With the drop gates preventing the movement on roads and cell phones blocked, the Kashmir lockdown hit the basic institution of life. Umar Khurshid met middlemen to understand how challenging the matchmaking was during the two months following August 5.
Looking at her bar-phone, Muneera, 47, a resident of Anantnag constantly checks if at all she was contacted by any of her clients.
A matchmaker by profession, Muneera is sceptical about the marriages she scheduled early this year, as only a handful of families among her clients approached her in the last three months. “Earlier, they used to meet on a regular basis, but it seems they have found an alternative,” she sighs.
In March 2019, Muneera was approached by a number of families from different places looking for suitable matches for their wards. Among these is Bashir Ahmed Dar’s, who lives in Pahalgam, one among the famous tourist destinations in south Kashmir. According to her, the Dars’ were going to pay her an inducement of 50,000 rupees for finding a suitor for their daughter. “But at the same time they wanted my assurance that I would offer them a groom belonging to a well-mannered family,” Muneera added.
Hoping that the marriage is a success, the money she would get from the Dars would ease her financial tensions. “It was a golden chance,” the matchmaker said. “ “I found it a golden mobile phone to work for,” Muneera said. “Most of the times, when I used to be moneyless, I travelled by walk, as I knew it would help me afterwards.”
Within the next few weeks, a family from the town’s Khanabal area fitted in Dar’s requirement list and the wedding was scheduled in September 2019.
But the tragedy knocked at the Muneera’s door on the evening of August 05, when she was conveyed by a woman who lives few miles away from her home, that Home Minister Amit Shah has announced the abrogation of Article 370, and stripped Kashmir of its statehood. Afterwards, as Kashmir remained locked with virtually no contact with the outside world, all the educational institutes, business establishments and trade came on halt. Even a normal activity became a bone of contention; and politicized.
As the restrictions continued and mobile services were also closed, Muneera lost her contact with Dars and their relatives-in-law as well. “I know the three months blockade has brought so many troubles to Kashmir, but for me, it was more than a catastrophe,” Muneera laments. “Neither I got in touch with them nor the money I was promised.”
Later, on the afternoon of October, 14, when postpaid mobile services resumed in Kashmir, the first number Muneera dialled was her customer Dar’s number to know the status of the marriage. As she learned that the marriage she fixed was done a month ago, Muneera said, her tears rolled down and she hung up the phone without telling anything to Dar. “He called me back many times then but I didn’t pick up,” Muneera said.
Since the movement, what Muneera terms a tragedy; neither had she approached to Dars nor their newly-made relatives.
But at the same time, Muneera also blames the communication lockdown, as phone calls used to help her in remaining in touch with the customers. “One phone call saves my one whole day, plus my daily expenses,” Muneera believes.
Besides this, Muneera had also taken the responsibility of four other marriages, in which two of the marriages were fixed in neighbouring district Kulgam. But since August, as Muneera couldn’t get in touch with them. “They too proceeded with the routine and I was ultimately sidelined,” she said.
Pointing towards an unsullied set of multicoloured carpets with which two of her rooms at home were bedecked, Muneera said; the money she spent on buying this matting was earned in last year’s wedding season. “This matting cost me around 20, 000, rupees then,” Muneera said. “And I had earned all the money from matchmaking.”
In Kashmir, most of the functions like marriages, take place in summer, “But due to the current strike and uneven situation, I often felt unsafe to step out of the house,” Muneera said, who would have arranged a number of marriages this time in a normal situation.
Muneera believes that this year’s season has shattered her plans of helping her family. “On this season, one among the other plans of mine was to buy a set of ear-rings for my daughter but I ended up with nothing,” Muneera regrets.
Currently, there are few families who had approached Muneera in September and their marriages have also been fixed. “I’m not jobless, I still manage somehow,” Muneera said with a little smile on her face.
However, explaining the difficulties she went through in tracing the matches during the strike, Muneera said, when she had to go to far-off villages, she was often stopped by the paramilitary-men patrolling on-road and was asked to go back. “Despite their disapproval, I used to take alternate routes and managed to meet the families,” Muneera recalled.
Sitting quietly in his decorated bedroom, Bablu, 45, a matchmaker from Srinagar’s Dalgate area has not participated in any paid function from the last three months. Regretting that he has no option either to opt for any other profession, Bablu said; now the earnings are very less that he is not able to manage his own expenses.
In the meantime, Bablu sighs and offers credits to Allah for giving him a chance to match fortunes on the earth. “Though I don’t get much money nowadays, l am still happy that I’m a part of this blissful work,” Bablu said.
As the sun is about to set, Bablu, wearing a glittering shawl and an oversized Pheran, is all set to attend a function in Srinagar’s downtown area. In most of the Srinagar areas, all big fat weddings are being managed by Bablu’s group. Bablu is a part of matchmakers group arranging marriages and taking part in functions like folk- singing and dancing during Mehandi nights.
In July this year, Bablu arranged marriage of a boy from Srinagar’s Lalbazar area. Two weeks later, both the families agreed and the wedding was fixed in next month (August). But later when the lockdown began and not even a single vehicle was witnessed on Srinagar roads, the family rescheduled the dates first- that Bablu came to know afterwards and later married without letting Bablu know.
