After the 2014 floods devoured their lifetime savings and shelters, they sent their men for construction jobs while Kashmir was being rebuilt, and came out with walnut baskets. Four years later, they’ve became Nishat’s ‘wonder women’, whose survival stories tell us that Kashmiri women are second to none when it comes to supporting their families and putting food on the table during troubled times.
Khaki Mohalla of Srinagar’s Nishat area houses the traditional walnut trader tribe of Kashmir. Although the nut clan wears their forefathers’ vocation as a badge of honour, the two watershed events in last 30 years dented their trade beyond recovery of its bygone glory.
By the late eighties as the armed uprising erupted in Kashmir and the subsequent counterinsurgency response turned Kashmir into the “world’s most dangerous place”—as per former US President Bill Clinton, it suddenly suspended the high-end foreign tourist footfall.
Those high-profile visitors were the regulars of Nishat walnut traders. But once they stopped coming to the valley, the traders suffered a slump.
Years later, as Kashmir was in the middle of the new age insurgency, massive floods hit and ravaged the fates and fortunes—mostly in the summer capital, Srinagar. Overnight, the deluge created riches to rags stories. Among the worst sufferers was the Nishat’s walnut tribe.
“That was the moment when we were literally sitting on the heap of our life-time savings and possessions,” says Yasmeen, a middle-age woman who belongs to Nishat walnut traders. “There was no time for tears and lamentation. So, all of us, I mean the women, got together, and told our men: ‘Go, earn your day as labourers. We’ll take care of the walnut trade.’ ”
And soon, those deluge-hit women came out with baskets full of walnuts to sell them on the Nishat road. The step and the subsequent scene perhaps was another commemorative sign of Kashmir’s survival instinct in tough times.
Even as many parts of Kashmir were going through the rebuilding phase and huge flood losses had curtailed the purchasing power of people, these women stayed behind their family like a rock, and ended up creating a niche for themselves in a distressed market.
Four eventful Falls later, Yasmeen is shedding the green husk of walnuts with her smeared hands amidst the sweltering heat on the Nishat raod. Although seemingly wearing high spirits, she’s reluctant to talk about her ordeal. As part of the cultural attitude, these women don’t make much of their sacrifices and ordeals.
They begin their day after putting out their stockpile on the sidewalks that border the long stretch around the Dal Lake with their fervor and devotion.
While bargaining with customers, Yasmeen’s conduct displays the natural entrepreneurship skills of Kashmir women. “We’re doing this because this is our family business and we need to do it for our survival,” Yasmeen says making no bones about her street venture.
With the sun glare striking her eyes, she says her family has been in the trade for the last 50 odd years. But unlike the days of yore, these women regularly face clampdowns and curbs in the conflict zone, posing another challenge for their trade.
“We suffer due to regular restrictions,” Yasmeen continues. “The dwindling tourist rush is also making it a tough job. But then, we’ve to live another day. We must continue.”
However, beyond their workplace on the streets of Nishat, Kashmir’s worsening walnut industry is currently distressing these women. Although they turn up on the street amid sun, shower and snow, the way the government has introduced the imported California produce and 12% tax under the controversial GST, these walnut vendors are finding themselves in a tight spot.
“But do we have a choice,” asks Haleema, a middle-aged walnut seller. “I’m too old to switch my business now.”
As a buyer screeches halt his vehicle in front of her kiosk, Haleema begins her trade talk. “These ones are Rs 220/kg and the other ones are Rs 300/kg, as the quality varies,” she tells the customer in an exhausted voice.
“It’s a tiring job to convince the customers,” she continues, after the man leaves without buying anything. “Also, language is a problem to convince non-locals, given how my Urdu isn’t proper,” she giggles.
They might come across as any other street sellers, but their ability to manage both home and work make them ‘wonder women’ in their own way.
“I can’t eat my dinner at night because my hands burn due to the flaking of walnut cover,” Haleema continues. “I get my kid-daughter along with me in the morning and she sleeps right beside me as I can’t keep her alone in the house.”
But on the streets, it’s not always a cakewalk for them to convince customers, who habitually enter into bargaining first, buying later. With time, however, they’ve understood the pulse of the trade and buyers.
“I can’t afford to lose a customer as I need to go to home and feed my family,” Haleema says, matter-of-factly. “Life is tough.”
But even as these women slog daily, they have to face the societal perceptions and judgments for being working women who regularly ventures into the market.
“I don’t bother myself with that,” says Haja, a thirty-something walnut seller. “I’m proud that I’m able to do my bit for my family. Rest doesn’t matter for me.”
From a distance, they look graceful while striving hard to make their lives easier, and keep their family out of harm’s way. And given how these women created their own identity on the famed road strip of Kashmir makes their decision, post-2014 deluge to support their family, worth it.
“I wish our business gets better again, so that our lives will improve,” Haja’s eyes gleam in hope.
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