A Kazak In Kashmir

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She was studying in Kazakhstan where she fell in love with a Kashmiri medical student. Finally, they landed in Kashmir where the Kazak bride built her new business, Farzana Nisar reports

Kareena, a Kazakh runs a cosmetic shop in Kulgam.

In Kulgam’s crowded main market, a cosmetic store runs from a complex’s ground floor: Zara Cosmetics. It is just another cosmetics store in the town. The only difference is that it is being run by a Kazakh.

Kareena, 33, sits on her chair behind the counter and greets her customers with a smile and warm wishes. Dressed in Pheran with a scarf wrapped around her head, she looks like any other Kashmiri girl, but as she starts to converse, her accent offers the glimpse of a lingual distinction.

Born and brought up in a Muslim family in Kazakhstan, Kareena is married to a Kashmiri, hailing from Devsar village. She did her early schooling from a local school in her vicinity. Then, she studied Economics at a technology university and business in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan.

It was during her higher studies that she met her soul mate, Dr Sajad Sikander, who was pursuing his MBBS in the same city. Kareena and Sartaj’s paths first crossed at a mutual friend’s birthday bash. Both had to travel through the same street and used to meet frequently. The couple fell in love and finally decided to marry.

On completing her post-graduation, Kareena joined a private firm as an audit manager. Sartaj too completed his degree and decided to return home. He offered Kareena to come along and meet his family in Kashmir. Overwhelmed with happiness, Kareena took leave for a few days from her company and both flew to Kashmir.

“My family knew Sartaj very well as he used to visit us often, but I was yet to be introduced to his family,” says Kareena.

Kareena says that Sartaj’s family wholeheartedly welcomed her and proved to be a great host. During the same visit in 2009, the couple got married with the consent of both the families.

“My aunt played the role of an interpreter,” Kareena remembers. “She knew a bit of English and that made it easy for my family in Russia to communicate with my in-laws and the Moulvi sahib.”

Three days after the Nikah, Kareena went back to Russia, as her sanctioned leave was about to end. A few months later, Sajad too shifted to Russia. Meanwhile, Kareena got her degree translated from Russian to English. “My husband thought that doing so will make me eligible for a job in India,” she said.

Soon the couple was blessed with a baby girl. They named her Safia. Once on their visit to Kashmir, Safia’s health deteriorated and Kareena’s mother-in-law decided to take over the responsibility of her granddaughter.

“She was one year old when my mother-in-law desired to keep her here in Kashmir. I had full belief that she, along with my sister-in-laws’, would take good care of her. So I left for Russia without Safia”, says Kareena. The couple used to visit their family once a year. Unable to adjust to the climatic conditions especially in winters, Kareena was never able to stay for long.

Safia was admitted to a local school in Kulgam, and it became difficult for Kareena to take her along to Russia. “Whenever I used to take her to Russia she had to face a lot of problems,” Kareena said. “Moving from one culture to another and abrupt change in language was very confusing for such a little child. Also, I had to make sure that her studies do not suffer.”

Considering her in-law’s love towards her and her husband, Kareena made an important decision. In July 2017, she migrated to Kashmir permanently. But the major challenge for Kareena was to communicate and learn the native language. For about six months, she didn’t understand anything. Slowly word by word, she started to decode Kashmiri.

“I used to listen to others attentively and note down the words in my diary. Later, with the help of my husband or sister-in-laws’ I used to inquire about their usage and meaning,” a smiling Kareena said. About a year later, she is able to structure a sentence easily. “Although I cannot speak fluent Kashmiri I understand almost everything.”

Defying distance, language and culture, Kareena fully embraced peripheral Kashmir life. She says that she stopped wearing all the clothes she used to wear in Russia.

To mitigate the boredom she felt from being at home, her father-in-law, Mohammad Sikander Sofi, a retired master, suggested Kareena start a business of her own. Thousands of miles away from home and family, with little or no contact except Whatsapp, she felt it enough to make the toughest of a businesswoman. After discussing various business ideas, they finally decided to set up a cosmetics shop catering to the woman and named it Zara Cosmetics, after the name of Kareena’s younger daughter, Zara Sartaj. “My husband wanted me to have a sales girl in the shop, but I refused, saying that I will get used to it and learn nothing by myself,” she said.

Since then, Kareena has been successfully able to manage her business single-handedly. In a span of just four months, curious customers mainly woman have started to flock to this newly opened store. Kareena believes that it is because of her shop that women are able to come out and speak comfortably about their needs to a woman shopkeeper. “We prefer her shop to any other shop that is owned by a male,” Majidah, one of her customers, said. “She happily attends her customers with her unique accent, and that is what attracts us the most.”

Kareena with her daughters Safia and Zara.

According to Kareena, she is constantly on the hunt for new stock and knowing her customers is at the centre of her business. “When you know the customer intimately, I think that makes it much easier to grow your own business,” she said. Her store offer products ranging from branded Makeup and skincare to beauty accessories. It also has a collection of fashionable scarves and bags to cater to a wider clientele.

Kareena believes that working in Kashmir is not difficult as far as the safe environment of the valley is concerned. “My neighbour shopkeepers are very cooperative and treat me with respect,” she said. “They help me with opening and closing my shop. I am very thankful to them for making me feel comfortable.” She acknowledges their efforts in making her business bloom.

Kareena is happy with her in-laws. Having lost her mother at the age of six, she believes that she found a new loving and caring mother in her mother-in-law, Shakeela Banu.

“We had a lot of communication barriers initially, but she never let our relation get bitter. She treats me like her own daughter,” Kareena said. Praising her father-in-law, Kareena says that without his help, she wouldn’t have been able to figure out the hidden businesswoman in her.

“It was he who funded my business in the beginning, because he believed in me.” Recalling the time when she faced problems in communicating with other family members, Kareena says that her father-in-law at times even guided her in the kitchen. “I have been lucky to go through the colourful experience of being a part of a Kashmiri family,” an emotional Kareena added.

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