However, when Bablu asked the family, they explained the situation in which they married and apologized for their mistake. But at the same time, Bablu believes that it was not a mistake though, as the situation was not normal. “Later I came to know that they skipped even their relatives and proceeded with the normal function,” Bablu said.
Comparing families to one another, Bablu said; before August 5, when the situation was normal he arranged a number of weddings in the city’s different areas and was paid a handsome amount as well. “But these days customers turn to me once in a while,” Bablu said indicating the worst work-stage.
During last more than hundred abnormal days, Bablu has attended many functions but all undersized ones. “These days I don’t attend any function where I could get a good amount and an appreciation as well,” Bablu said. In matchmaking, Bablu believes that appreciation plays a significant role more than money. “More the appreciation we get, more the families approach us.”
Bablu thinks that most of the Kashmir economy depends on the business and its just business-men who are often responsible for big-fat weddings. But as Kashmir businesses remain shut, it affects the overall economy of the erstwhile state.
Likewise Bablu isSabir – a local matchmaker, who feels that lockdown has brought so many hurdles in his work-sphere.
A resident of Srinagar, Sabir left around three marriage mid-ways, as he couldn’t go out when the roads in Srinagar were sealed after August 5. The untoward incidents- often unconfirmed reports added to Sabir’s fear he was witnessing at home. “Once I heard many people have died and dozens were injured in the downtown side, however; that too turned a hoax later,” Sabir chuckled.
Another reason that restricted Sabir for moving outside was internet shutdown. “I would have managed but since there was no access to call facilities as well, I couldn’t connect myself with any of my customers.
In Kashmir, when the situation turned uneven, people feared backlashes that if they arrange some kind of a celebration, or call a gathering, it would not be a wise decision in this fragile situation. Many celebrations like marriages were rescheduled or cancelled in many places.
In Anantnag’sMattan village, the one among the well-off families is Ghulam Nabi Lone’s. In March, this year, Lone, an orchardist, decided to arrange a grand marriage ceremony of his younger son Mohammad Shafi, 29. Shafi’s marriage was fixed in a nearby village Seer Hamdan.
The family had scheduled the wedding in September when Kashmir was seized with the massive deployment of paramilitary troops on main routes leading to Srinagar. However, when the situation didn’t get normal, both the families first decided to reschedule the marriage but later on wedded on the same date and ended up inviting none of their relatives, acquaintances.
Sitting next to his father, Shafi said that no relative, not even his maternal and paternal uncles, whose contributions are considered to be significant during marriages in Kashmir, were invited for the function.
Otherwise lone had decided to spend a huge amount on the ceremony. “As it was a last-ball – his last child to be married, I had decided to make it a grand ceremony, but the situation took away my all plans,” Lone said.
As part of the Kashmiri tradition, as groom leaves to his in-law’s house to get his bridge, a gathering of women sing folk songs wishing blessings to the groom and his bride. Lone’s family, however, skipped this ritual as well; “we left in a single-car, me and driver that too in the afternoon,” Shafi, a newlywed groom, said. “There was no crowd as if we had gone for a normal visit.”
After learning about the protests and other demonstrations taking place in different places, the family remained silent for those days of celebration. Usually, women in Kashmir sing folk songs and perform a dance on Mehandi night, “nothing like that happened here,” Lone said.
Lone said, the items from a compilation of spices, bakery, mutton, carry bags, a Pandala tent- one of the expensive marquee used during celebrations, traditional chefs and many other things were cancelled a day before marriage. “That day, we called a local chef in emergency and he prepared few dishes, that’s it,” Lone said.
Besides home items, the sheep that Lone had purchased for the feast, he sold to a local mutton trader. “I had bought 20 sheep in around one and a half lakh rupees months ago but sold around 15 sheep that too in very less rate,” Lone said.
Lone also didn’t ask to return the advance payment he had paid to a chef, marquee dealer, and a traditional folk singer. “Meh dope yohu sanan beh Haseen,” Lone giggled. Haseena is one among the much-sought Kashmiri folk singer performing on marriages.
Similarly, a seer Hamadan resident, Fayaz Ahmed Khan, 44, has the same story to tell. A Shrine Board employee, who assists Amarnath pilgrims during annual Yatra, is ashamed as he couldn’t invite people with whom he works round the year.
Most of the Khan’s co-workers with whom he stays put at Sheshnag- a religious destination on way to Amarnath cave are non-natives. Usually, during his routine work, Khan used to share his thoughts about his daughter’s marriage with his non-native friends. It was also scheduled that every one among them has to participate in the wedding.
On the afternoon of October, 14, when postpaid mobile services resumed in Kashmir, the first call Khan received was from one of his friends Ashok, 42, a Rajasthan based trader who sets up a community kitchen for pilgrims near Amarnath cave. As Khan picked up the call, Ashok offered the greetings and said; “Khan, Abkya plan haishadika.” “Although Ashok had a genuine query, but for me, it was not less than a humiliation,” Khan said.
