Burdened Backs

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As the season’s incident free Amarnath Yatra came to a close with nearly three lakh pilgrims paying their respects at the shrine cave deep into mountains of Pahalgam, Muhammad Younis spent some time with a collie to tell his story, rarely told and barely listened

Dark clouds have gathered up eclipsing the sun entirely. Not a single beam is able to sneak through the confetti. It seems it is about to rain. Muhammad Ayoub Sheikh speeds up a little. He has three more kilometres to go. Mounted on his neck is a bundle of 39 plastic tools. In order to save his neck from rashes and bruises, he has sandwiched his Pheran between the neck and the weight.

Sheikh’s receded hairline is evident beneath the edge of his Pheran’s collar, looped over his head. Although only 38, white has abundantly made its way into his hair, moustaches and beard. From his bony chest, the collar bones wing out in such a fashion that a deep cavity is made at the base of his throat. It can literally hold water. Although the temperature is only notches up from zero, his emaciated body sweats profusely. And, in fact, a part of it trickling down his face, coalesce in the cavity for a while. But because of his movement, the sweat tumbles down immediately, wetting his white shirt below. Over a period of time, the activity has rendered the colour of his neck down to the cavity into dark brownish.

It is second half of August 2018. By August 26, the Amarnath yatra will conclude. While pilgrims will return home with joyful memories of Kashmir, Sheikh will return to his with the anecdotes of straining every sinew to produce means of survival for his family: Rs 20,000. It would be the earning of his 45 days of hard work.

Mohammad Ayoub Sheikh

At Chandawari (Pahalgam), more than 100 kms south of Srinagar, for all this time, Sheikh spent his nights in makeshift tents in chilling cold. He has a Pheran, a sweater, a pant and a shirt with him. The grime built up on his clothes suggests he barely washes them. But he has reasons. There is no one to do the job for him. And if he does it frequently by himself, it would have a bearing on his earnings, so he keeps them as they are.

Hailing from the forests of Neeltop village, 12 kms away from Banihal, Sheikh had first come to Chandanwari in 2013, in search of work. From someone in his village, he had learned that during the Amarnath yatra (between June and August), there is plenty of work. Since then, each year, he has been working in these mountains for these particular two months.

“In my area, labouring for a day fetches Rs 350,” Sheikh says. “We could manage our living with this amount provided the work is available throughout the year. But the problem is that in a month, we get work for a maximum of two weeks. So we need to ferret out for work.”

For these two months, Sheikh has a routine. Early in the morning, with anything of the pilgrims mounted on his neck, Sheikh leaves for his destination on foot. It could be from mere 7-kms to Zojibal, 12-kms to Sheshnag, 16-kms to Mahagunas (MG Top), 25-kms to Panjtarni, or the entire track of 32-kms to the cave. He literally has to climb up or down the steep mountains; mostly at Pissu Top and MG Top. The narrow pavements are completely rutted. Moving a step up or down, the boulders make the footwear slip a little. Sheikh wears a pair of worn off plastic boots. They squelch at his every step. The only comforting companion throughout the journey is river Lidder. Once in a while, Sheikh washes his face or scoops out a draught of water to quench his thirst.

How many up-downs he could make, depends upon the distance to his destination. On an average, he makes a couple from and back to the base camp in Chandanwari. And if the distance is more, he may have to spend his night enroute. Until now, with the luggage and other belongings of the pilgrims, he has made two journeys to the cave. Each took him a day, and fetched him an amount of Rs 1200. He walked for an entire day; otherwise the same journey is usually covered by the pilgrims in two to three days.

“To cross MG Top and onwards, for a free person, it seems like your lungs are going to burst out because of the shortage of air,” Sheikh says. “Imagine the situation when you carry load.” Actually like Pissu Top, which is 3 and a half kilometres steep ascent, from Sheshnag, one has to climb five more kilometres across MG Pass and then descend to the meadows of Panjtarni on the other side, located at a height of 3,657 metres.

The day Sheikh revealed his existential struggle; his consignment of a vegetable sack had been to MG Top in the morning. From the base camp of Chandanwari, he had left at 6 am after having a cup of tea and a loaf of bread. Around noon, he reached to his destination, completely exhausted. His body needed some heavy food to rejuvenate its strength. But even if he craved like anything for the same, he had to show patience; otherwise an amount of Rs 100 would have been deducted from his day’s earnings. So he improvised on a mere cup of tea again, and set off for his journey back to the base camp.

