A number of Kashmiri women have resorted to setting up tea stalls to cope with the disastrous economic fallout from New Delhi’s annexation in 2019 and the pandemic.
At a placid pathway on Kashmir’s alpine heights, Afroza, 36, calmly serves tea to excited Indian tourists. Pregnant with pebbles and boulders, gurgling streams and meditative meadows, the tourist resort Doodhpathri, is a bustling retreat in the valley.
Making the most of springtime tourist footfall in the region, Afroza shows up at first light to set up her stall on the street. She comes across a strong, graceful woman, with a well-defined and thoughtful face.
“It’s a daunting task,” Afroza says coyly, as she stirs boiling tea to enhance its taste. “I do it to support my family, as there’s no alternative available to make ends meet.”
Her mild mannered nature make her an unlikely vendor despite being hailed frequently as a “difference-maker”.
Much of that praise stems from a recent viral photograph showing her preparing tea, making her an internet sensation in Kashmir.
But beyond the virtual fame, the tea seller’s story is linked with a larger crisis created by New Delhi’s unilateral decision of abrogating Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status on August 5, 2019.
“When a political lockdown made us captives amid a communication blockade, my carpet-weaver husband went jobless for months after his handloom unit shut overnight,” Afroza says at the sidelines of her stall.
“It was a harrowing time for my family. But like always, we had to rise above the situation and find a way.”
Following some brainstorming, an idea emerged.
While her husband was struggling to put food on the table of his family amid lockdown, Afroza’s brother-in-law, Muhammad Ashraf — with whom she can be seen in the viral photo — helped her setup the tea stall at a popular tourist destination.
But the desperate measure took time to take off. New Delhi’s new edicts had brought Kashmir’s economic engine to a grinding halt. Alongside an increasing military build-up, tourists were asked to leave Kashmir.
Amid rumours, fears began to build in a region divided between India and Pakistan — nuclear-armed neighbours who previously fought three wars over Kashmir. Since 1948, the troubled territory remains one of the longest running international disputes.
As tensions between India and Pakistan began to simmer after abrogation, people like Afroza fretted within the four-walls of their homes. But the timely street stall saved her sanity.
“However, amid communication blockade, tourists took time to arrive,” she says, as yet another group of travel-weary tourists pulled over from their sightseeing journey to have a cup of tea.
“Initially, I would serve tea to some of the lockdown-laden locals who managed to bypass security checks to come to the meadow for some rest and recuperation.”
With Kashmir’s eight million strong populace held hostage in their homes with additional security reinforcements shadowing their streets, shops and shelters, many Kashmiris were yet again going the extra-mile to help each other as the entire region became an “information black hole”.
“Since resilience has always been a hallmark of Kashmiris, I witnessed the same when many people would stop by my stall to make sure to keep my street kitchen running,” Afroza says. “Their comforting conversations conveyed a deep sense of community compassion and concern amid the crisis. And it made those tough times a bit easy.”
Before venturing out to ward off post-abrogation destitution, Afroza would stockpile her stuff and set her street kitchen up with a gas-stove, a few utensils, tea ingredients, Makai Cxhott (a cornmeal flatbread), South Asian pickles and some snacks.
In her circles, Afroza has always been known for her tea-making skills. She started sourcing a natural blend of traditional Noon Chai (Kashmiri traditional pink salty tea made with rolled green tea leaves, milk and baking soda) and saffron kahwah with no artificial flavouring.
Today, her Noon Chai resonates deeply with tea-lovers. That spirit was captured in the viral picture that triggered a warm response — with netizens calling it “an act of resilience in the region under a multi-front economic offensive.”
According to The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the valley’s ten districts suffered a loss of $2.4 billion within the first four months of lockdown alone.
At the same time, the New Delhi-appointed local administration is inviting filmmakers and industrialists to invest in the conflict zone. Mining bids have already been allotted to non-Kashmiris, with local traders sidelined.
While all this is passed as ‘development’, many lockdown-hit commoners like Afroza are being forced to take unconventional routes to stay afloat.
Interestingly, while Kashmiri women are not known for running traditional stalls, this is, perhaps, the first time a woman from the valley has chosen to come out this way. That too in much-touted Naya Kashmir (“New Kashmir”), where everyone, as per New Delhi and its spin doctors, is “making hay while sun is shining”.
Hailing from the Reaan area of central Kashmir’s Budgam district, Afroza takes pride in speaking about women’s struggles to support their spouses and educate their children. And that’s why her tea-tribe is growing today.
“As women, we are expected to preserve community honour and cultural integrity,” she says. “It has restricted our role individually and collectively as we are always at the receiving end, but I want to change it for good.”
Following in her footsteps, many Kashmiri women have come out to sustain their livelihoods with similar street tea-stalls on the quaint road of Doodhpathri.
Among them is Naseema, a mother of four children. Brewing kahwa in a samovar (a traditional Kashmiri ember-fuelled teapot) at some distance from Afroza’s stall, Naseema, in her late thirties, wears a genial face weathered by the tough country life.
“I need to earn for my children as my husband mostly goes workless in the new scheme of things in Kashmir,” Naseema says. “His daily slog and struggle often end up on a dejected note. Kashmir is no longer the same for its natives.”
What’s further compounds the crisis on the ground is the uncertainty prevailing over the tourism industry which sustains many families in the valley.
But as the industry plummeted over the last couple of years, the likes of Naseema barely earn a few hundred rupees (100 INR = $1.33) each day. And yet, she says, “I have no other option than to step out to earn.”
While Indian tourists are once again visiting the valley in droves, there has been a corresponding decline in the number of foreign tourists after the August 2019 move.
Dubbed the “Switzerland of Asia,” Kashmir was once known for hosting high profile foreign tourists, including the likes of Mick Jagger and VS Naipaul.
“But now, we hardly see any foreign tourists here,” says Arifa, 45, another tea seller on the picturesque route.
“Of late, however, things have started moving with the arrival of Indian tourists, but the lingering concern of a Covid comeback is once again threatening to spoil our season.”
After facing a political lockdown in 2019, these tea-stall vendors had to brave a pandemic lockdown last year.
“For most of the world, especially Indians, it was their first lockdown experience. But for us it was back-to-back, which hit us very hard,” says Arifa, voicing the valley’s anguish.
“But eventually, Kashmir’s ill-fated clampdown culture helped us to overcome another distressing phase.”
Sounding strong and stern, the story of these tea sellers mirrors much of what has happened in Kashmir over the last three decades of armed conflict for the right of self-determination.
At her stall, Afroza elucidates this point by trotting round corners, puffing and blowing, and awaiting her customers before departing at dusk to cook a hard-earned meal for her family.
“Intolerable levels of hardship pushed me into the streets to survive,” she says. “It’s the reality for most of the daily-wage class in Kashmir who have lived for decades in challenging conditions, thanks to a painful conflict which seemingly has no end.”