Smoked Lives!

A small community living on city outskirts are fighting odds to keep alive Kashmir’s dying delicacy Phari or smoked fish. With local water-bodies polluted beyond repair Phari makers are forced to get fish from outside Kashmir,  Syed Asma reports

Phari making in process. Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Phari making in the process. KL Image Bilal Bahadur

On a cold December morning after clock stuck six, people in Tipli Mohallah, near Anchar Lake in Srinagar start their day. Men, women and small girls walk hurriedly towards empty fields where they start preparations for making smoked fishes locally known as Phari. Any outsider visiting Tipli Mohallah, at this hour of the day is drawn by the smell of smoked fish. For decades people associated with the trade have lived near the lake which is the main source of fish for them. But the popularity of Phari, a local delicacy, has remained to a certain area in Srinagar only, as people associated with the trade confine their operations to a limited area.

“It (Tipli Mohalla) is the only place in Kashmir which is into making and marketing of Pharri,” says Bashir Ahmed Tiploo, the main dealer of smoked fish, in Kashmir.

Fifty-year-old Bashir is into the trade since he was five years old. He inherited the skill from his father, Haji Mohammed Ramzan Tiploo, who in turn learned it from his father. But the tradition of making smoked fish is fast fading as the new generation are unwilling to take it as a full-time livelihood option because of fewer returns. There is a steep drop in its demand over the years as people associated with the trade accept that they have failed to market it properly.

 “Some years ago (in the 1990s) we (the whole locality) used to earn Rs 10 lakh per day but now the sales have dropped to Rs 1-1.5 lakh a day,” says Bashir.

Ramzan, an 80-year-old skilled Phari maker is sitting on the bank of Anchar Lake at the crack of the dawn instructing his men to lay down a surface of dry grass. Ramzan says he learnt the skill when he was four years old. “I have not calculated the years but I have been doing it since I was born,” says Ramzan and smiles. “But these young guys are not interested in this trade as it is not fetching them much.”

Ramzan seems a tough instructor and a perfectionist. He guides the men to make an oval structure while laying the dry grass. “It should be plain, make it symmetric. The Phari should be roasted uniformly, neither should they get over-roasted nor should they remain under-roasted!” he passes an order from one of the corners while taking a puff of hookah.IMG_9597

Looking unsatisfied with his men’s ‘untidy’ work Ramzan starts shouting at them and orders them to leave the job midway. They start piling up the dry grass bundles which were haphazardly placed on the ground.

The grass used to roast fish is reaped and collected by the womenfolk of the locality. “There are a few households who have earned the license worth Rs 800 (per month) to reap the grass from Anchar Lake,” says Bashir.

One grass bundle is worth Rs 40 and Bashir needs at least 20 bundles a day.

“In autumn the grass dries up easily but in summers we have to reap and then dry it up at home. It needs a bit of care otherwise it is not that difficult but yes reaping takes a lot of energy,” says a woman holding a huge bundle of dry grass on her head heading towards Bashir’s home.

Ramzan not contented with young men takes over the job himself and wears a look of disgust on his face. After making the layer of grass perfectly plain, he sits in the middle of it and calls a little girl from his neighbourhood to assist him. She is called up to unpack the fishes from thermocol boxes. “Make sure you drain all the water and ice from these fishes. If the grass gets wet, it won’t catch fire easily then,” instructs Ramzan. The little girl nods in agreement.

Ramzan, the most experienced Phari maker of his locality, has been repeating the same formula since years.

Each grass layer is made from 10 bundles and at least 100 kgs of fishes are perfectly placed on it before setting it on fire.

“To deliver a good product in the market and to reduce the losses (over-roasting of fish) we require at least four labours to take care of one such structure,” says Bashir.

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He adds the 100 kgs after getting roasted are reduced to 80 kgs. An estimated cost spent on roasting them is Rs 14000. The market rate for Phari is Rs 200 per Kg making a profit of Rs 20 per kg.

Bashir purchases the fishes, known as Raput in local parlance, from Pathankot. It is a river Jhelum product, he says, “almost a decade ago I used to purchase the same breed of fish from Tulmul, Ganderbal but now the population has shifted to Pathankot, probably because of the pollution of our water bodies.”

Till late 90’s Bashir and other fishermen in the locality say they used to make Phari of the fishes taken out from Anchar Lake. Each family used to take out 10-20 kgs each day but since the inception of the tertiary care hospital, SKIMS, in the vicinity, the population of fishes has been adversely affected.

Smoked Fish: A Photo Feature

“A boon for the Valley has become a bane for the fishes and our fisherman community,” shouts Ramzan from a corner where he is puffing the hookah quietly.

“Shiekh Abdullah was our neighbour; a politician from our constituency, God knows why he didn’t think of us and the lake before constructing this hospital. He ruined both of us.”

Ramzan and other fishermen from the area seem to be upset with Senior Sheikh.

Ramzan says before the inception of the hospital, he owned 60 kanals of land. “I surrendered all to the Sheikh’s project but it ruined my livelihood.”

The fishermen in Tipli Mohalla claim that the entire waste of the hospital is drained out into Anchar Lake which is not only shrinking the water body but is killing the fishes as well.IMG_9496

“Till the late 90s we used to do fishing for the entire year but steadily the 12 month fishing season is reduced to only three months.”

Bashir says this is the main reason for their reduced business. Fishes which were available in a lake flowing beside their home are now been ordered from outside the Valley.

Bashir says he has to order fishes from Jammu and spend a lot of money on their transportation. Things get worst for him if harsh weather or political disturbances in Valley block the national highway.

“In winter 2007, the road was blocked for about a week and I lost consignments worth lakhs,” says Bashir. “Since then I play safe and order a limited supply.”

He had to pay the losses from his pocket as the sea products are not insured like the other small scale industry products are. “Sea products like poultry are in the negative list of insurances companies but we are working on it and let’s see how far we will be successful,” says Mohammed Ashraf Mir, the President of Federation of Industries and Commerce, Kashmir.

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