The Doordarshan ground of Ahmedabad is normally a deserted place where a couple of driving learners can be found along with a few stray cattle. But the same dreary place comes to life during the Navratri period not because of the Garba revelry but for the iconic Bengali Durga Puja Pandal. And, yes.. the ground also witnesses some sporadic handloom handicraft fairs scattered through the year.
I still vividly remember one such handloom exhibition meant to promote the local looming skills of artisans from different states. It was one such scorching afternoon of June 2013 and I was coming back from my workplace which was near to that field. The big banners of beautiful sari-clad models compelled me to get down from the vehicle and to have a look of this happening place. I strolled through the various stalls only to find that it was beyond my human competence to pierce through the thick crowd at most of the counters. Most of the tables showcasing the exclusive handwoven fabric had a minimum of 3 layers of customers asking for their choice to the shopkeepers.
The handloom saris and dress materials at the stalls of Punjab, Bengal, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh were packed like a can of sardines. The stalls of Madhubani painting of Bihar, Worli Art of Maharashtra, Kalamkari sari of Andhra Pradesh and mural canvas of Kerala were not approachable for a frail mortal being like me. That’s why I was giving a miss to almost all the hot favourite counters of the exhibition. Due to the crowd and commotion, there was absolutely no point in continuing, as such I had come till the end of one aisle of the exhibition so, I decided to go back to my car and run the AC at the maximum strength due to the signature hot-humid summer afternoon of Ahmedabad.
I decided to take the exit route and as I took the left turn, I was greeted by a tall bearded handsome fellow named Iqbal. He insisted that I visit his adjacent stall exhibiting Kashmiri items. To my great dismay, not a soul was there at his stall. But, as I had become a bit disenchanted by the whole scenario, I immediately asked for his apology. Otherwise, also, I was getting late and was not interested to appreciate or buy any woollens especially pashmina shawls at 43 degree Celsius of Gujarat. But, Iqbal again insisted politely with a helpless smile, I could not decline his request this time and unwillingly went to his counter. The shop was beautifully decorated with some of the choicest handicraft items and clothes. As I was wearing a sari that day, he thought I may like his crape sari collection with awesomely intricate embroidery.
I told him that it was not a good idea to wear crapes in this season but he was quick to say, “Madamji, the season of the sun would ultimately be followed by winters. You can wear them then.” But I replied, “In Gujarat, we have 10 months of summer and 2 months of spring. That’s it.” And then we both broke into hearty laughter. He, being a true salesman, was audacious enough to ask me to buy a Pashmina shawl. I quipped, “Have you gone crazy? A person, who is not ready to buy the crêpe sarees due to the climatic condition will buy a pashmina shawl from you? He said, Yes!!! “because, pashmina is not just a piece of clothing but an asset to cherish for a lifetime, an investment for the future generation”.
I was aware of the knack of the pushy selling tactics of the shopkeepers yet, I did not reveal what I was truly thinking. I asked the price of a black shawl which was hanging in the corner. He said, that that was the best piece he had in the stall as it was prepared by his mother. He removed the hanger from the shawl and handed that to me.
It was undoubtedly divine to touch and feel. It had an intricate all-over ‘jaal’ design with multicolour threads. I could not resist my temptation to buy that. I again asked for the price, pat came the reply from Iqbal “8000 rupees”. “That is expensive,” I said. “ Who will buy such expensive this stuff especially meant for chilly winters, and unsuitable for places having warm temperatures all around the year”? His reply to my question surprised me. He said, “no Madamji..that is not the case, many people from Hindustan buy our shawls and use them”.
I was literally seething with anger after hearing his reply. I consider myself a true nationalist to the degree of being labelled as hyper-nationalist on various platforms of social media by the so-called “liberals”. I retorted him, “what do you mean by people of Hindustan? Aren’t you a Hindustani as well? Aren’t you taking part in this exhibition which is a government of India project? Aren’t other shopkeepers present here, Hindustanis? Have you taken any visa for visiting here? Why don’t you have the same emotion of Indianess as me or as rest of us?”
Iqbal was not prepared for such ballistic warfare with his customer. He tried his level best to undo the damage. Perhaps, he was in the habit of uttering the same sentence quite often and people did not take any exception to his stance. But with me having a raw deal was not possible. He tried to placate things by saying, “Madamji, don’t get me wrong, I’m not good in Hindi. I might have hurt your sentiments for which I’m genuinely sorry. I offer my heartfelt apology to you. What I meant was, that India is a vast country with different climatic setups”.