“In a day, we get three cups of tea with bread or sweets, and in the evening, around 9 pm, a plate of rice. And for this, we are being charged Rs 150,” Sheikh says. “Lunch is unaffordable for me and many more of us.”

Like Sheikh, this year there were around 400 collies and pony wallas working at Chandanwari, earning their livelihood by carrying the belongings of the pilgrims and others. Every year more than two lakh pilgrims visit the cave. Mostly by foot, some of them do use choppers, horses, and palanquins.

A sea of horses surrounds the whole area. They wait patiently as their owners go fishing for passengers. They charge Rs 2000 for a ride. Meanwhile, helicopters go vroom over their heads. The pilgrims from rich families prefer a flight than riding a horse or journey on foot. A one way chopper trip costs Rs 3000 from Pahalgam to Panjtarni. The latter is the disembarkation point for the devotees who prefer the helicopters. From here, they too have to join with the others on foot or horse-ridden.

For coolies like Sheikh, finding work is a bit difficult. “It is better to hire a horse than a collie to carry your load,” he claims. “There is less opportunity of bargaining with the customers.”

It is on his way back at Zojibal where Sheikh gets the work of the tools to be ferried to the base camp at Chandanwari. The owner of a food stall offers him Rs 600 for a 7-kms trek. Sheikh can’t bargain much. He puts the load on his neck, and starts at 2pm. At 4:45pm, he shows up at Pissu Top. The rest of the journey, which is to go steep downhill, is going to be tough as usual. He has to field his feet on the pavements more cautiously. God forbid, if he stumbles a little, he will have to pay through his life.

Every year, during the yatra, many casualties occur due to landslides, suffocation, stumbling down the mountains, and medical problems. Last year, around 50 people died. This season, the toll of deaths was to 10. Two pilgrims and three pony wallas were also injured in a landslide.  The shrine board interventions are believed to be one of the reasons about the reduced number of casualties.

Only a little downhill the Pissu Top, Sheikh takes rest by the grave of a pony for a while. It was a week ago that the pony had died while climbing down the mountain. It is here that Sheikh narrates, why he is trying to make productive every second of his stay at Chandanwari.

A single room mud hut, situated on the slopes of the mountains of Neeltop, makes home to Sheikh’s family, comprising his wife and half a dozen children. His eldest son studies in tenth class and the youngest is his three years old daughter. In July when Sheikh came to Chandanwari, he gave Rs 5000 to his wife for the two months. He knew the amount was too little, but like him, his family has also learned to manage. “If they want to eat to satiation then it won’t do.”

 

Mohammad Ayoub Sheikh while carrying load of tools.

Few years ago, an unfortunate incident dried up the already meagre income Sheikh’s family had. Falling down the slope of the mountain near his home, Sheikh’s son, then in fourth primary, got severely injured; a broken branch from a fallen tree penetrated deep on one side of his belly. Doctors at Banihal hospital asked Sheikh to collect money for the surgery that needed to be carried out immediately. Selling two cows that supplemented the income of the house was the only option available. The surgery cost Rs 30,000. Unfortunately Sheikh’s son developed complications. In SMHS hospital in Srinagar, it turned out that the surgery had failed. He had to take a debt from his neighbours for another operation. It also failed. Though the third operation, at SKIMS Srinagar, was successful, Sheikh was inundated in debt. And now over the years, paying in instalments a part of the debt, he still owes an Rs 25000 to his kind neighbours. “From the earnings here, I still won’t be able to free myself from the whole debt,” he regretted.

 

Again Sheikh gets to his feet. “I’m done with health,” Sheikh, tying his sweater tight around his waist, says. “There is no strength left in me now.” Three persons, including this reporter, give hand to him in putting the load on. It is heavy. It won’t be less than 65 kgs. His chin sunk deep into his chest, he gasps: “There is not a moment when I don’t pray to Almighty that may my fate is never shared by my children.” Sheikh has a dream to see all of his children well educated, and prosper in their lives. “May the load of no one mount on their necks.”

The reporter doesn’t know how many times Sheikh had taken rest until reaching Pissu Top, but onwards to the base camp, he would take rest not less than eight times. And finally as he reaches to his destination, the skies melt into rain. It seems they were waiting for him only.

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