When a crisis hits a family, especially its head, what happens? In most of the cases, the wives desert them and settle somewhere else. Read the story of two aged women, perhaps the most known faces in Anantnag town, who have been selling vegetables door-to-door for decades to prevent their families from begging. Aged, now both of them have slowed down and are frequently aching, reports Farzana Nisar
Two aged women, both living in the periphery of the Anantnag town, choose not to bow to fate’s cruel ploys. They strive hard to make a living for their families. The toil of these female vegetable sellers who share almost a common tale is an inspiration and a question mark. Inspiration is that one can live a dignified life by putting in best efforts regardless of age and gender, and question mark on the society lacking any mechanism to prevent the aged from working in their years of life that demand rest.
Hameeda Banu, 67, a resident of Mirgund hamlet, is a known face for almost every household in the town. With crinkly skin, grey hair, weak eyes, frayed clothes and traditionally worn headgear, she is visibly old but is fighting her way forward. Hameeda starts her day at the crack of the dawn to pick up fresh vegetables from her kitchen garden and purchase the rest from the villagers, mostly her neighbours.
By around 6 am, she leaves her home to sell her produce door to door. Artfully balancing the weight of the vegetable-filled wicker basket on her head, she merrily greets and calls out to her customers. Her vocal chords are distinct and fresh, like that of a young hawker in the bus stand. She unloads her basket at the porch of the houses, mostly her routine customers.
Ironically, selling vegetables was never on Hameeda’s agenda. Born in a well to do family at Harnag, a town extension, she was married at an early age. Mohammad Ashraf Lone, her husband, was out of work but his family possessed few kanals of land. For about ten years, they would manage their lives by the produce of their land. In joint families, a member putting up less or no work is hardly distinguishable.
One day, Lone decided to separate from his parents. “I still remember the time when my children had nothing to eat and no clothes to wear,” Hameeda said. “My husband had no work to do. I felt so helpless. So I decided to work for my family.”
Hameeda remembers vividly, the first time she started towards the market. “ I took a basket full of radish and I returned home with a good amount,” she said. “That day, I made up my mind that I must become a vegetable seller.”
Even as her struggle to help her family have a dignified life took its own time. For many years, they had no house to live in. She sold all her ornaments, relics of her marriage and tokens of the good old days, and even the gifts from her father.
“Many years, after separating from our in-laws, we used to live in a tent like a room made with small logs of wood. When it rained, I used to cover it with polythene”, Hameeda said. “But then my sons were growing up, I had to sell my jewellery to construct our home.” It is still a single story house but it is what the home is all about.
Jana Begum is Hameeda’s next door neighbour. At around 73, she is witness to most of her life. “She was very young and beautiful when she got married,” Jana said. “The entire village crowded to see her. She stood for her family when they had no other support.”
Lone has nothing much to say other than showing gratitude towards Hameeda. Our life, he said, was confronted with many difficult situations and, always, Hameeda took the responsibility. “I don’t have words to thank her. She did things that I was supposed to do; she, in a real sense, proved to my soul mate,” Lone said, his eyes moist and grateful towards her.
Although Lone owns a small shop in the village now, Hameeda is unwilling to give her adopted profession. “This is my identity now. I am known as sabziwajin among all the people,” she insisted. “Why should I give it up at this time of my life? I don’t want to be dependent on my husband and ask for money when I still can earn myself.” But she admits her difficulties, the crisis of ageing. “I feel a change in my muscles and bones. I know I have slowed down. But I will sell vegetables till my health allows me.”
Barely three kilometres away lives Raja Begum in Anzwal, another dusky hamlet. Raja’s family also resides in one brick-mud-timber room. The gloomy four-walled room and her faded clothes portray the sad tale of her poverty. Her bright black eyes are full of confidence. Although she is in her late sixties, she speaks with the energy of a teenager.
Like Hameeda, she is also the known face. Every morning, after purchasing the vegetables from her neighbours, she leaves her home for a long day of hard work. As she passes through the streets of every mohalla, sabzihaa chow hoo in her signature tone, a call of her movement, and the vital supply that every home needs.
Unlike Hameeda, Raja Begum has a cart. She knows how to push it through narrow alleys. Every morning, it is full with lettuce, peas, beans, garlic, and onion. Every time someone stops her to buy vegetables, she takes a sigh of relief and wipes the sweat from her wrinkled forehead. Nearly two decades of hard work has caused her legs to develop frequent aches and her hands to debilitate. “My legs and back often pain a lot, but I can’t complain about my pain and stop working. This, after all, is the only source of our income,” she said.
Years ago, Raja got married to her speech impaired cousin, Ghulam Qadir Ganai who was a labourer. The couple was blessed with two daughters. Qadir’s earnings were meagre but the family of four happily lived hand to mouth. After he met an accident and was diagnosed with serious back problems, life turned upside down for the family. He had to stay indoors as he was not able to do any physical work. Raja found it difficult to meet both ends meet.
“We don’t have a son, so I had to take the responsibility of the family on my shoulders and mobilize funds for my husband’s treatment,” Raja said. “I had to feed my little daughters, so I decided to sell vegetables.”
The most painful sentence of her conversation was in her mother tongue: “Be Chas Neh Yawne Dreamech Kyenh, Beh Chas Taawne Dreamech.” Though translating it is quite a job but it means: “I have not come out of my home just for the lust of it but because of the turmoil in life.”
Wearing a thick support belt on his back, Qadir talks of the turmoil within him. It takes an effort to talk to him and more, to understand him. “Earlier I didn’t want her to go out for work but she refused,” Qadir said. “She could have left me but she stood by me through all ups and downs.”
The dignity of labour fetches its own beauties. With her own earnings, Raja Begum married her two daughters and preferred a son-in-law who lives at her bride’s home forever, in case of her elder daughter. Then there was a twist. After two years of marriage, Raja’s elder daughter left her parents and started living with her in-laws. The mother understands her daughter and has no grudges. “Perhaps my daughter didn’t want to live in this state of poverty, that’s why she left us,” Raja said. “After that, we were left all alone.” The old couple now lives with their nine-year-old grandson, Shahzad Ahmad.
Raja said she does not work for profit. Instead, she works for the work, to keep the hearth going. “Sometimes it takes me three or four days to realize some profit,” she said, says pointing to her cart, still half filled with vegetables. “Due to such low income, we haven’t been able to afford a mobile phone.”