“In Gujarat, you may feel the heat today but tomorrow, you may visit Darjeeling, Shimla or Munnar and then you can flaunt your prized possession of pashmina at all these exquisite places.” I gave him the benefit of doubt and tried hard to maintain my surface calm though there were ripples of anger still inside me. I again cautioned him by saying “please be mindful in future. After all, you are also participating with the choicest artisan of the entire country at the same venue, thus no scope of discrimination.”
Coming back to the shawl, I again tried to bargain for the best price, he said, “Chalo, Madamji, aap Rs. 7,500 de dena khushi khushi”. He then explained how earning a livelihood was so difficult in the Kashmiri valley. He said, “we the male members of the family have nothing worthwhile to do, our ladies make shawls and paper-mache curio pieces and other handicraft items and we sell them outside that’s it!”
He then said machine/power looms have taken the place of manual labour, producing items at a 50% lower price. He added that the shawl is the last shawl made by his mother as her eyesight got seriously affected after making it. It takes approximately 6 month‘s to complete the embroidery of one shawl. Ladies lose their eyesight while preparing 2-3 shawls like this, while machines can make and complete such embroidery in just 2-4 days.
Iqbal was continuously speaking about the prevailing hopeless condition of the valley. At that moment, he wasn’t some pushy salesman, but an unprivileged-brokenhearted Kashmiri young man. At last, he said, “Madamji take this shawl with you and give the amount what you find appropriate”. His words evoked a mixed feeling in me. Meanwhile, Iqbal was clueless about my inner thought process, he was disappointed with my stony silence, he again offered me to take the shawl and offer the price suitable to me.
I was quick to pay 8000 rupees through my debit card. I added, “Please convey my regards to your beloved Ammi and also, let her know that customers love her pursuit of creativity. Iqbal was ecstatic. Looking at his beaming face, I asked for his leave and wished him ”Allah hafiz”. He returned my courtesy by bidding goodbye with a sheen in his eyes.
Though I had bought a beautiful shawl, I was not happy, I left that exhibition with a heavy heart and with many unanswered questions in my mind.
Why Kashmir doesn’t allow any kind of foreign or mainland Indian investment? Why there aren’t any globally standardised educational institution? Why is unemployment so rampant? Why are the Kashmiri youths being pushed into drugs out of depression and seclusion? Why do the pro-separatist Hurriyat leaders have the power to issue shutdown calls every now and then and disrupting the academic life and daily business? If a Kashmiri woman marries outside her community, why does she lose her status as a Kashmiri and all her rights to property in Kashmir? Why did the Kashmiri Pandits have to suffer genocide and subsequent exodus? Under what circumstances, children at the tender age instead of carrying schoolbags start pelting stones at our army men? What was the rationale behind imposing section 35(A) which debars the fellow citizens of other states from purchasing real estate properties in Kashmir? Why is this beautiful valley reduced to a ghetto of helpless natives?
Perhaps, the answer to most of the questions is only one and that is, the presence of article 370, which forbids Kashmir to a assimilate with the mainland India & making the state completely deprived of development and prosperity. The special status of Kashmir has proved to be a bane rather than a boon.
Iron Man of India, Sardar Patel did a commendable job in unifying 562 independent princely states & kingdoms into India. While the rest of the kingdoms had no problem with mainland India after the merger, Kashmir was treated as a separate entity. Kashmir became a wound with a toxic puss inside as it could never become a true part of India due to Art. 370. Ever wondered why the other princely states didn’t have any problem with the merger, and why did Kashmir have all the disgruntlement? This is simple as they didn’t have any special provisions or special status in the name of some complicated article 370 or section 35(A) bestowed upon them to isolate them.
Finally, the big day came and this historic mistake was undone with an announcement on the 5 August 2019 that the jinxed article 370 is abrogated and the state of J & K is bifurcated. This temporary provision was bound to go one day. Good riddance! With this news, the face of Iqbal suddenly surfaced into my memory. I visualised him smiling with joy in welcoming new dawn where from now on, he and many other promising youths like him will have a sustained source of an income through a host of buzzing economic activities.