Women in woods

Wazwan country surely knows the grammar and the complicacies that go into the making of the feast but not the costs mutton production entails especially in highly militarized, pasture-deficient Kashmir mountains. SHAMS IRFAN spends a few days at a high altitude pasture with two old women who are into their third generation of spending summers with herds far away from the crowds of plains.

Khatoon and Zoon Pic: Bilal Bahadur
Khatoon and Zoon outside their wood and mud Kotha in Heyjin, Brenwar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Childhood friends, first cousins and sisters-in-law, Zoon and Khatoon, both in their late sixties, live aloof from the civilization in a gujjar Kotha in Heyjin, a vast meadow about an hour’s walk from their home in Brenwar village in district Budgam.

Every April, Zoon and Khatoon pack essentials like food, beddings, kerosene oil, an electric torch, utensils, clothes etc. and set out for Heyjin with three cows and five sheep they own to stay in the lap of nature.

For next six months, apart from their small herd of sheep and cows, they have each other for company. They live in isolation, under tall pine trees, beside a small stream that serves their water needs, with a vast open sky above to guard them. Heyjin is a small hillock which has some 15 odd wood and mud Kothas build on it. Keeping the long and cold nights in mind these Kothas are build in such a way that half of the structure remains hidden under the hill. Zoon and Khatoon’s Kotha is one of the biggest in the area. They have five rooms including a spacious hall for cattle and a kitchen cum living room.

Walls separating rooms are made of wood brought from the nearby jungle and sealed with mud for warmness. One can actually see cows moving their tails in desperation through small cracks in the wall that separate Zoon and Khatoon’s kitchen from the cowshed. The kitchen itself is bare of any furniture. Just a small dhaan (earthen stove) which doubles as stove and fire place to keep the place warm. Near one of the openings between cowshed and kitchen wall hangs a cast-iron kerosene lamp. It lights both the rooms during night. One has to stoop his way into the Kotha. The first thing that attracts a visitor is strong stench of animal urine and dung cakes.

Among the two childhood friends, it is Zoon who has been out into the wild all her life: first with her grandparents, then parents and then finally with her in-laws. “This place is like home to me,” says Zoon while looking out of the small crack in the wooden wall of her Kotha that serves as a window.

Outside it is vast meadow, tall pine trees and countless small streams criss-crossing each other. During day time entire landscape is filled with herds of sheep spread across the green turf like white dots on a canvas. It is picture perfect in Heyjin. There is no electricity. No tap-water. No gas-connection. No traffic to make you scream out of desperation. No queues outside hospital wards. No internet. Life is simple. It is just Zoon, her childhood friend and sister-in-law Khatoon and their brood of cows and sheep. “Let me clear this thing first. We are not Gujjar’s or Bakerwals (two tribes traditionally involved with rearing of sheep and cows). We are Najars (carpenters) by cast. It is just a tradition that became part of our lives,” says Zoon in a matter of fact manner.

According to state law only either of the two tribes i.e. Gujjar’s or Bakerwals, can construct a Kotha on the forest land. So who actually owns the Kotha where Zoon and Khatoon spend summers every year? “This place belongs to one Gul Khan from our village. I cannot own a Kotha because of some law. Neither do I have money to build one,” says Zoon.

In places like Brenwar and Heyjin, which are unaffected by the changing lifestyle of cities, most of the transactions are still done in barter style. “In exchange for this Kotha’s rent, my husband works as a carpenter for Gul Khan for a day or two. We have never paid him any money,” says Zoon.

For Khatoon who has no children and lost her husband last year to a road accident, life in Brenwar has become meaningless. “What would I do there when there is nobody? I don’t have a family. Zoon, and these animals are my family now,” says Khatoon while making preparations for the dinner.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Such a beautiful and touching story of friendship n survival. I like the way writer has narrated the story. Simply amazing. Thanks kashmirlife team for highlighting this side of Kashmir for its readers.

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