sitting in her dark room with her meditative, sightless son. “I need some tin sheets so that I can build a shed for my blind son. I’ll die happy then.”
The mud floor of Beeba’s room is covered with shredded straw and two tattered mattresses, on which, the mother-son duo sleep.
Six years back, her winnow-maker son lost eyesight, in both the eyes.
“That day, he had routinely returned from his work. He just suddenly couldn’t see,” grieves Beeba. “We took him to several hospitals but nothing helped. We even took him to Amritsar, twice, with the support of our neighbours, but we came back disappointed.”
Her son’s sightlessness has literally broken her back. She barely steps out of the house now.
With weak legs and arms, she looks feeble. “Mohi-Ud-Din was my pampered child,” Beeba says , “but to my ill luck, he too fell to the blindness.”
With the blindness, poverty has struck these families. And in the absence of aid, the winnow-makers of Sheikhpora have become an abandoned lot. But their plight has already thrown a worrying pattern. Many lost their eyesight, gradually; others, suddenly.
The cause of the illness, or its linkages to water and their profession cannot be found out without medical expertise. But the condition of the people here deserves immediate attention. While many are suffering in darkness, a few still believe that someone will come to their rescue.
Yasir Zargar contributed in this story.
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