In spite of being at the wrong level of social stratification, Kashmir’s traditional baking has always remained a roaring business. Sarmad Dev visits a village, deep north that owes its prosperity to the sleeplessness and hard work of its youth in Srinagar’s Kanderwans
Regardless of what the world has in breakfast, in Kashmir, it is the Kander Tchout, the traditional baker’s bread (Kashmiri baker is called Kandur). For ages, the bakery-abundant Kashmir is breaking the fast in the morning with Lavassa, tortilla-like bread, or Girda made in clay tandoors.
Early risers, these bakers start working well before the Mouazin calls for Fajr prayers and by the time the prayers are over, people crowd outside their shops to take the freshly-baked Tchout home. Every locality has a local baker and no baker caters to the requirements of less than 200-300 households. A smart estimation suggests that when Kashmir breaks the morning bread, it generates a turnover of no fewer Rs 70 lakhs.
Over the years, however, Kashmir’s obsessive compulsion of taking the job route to define its social stratification has pushed the crucial Kandur, like the handicrafts artisans and peasants, to a lower social order. Quite a few traditional bakers have stuck to the age-old job and migrated to the Western bakery or other professions leaving a vacuum, now being filled by the professionals moving in from Kashmir periphery.
For countless villages, which had adopted traditional bakery as their main profession, it is a huge change-maker on the upward mobility curve. A sunrise sector, it does matter in peripheral social divisions, which are natural and uncomplicatedly fluid.
A Dusky Village
Dangerpora is one such village. Located almost 65 km, north of Srinagar, deep into the lush green Sangrama belt, this visibly prosperous village is one of the major bulk suppliers of the bakers to Srinagar city.
Residents said the village is home to about 1700 people in 350 households and about 97 per cent of people have moved out to Srinagar to run their baking shops. This village has less than 10 individuals working for the government. Quite a few people work in fields. This is the tradition of the village for around 60 years now.
As the car moves on a pot-holed feeding road from the impressive highway, Dangerpora literally emerges out of nowhere as a beautiful settlement with a concrete house and not so unclean alleys. Apparently, every household owns some transport as non-locals workers are busy in the local mosque construction.
Residents rue the absence of the hospital and other public utilities. For some of them, who frequently visit and live in Srinagar, the lack of facilities is felt deeply. “Our road gets worse when it snows and no vehicles can get in or out of this place which makes the living conditions very hard here, especially for the old and the patients,” one elderly resident said.
Residents admit that their well-being does not owe anything to their location in the middle of lush green mountains. This is because of Srinagar where they run bakery chains and “without it, poverty would have struck them”.
Warm and well-cultured, the residents talk their hearts out to the Kashmir Life reporting team; invite them to lunch, offer apples or walnuts as presents.
Elders in the village, who now stay home and rest as the new generation takes care of their business, said the village got into Kanderkar, the baking work, somewhere after the 1960s. The specific reason why the village picked baking unlike other jobs was that it is cheap to set up a Kanderwan, the baking shop, and the materials required is easily available – the firewood, the earthen oven and the flour.
“We were poor and mostly landless so we picked up this business and went to different districts to learn this profession,” Ghulam Nabi Bhat, the village Sarpanch, who also worked as a baker once, said. “It was easier and cheaper than other labour intensive work. I, myself used to work as a baker at Eidgah till 2000 and returned home only after my father died.”
“By and large, it is a compulsion,” explains Ajaiz Ahmad Lone, a sociology masters student. “We have a lot of youth who are well educated and still in this business because of unemployment.” He admits that they are being looked down by society but this job is the only way out for dignified survival.
Muhammad Yasin Bhat, 55, worked as a Kandur in Srinagar’s Malbagh for 25 years. Self-retired, his shop is now run by his two sons, both having passed the tenth standard. Bashir Ahmad Bhat, Yasin’s neighbour said, all his seven sons are currently in Kanderkar and they send home no less than one lakh rupees, a month.
The lucrative nature of this profession has encouraged even the next generation of the peasantry to get into baking. Muhammad Sultan Bhat, 70, said he has worked in his small fields throughout his life. “I have never made one loaf of bread in my life,” he said. “When I saw my people earning well, I sent my kids to Srinagar and for the last 15 years, they have been there. They work all year barring a few months when they visit home by turns.”
