What I Learned From Chaiwallas and Autowallas of Kashmir

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Representational picture

Wajahat Qazi

A CERTAIN ideological political spectrum blames the poor for being poor. According to this ideology defined by intellectual poverty itself, the poor are indolent, lazy, welfare queens (or kings as the case may be) and by implication and inference then, they don’t have dignity. This view is far from the truth. I do not predicate my assertion upon a sentimental and mushy view about the poor but on real experiences I had in Kashmir. While the sample size is small, the assessment is neither impressionistic nor anecdotal. Here is what it is based upon.

My commute to work in Kashmir was a staggered one: I would drive to town, park my car at the slot near my friend’s café, and then either walk toward office or take an autorickshaw (the famous tuk tuk in the Western schema). I would repeat this routine on my way back. It became so entrenched and such a regular affair that almost all autorickshaw drivers in town knew me. They were not only incredibly nice and polite to me but also usually offered me some discount. The tea and coffee at work was horrible. Because I am fond of either, I would bring my own mug and walk down to the tea vendors near the office to get my hot cup of tea laced with ginger. Yet again, I was given preference by way of giving me more tea than they would any other customer. (Initially, my favourite vendor(Ali Mohammed-real name withheld) would ladle spoons of sugar into tea-a cultural practice in certain quarters of Kashmiri society that denotes respect!).

It may be noted that tea vendors of Kashmir and autorickshaw drivers are daily wagers. They make their money on a daily basis; it is not much and uncertainty of the place eats away into their earnings.

At a tea shop in Srinagar

On day, Ali Muhmmad came rushing into my office premises and sought me out. He said, ‘Sahib (an honorific in Kashmir), my wife and kids are trapped in Jammu. They cannot return home because the highway is closed due to heavy snowfall. They have run out of money. Can you help them out?’ There was worry and concern in his eyes and tome. I said I’d see what I could do. I organized a sum of 3000 rupees and asked someone in Jammu to go to the bus station where his wife, children and other stranded passengers were. The money was handed over to them. I thought that this was the end of the matter. But, nay, I was wrong.

The next day, a beaming Ali Muhammad came to the office, showered prayers and blessings on me.

Taking a wad of notes from his pocket, Ali Muhammad returned me the money. I was embarrassed. The sum of 3000 rupees was not a huge one but he insisted. I refused. This went on for a few minutes till Ali Muhammad kept the money on my table and left.

The tea vendor(s) and the auto rickshawallas had become friends of mine. I admired their grit and determination to make a living against all odds.

During a petrol crisis in Kashmir, Maqsood (not his real name), after coming to know I had run out of fuel, came to my home one early wintry morning, ‘Sir, I realized you have no petrol for your car. Here’s 30 litres’. I was overwhelmed and asked how he had obtained it. The response was, ‘Arrey sir, I depend on petrol for my rickshaw. So, I was waiting till 2 am in the morning at the petrol station. When it arrived, I filled my tank and got some for you’. I wanted to tip after I paid him for the petrol. A sheepish, rather embarrassed smile on his face  and a big No said it all

After leaving Kashmir in September to the West, I did not forget about them. I’d call them and my query, stated very diplomatically, lest they be offended was whether they needed anything. The response invariably was the same, ‘ Sahib, khoda thaevnai sehat’ meaning May God keep you always happy and in good health. Decoded, this was a polite no.

Now that Kashmir is in a Covid 19 induced lockdown, and now that Eid al Fitr (the Muslim festival commemorating the end of Ramazan) is approaching, I called the autorickshawallas -the ones whose numbers I had on my phone and Ali Muhammad, the tea vendor.

Ali Muhammad’s typical response was emblematic of all. ‘Eid is approaching,’ I said. Its been a long time since the lockdown. Do you need anything?’ After a pause, Ali Muhammad, effusive and gushing with prayers for me and my family said, ‘ Khodah theavanai vaare, khoshaal te theavnai sehat’ meaning, ‘May God always keep you happy, healthy and well’. It was yet again a polite no.

Tailpiece: Poverty is a structural, contextual and developmental issue. The poor cannot and must not be blamed for it.  The poor have dignity but, at times, poverty can kill it. It then is an imperative to alleviate the burden of poverty and make the world a fairer place to the extent can be.

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