Khan explained to his friend the circumstances his daughter was married. But at the same time, Khan recalled all those promises he had done with Ashok and many other non-native friends that they all would be invited with great fervor.
Explaining his daughter’s wedding ceremony, Khan said, the marriage was done in such a way that no one would have judged it as a celebration. “It was as if we had received some guests,” Khan said.
Though Khan was in a genuine crisis that led him to skip inviting his friends and relatives at the same time, he feels embarrassed. “I have to face them next year as well,” Khan Sighs and lights-up his cigar. “Hope they would understand.”
Likewise Khan is Mohammad Maqbool of Naghbal village- a hamlet, around 15 kilometers away from the main town Anantnag. Maqbool’s two sons, whose marriages were scheduled in September in Anantnag’sDangerpora locality, had brought all the necessary items in advance.
But as the lockdown began, both the marriages were rescheduled and the new date is yet to fix. “We could have managed somehow. But since our relative-in- laws live in a town and towns often witness strikes and protests, we decided to call off the marriage for some time,” said one of the two brothers, Fayaz,27, whose marriage came on halt.
Fayaz believes that items he had bought have a shelf life and could be used afterwards. However, Fayaz didn’t disclose the name of the items he had bought. “Not much worried about those items,” Fayaz said.
In Kashmir marriages, one among the significant requirements is a traditional chef, whose involvement cannot be avoided at any cost.
Smoking hookah from a long flexible pipe on the verandah of his single -storey house, Abdul RehmanSofi, 55, is segregating scooping utensils- both wooden and steel ladles, as he has to catch his work in a nearby village within next two days.
Invited by a customer from a nearby village, Sofi, a local traditional chef is attending the third function from the last three months. “On this time, I would have attended dozens of functions, and earned a good amount as well.”
The wrinkle faced Sofi took a Hookah gulp, he quickly popped out his eyes and pointed towards his associate Gulzar Ahmed a middle-aged chef from a nearby locality, and said; “have you talked to Mushtaq and Nazir-their associates, tell them don’t be late this time”. Sofi believes that three month-long pauses has made his group suffer badly.
Since Sofi heads the group and is all aware of the work and orders, he remembers the last year’s work. “From August, our work came on halt, I used to earn a good amount and gain the new customers as well, but this time we are all failed,” Sofi regrets.
In Kulgam’s main town, where most of the shops are shut nowadays, locates a small shop dealing with marquees and other items like decoration matting and groom chairs.
Suhail Ahmed, 30, who owns the shop, stands outside his locked shop every day, as he feels customers might come and he should be present to deal with them.
Ahmed has attended a couple of customers from the last two weeks. As the off-season for marriages is going on, Ahmed’s shop witnesses 2 to 3 customers in a week. “Sometimes weeks pass and I don’t see any customer,” Ahmed said.
However, Ahmed has given some items on rent this time and is hoping to fetch some amount from them. “The amount I earn nowadays helps me to manage my daily expenses like bus fare and other expenses,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed believes that the overall marriage process in Kashmir comes to an end once winter sets in the valley. “Even if the situation would have been normal, a handful of customers visit my shop on this season,” Ahmed said.
In Anantnag town, as one passes through a narrow KotwalGali- often jumbled with the public, mostly women buying hosiery and jewellery items, the eye stops at the corner where Nazir Ahmed sells bridal items.
Before August, Nazir was monthly paying two teenage boys who used to assist him in daily work at his Lehanga shop. Dealing with bridal items, Nazir’s shop was the most visited store in the area. “But now, barely a customer visits my shop,” Nazir said.
In mid-July, Nazir had given four bridal suits on rent. “Months have passed I’m yet to get those suits back,” Nazir said. “I used to recover my items within two days but since there is no work, I would wait till they return my belongings.”
From last month, after partial traffic began plying on roads, Nazir has attended few customers but not the way he witnessed last year in normalcy.
Holding a brand new Camera outside a deserted public park that of-late witnesses a huge rush of tourists, in AchabalAnantnag, Zahoor Ahmed, 38, is waiting for customers, as he has to hand over his camera to them. The new customers are young boys who take pictures inside the hushed greenery of the park.
For using his camera and other equipment, customers pay on a daily basis to Zahoor. “I charge them around eight hundred to thousand rupees per day,” Zahoor said.
A day before, Zahoor was called by a group of boys from Anantnag that they need his camera on rent for the day. A thousand rupees was the rate fixed by them.
For shooting videos during marriages, Zahoor was one among the most demanded cinematographer of the area as he has already made his name in mixing videotapes. “But now my all earnings depend on these boys who take my camera on rent,” Zahoor said. “I don’t regret though, I’m happy with whatever I earn from this now.”
Zahoor, who owns a small studio where he does mixing for videotapes and stills, was waiting for the bookings till October, but when he was not approached by any of the customer he began giving his camera on rent. “Though I earn little less than marriages, I am all fine with whatever it is,” Zahoor said.
Zahoor has now decided to attend the functions of his permanent customers and relatives only, as the new way he has opted for has fetched him a good amount. “And the plus point is, it saves my time as well,” Zahoor said.