Survival for Kashmiris is an instinct that comes naturally; for Kashmiri women, this instinct has been honed by years of life under tough conditions. Be it the horror of war, the devastating 2014 flood or last year’s uprising, Kashmiri women have braved every crisis knocking at her door with passion and dignity, Chasfeeda Shah writes
Women have had an important role to play in the survival tale of Kashmir. Our state has witnessed different types of situations, which sometimes and more often resulted in horrific tragedies whose memories will remain etched on our collective history forever. One constant factor of unbreakable spirit of the ‘Kashmir Saga’ has been the Kashmiri woman. She has been the backbone of Kashmir’s survival story, no matter how the situation presented itself.
When we think of the dynamics of conflict in Kashmir, we realise it is a very different setting than most of the other Indian states. Even the weather is drastically different from the rest of India. Anywhere in India, the socio-economic condition is such that even few days of shutdown and curfew would be enough to put people in life and death situations. But not in Kashmir.
Kashmir has stood like a mountain against the winds of chaos. Earthquakes, floods, militancy, crackdowns, hartals and what not, Kashmir has braved time’s harsh tests. Unlike the rest of India, Kashmiris maintain the same quality of life, at times even better, especially in terms of what they eat, even when all life is paralysed. Much of the credit in terms of foreseeing future calamities and how to deal with them goes to the Kashmiri culture and to Kashmiri women. Kashmiris are considered ‘good hosts’ and most of the credit goes to Kashmiri women for treating their guests as God’s guests.
“Our time was the best. We were not dependent on market for meeting our daily needs. Even in these days, I store things for winter,” said a septuagenarian lady, Maale Begum, from Srinagar’s Habak locality, “We have almost everything available at home from eatables like vegetables, pulses and rice to charcoal, kerosene and firewood to deal with harsh winter”.
Even during the nineties when militancy was at the peak and Kashmir was screaming out of agony, people still didn’t die of starvation, despite months of continuous shutdowns. Women again played an important role by taking control of the finances and rationing to the last grain. Kashmiri women, having developed a foresight for conflict and the oddities it brings, keep finding unique ways to keep up with the bills on requirements of the household.
“Since childhood we were taught by elders to store things for hard times,” said an old lady, Zoona, from Srinagar. She said the process of learning to deal with harsh times comes down to younger generations from their experienced elders. “First I used to learn it from my mother. Then I got more lessons from my mother-in-law after I got married,” she said.
Even in 2008 which witnessed mass agitation all over J&K and resulted in complete shutdown for many month, women were the architects of survival. It was followed by the agitation of 2010. Kashmir witnessed economic crisis that put a burden of Rs 100 crores of losses every day on the state. That is the cost of shutdowns. But, somehow, Kashmir has been able to brave through such losses consistently without fearing for scarcity of food and basic necessities.
Unrest in Kashmir has resulted in huge loss of life but never because of lack of food, any daily requirement or non-availability of medicine but only because of bullets, pellets and situational deaths. Kashmiri households are stockpiled with medicines, home packaged food, rice, wheat and other storable eatables. Many Kashmiri women also maintain kitchen gardens, thus making it possible for them to survive difficult times. The 2014 flood followed by the 2016 crisis put Kashmir in the history books for the longest shutdown ever after 1947. For five months, Kashmir was shut but didn’t face shortage of food.
“The lesson I learnt while facing the weather hardships have helped us to keep up with this protracted conflict,” Maale said. “Had we not been habitual of storing things for hard times, the months long restrictions, curfews and strikes, the issues we faced in 2008, 2010 and 2016, would have killed us all due to starvation,” she added.
The climate in Kashmir has played a big role in nurturing a survival attitude in Kashmiri women that encourages stockpiling resources. Winter has taught Kashmiri women to survive shutdowns, hartals and floods. Kashmir always witnesses heavy snowfall and because national highway (J&K’s only functioning road to the rest of world) remains closed for long periods, women of Kashmir have improvised and learned to store food. Dried vegetables like Al Hachi, Tang hachi, Tamater hachi, Wangan hachi, Gogji aare, Nunar, Lissi, Hand, etc. are few names that come to mind. All these along with smart strategies of rationing and stockpiling make sure Kashmiri women feed their families even during times of scarcity.
Even when there is peace in the valley, look around and you will find almost every family storing food and other commodities in bulk. Kashmiri women are the main reason for Kashmir’s survival in unrest. It’s because habits and practices developed over time. Yet, the contribution of women in Kashmir’s survival goes unnoticed.
But the resourcefulness of Kashmiri women goes beyond rationing food and taking care of the finances. Kashmiri women are made of steel. When militancy was at peak and crackdowns were a norm, Kashmiri households would always have extra blankets, quilts and mattresses for at least ten more people. Such was perhaps the culture or demand of the situation, but this habit to stocking extra blankets would get the households in trouble with the army more than often. Come what may, the tradition persisted; the crackdowns didn’t.
Kashmir was always rich in its hospitality and culture. Not only do Kashmiris survive in any situation but they can provide shelter to as many people as possible in their own homes. “When I was young, we would not let a beggar leave without serving him a full plate of rice followed by pink tea and kulcha. The food has never been a problem for most Kashmiris. It’s always available even in any poor family” said Oma Shri, a migrant Kashmiri Pundit. “Harsh winters were always a problem in Kashmir due to which we used to store in bulk for winters. Many dried vegetables, rice, wheat, and pulses were the first priority for every Kashmiri lady when choosing her grocery basket.”
One can shift to any place in the world but somewhere deep inside us, our habits and cultural values remain tied to us, wherever we go. Oma Shri migrated from Kashmir to Jammu in nineties but somehow she is completely intact with her values, customs, traditions and habits to which she was exposed in Kashmir.
Jammu is peaceful in comparison with Kashmir but in 2008 when Amarnath agitation took place, Jammu was also boiling and people there remained confined to four walls of their homes for many days. Kashmiri migrants in Jammu didn’t face any difficulties when it came to food, in comparison with the people of Jammu who felt the heat of the agitation in their empty kitchen pans.
“We have a new generation now and the place where we are living is not a conflict zone. There isn’t even remote possibility of winters. So here we don’t feel any need to store any eatables. But somehow I am wedded to those habits and I will keep those habits alive,” said Oma. “I still keep storing food out of habit and we can easily survive a month without visiting the market.”
From practices that started well before the national highway came into existence to improvising as per the demand of the situation, the Kashmiri women have been versatile to cope up with situations evolving around them. Part of the credit goes to customs and traditions that were developed before the late 19th century when Kashmir would be inaccessible for half of the year. Kashmiris, having braved the worst of sufferings, would also feed on the migrating birds that flew across the sky. Survival for Kashmiris is an instinct; for Kashmiri women, it comes naturally.