Burden On Women
With the main workforce out and away, the management of the small lands, orchards and the vegetable garden falls on women. They are supposed to take care of the children, their education and other issues that need quick decision-making.
Residents said that it was a severe crisis for most of the time but the arrival of the cell phone has eased part of it. “Now we call them and they give their views and in most of the cases, they remain in touch round the clock,” one lady, who is managing the affairs of the home in her husband’s absence. In certain cases, some of the migrant bakers have taken their children along for better education in Srinagar.
In most of the cases, however, the husbands have taken their immediate families along. Some of them have gradually acquired the small houses in Srinagar and are now the proud owners of two places of residence.
While in their Kanderwans, these people have neither forgotten their roots nor the sweating they had to make in changing the economic profiles of their families. Some of them are very well qualified but the absence of opportunities has retained them in the jobs their parents were doing.
Muhammad Asif, operates from his Batamaloo shop. “I have been in this business for about 15-20 years and I serve about 150 households every day,” Asif said, insisting that he is the first generation Kandur as father has never been in this business. “My only regret is that people hardly respect us, do not give us the due for being what we are – the craftsmen. Sometimes, I wonder, what would happen to the culture if we weren’t here?”
Mohammad Amin Bhat operates from Lal Bazaar since 1990, where he caters to the needs of almost 120 houses every morning. “I entered this field because I wanted to get out of the poverty but my children have chosen their own paths, which is good,” he said.
“We cater to around 1500 people every morning,” Imtiyaz Wani, 24, who operates from Soura, said. “We wake up at 3 am and we run this shop with three people – one is the bread maker, one handles the tandoor and one extracts the baked bread and sells it,” Wani said. “I started this work mainly because of not having any other avenue of dignified earning and my brother was my inspiration.”
In most of cases, these people encourage their children to study and shift to other jobs. A section, however, inherits the baking from one generation to another.
Plenty of Work
Bread in Kashmir is a huge sector because people never take tea without bread. The diversity of the products is so huge that it changes from place to place within Kashmir. The people take bread for breakfast and in the afternoon tea break. Every time, it requires a different kind of bread.
In the morning, the normal is lavasa or girda. In the forenoon, a special girda is baked that has ghee in it. It is hugely popular with the working class and the migrant seasonal workforce. In the afternoon, the main bread that goes with the tea is talevour. Some people, however, bakirkhawni or katlum, known in Persian as nan-e-khushik (dry bread). Kashmir’s entire bread basket is rooted in central Asia. In between, there are countless bread baked for seasonal or specific occasions involving births, deaths and celebrations.
Kashmiris weakness for its food is so disarming that when Kashmiri Pandits migrated out of Kashmir in 1990, only two professionals were welcome – the pouj (butchers) and the Kandur. Kashmri Pandits are seen as India’s only Halal-mutton consuming Hindus.
Part of this market is with housewives who make chapattis at home thus easing the burden on the traditional bakers. The western bakery is a separate and huge sector that has evolved over the centuries after the British took bakers from Srinagar and sent them trained in the English bakery. That, however, is a different subject. In a number of cases, traditional Kandur sees getting into the bakery as positive growth in status and earning.
The job, however, remains a challenging one. Most of them have sleep deficits as they have to get up too early. They also work in an environment where they have to manage extreme heat and smoke. This is leading to certain health issues as a result of which a person retires from baking much earlier.
There has not been any major intervention in this sector to upgrade the facilities and innovate. Earlier, there were efforts to have exhaust chimneys to manage the smoke but those were too complicated to manage the quantum of smoke generated by the Kanderwan. At one point in time, even the tandoor was created that would heat up with either LPG or electricity. That also could not take off so well to the satisfaction of the trade.
Off late, however, the district administration in Srinagar has initiated a modernization process involving a select group on a pilot basis. It remains to be seen if this process takes shape and makes some changes. Abdul Majid Pampori, the President of the All Jammu and Kashmir Local Bakers and Kashmir Bread Makers Association said they are around 800 bakers in Srinagar alone as their number crosses eight thousand across Kashmir.
At the same time, there is a requirement of improving the hygiene of the Kanderwan.