When Bus Became Basket: Kashmiri Driver’s Survival Ride in Lockdown

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Zahoor Ahmad attending customer at his mobile fruit cart, as his son looks on

He first sold tea for his family’s survival when New Delhi imposed months-long clampdown in Kashmir in wake of the abrogation of Article-370 last summer, before pandemic lockdown forced him to flip his ride for the sake of his starving children.

Text/Pics by Irfan Dar

STANDING tall and tough near Srinagar’s bunkered Barbarshah bridge, Zahoor Ahmad, 47, was struggling to deal with the growing public curiosity towards his street-side unconventional cart on a sunny summer day.

The bus he used to drive till recent past to ferry passengers over the bridge has not only come to a grinding halt, but also become a fruit cart to passersby’s wonder and awe.

“What else you would do when your kids are on the verge of starvation in a place like Kashmir, where lockdowns are jamming our wheel,” Zahoor told Kashmir Observer in what appeared to be a reluctant talk of a thoughtful headman who has hit the road for the sake of his family.

“For the fear of this corona, we can’t let our kids die of hunger in our homes!”

This Bus used to ferry passengers before losing its identity in lockdown

Zahoor’s tribe is one of the worst lockdown hit communities in Kashmir. Most of them are out of work since August 5, when the former state was plunged into the communication crisis. The subsequent relaxation period saw the driver community carefully going about their business usual.

In order to put food on the table of their families, these drivers are now taking loans, as per Zahoor, and increasingly coming out of their homes with fruit and vegetable carts. Some have also become street-side grocers and hawkers in lockdown.

The driver disparity remains despite official and non-official welfare bodies claiming to reach out with a helping hand to those who live hand to mouth in the valley.

For Zahoor, the tipping point came a fortnight ago—when he couldn’t take his children’s struggle for basic food anymore.

“Every time I looked at their anxious faces, it would kill me,” Zahoor said in a broken voice. “My three daughters and a son are my pride. I would do anything for them. I could’ve come earlier like last year, but the fear of this virus stopped me.”

After political status and equations were altered in Kashmir last summer, Zahoor came out with a mobile tea stall and started selling steamy cups for survival outside the guarded gates of Srinagar’s Central Jail.

Among his customers would be the distraught family members of the inmates — who would be asked to wait before allowed to meet their captive kin.

“This time around when this virus is triggering new fears in our society, who would stop at my stall for a cup of tea,” Zahoor said.

“So, therefore, I decided to do something [come out with a mobile fruit cart] which would ensure the safety of my family as well as my community.”

Lockdown had threatened to starve Zahoor’s family before he came out on a different ride

Zahoor lives in Srinagar’s Rainawari. Every morning, he loads his bus with fresh fruits and takes his son—a Class 6 student along—for the survival ride.

While father acts as a brooding driver, the son styles as a silent conductor.

At twilight, the father-son duo often takes a ride to Fruit Mandi for fresh stockpiling.

Back home, Zahoor’s three daughters—Class 10, 9 and 8 students—are burning midnight oil to become the support and pride of their family tomorrow.

“Every evening when I return home these days, I could see some relief on the faces of my daughters and wife,” Zahoor said. “It warms my heart. They definitely deserve a better life, but given the situation we all are in, most of us suffer in silence.”

And what’s equally compounding this ‘silent suffering’ that Zahoor talked about is the unforthcoming nature of these families for help.

“We would better prefer to die in silence than spread our hands before anyone,” Zahoor said.

“It’s not arrogance. Most of us are like that in Kashmir. We’re proud workmen and we raise our families with our blood and sweat. But sadly, most of us are unable to do our normal work due to these frequent lockdowns in Kashmir now.”

Zahoor’s schoolboy son is among hundreds of students who are becoming helping hands for their family during lockdown

At his bus cart, Zahoor was still unable to make sense of the passersby’s growing curiosity. It was a different rush he was dealing with, unlike the one he would ferry in his bus.

Even as his altered drive was forcing some passersby to curse the curbs for changing his identity, he stood tall, for he was finally able to restore some calm and order in his home.

“Life in Kashmir is getting tougher day by day,” Zahoor said. “But as long as we’ve a will, we’ll keep fighting our odds. Good thing is, neither is this situation new, nor our fight back. We’ve seen the worse times in last thirty years in Kashmir. We battled the bad times then, and we’ll continue to battle them now.”

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