Kashmir’s Killjoys: Masked Marriages in Virulent Times

Photos by Abid Bhat

After suffering huge loss due to clampdown at the peak marriage season in the valley last summer, Kashmir’s wedding industry only bore the brunt of the viral threat perception during pandemic this year.

By Hibah Bhat

OWAIS SHAWL, 28, was harbouring a typical prospective Kashmiri groom’s dream filled festive marital jubilations until the lethal pandemic came as a bogeyman.

Looking forward to spend the “most memorable day” of his life with his loved ones, he was literally blushing over the idea.

“For me it was not about having an extravagant wedding,” Shawl, who got married amidst the pandemic lockdown, says, “rather, an occasion to celebrate a major life event with my family and friends and to make memories which we could cherish forever.”

When Shawl left home to get his bride, there was no signature folk-singing, no crackers and no convoy of cars. He was only chaperoned by his father and brother. Later that day, when he returned with his bride, there were no flowers, no lights, no camera, only a little action.

Such austere weddings became new normal in the paralytic valley facing the brunt of uncertain situation. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus early this year further reduced an “extravagant affair” to a low-key event.

The fear of being super-spreader by hosting larger gatherings forced many people to either postpone weddings or resort to simpler functions. For someone like Shawl, such austere measures only heralded a much-needed cultural change.

“At the end of the day,” he says, “I realised my wedding turned out to be better than what I had planned it.”

Since there’s a “spend more than you can afford” culture in Kashmir, Shawl believes, it takes a huge toll on bride’s family.

“It’s still easier for the groom’s family,” he continues. “Hosting bharaatis remains a big deal in Kashmir and for that, the bride’s family has to bear the brunt.”

Simple marriages during pandemic have already become a much-needed social intervention in the society grappling with late marriages. For a change, these austere weddings have made many hopeful, like Altaf.

A father of three daughters, this trader from Srinagar believes that there’s too much pressure on a girl’s family to keep up with the trends.

“It’s good that something positive has happened in these dark times,” he says. “I believe we Kashmiris need to fix certain social habits, including our fetish for wedding pomposity.”

In the same city where a common refrain remains that people are following their own madness-minded methods, the likes of Showkat—a cleric presiding over the Nikah ceremonies—often returns home disheartened these days.

“I don’t understand why we people have confined religion only to mosques and symbols,” he says in a miffed tone. “Islam is a complete way of life and yet we tend to overlook that fact when it comes to perform our marriages.”

According to Islam, the cleric explains in his routine sermonizing tone, marriage has to be simple and affordable event and not a vulgar display of wealth.

“But then,” he rues, “Kashmir follows its own idea of weddings, in a clear violation to the spirit of Islam.”

Despite Covid shedding some of those complexities, the valley’s marital mess remains deep-rooted. And clearly, many say, it stretches beyond the realms of religion and obligatory Qabool hai ceremonies.

Nowadays, it’s equally about hunting a perfect outfit, booking a dream venue and hiring the best photographer in town.

This diversification in the demands has over the years led to the mushrooming of professionals, thus transforming the local wedding industry into a sunshine enterprise employing scores of job-seekers and those who couldn’t somehow break into the government ranks.

However, the same industry, post-August 5, 2019, has disenchanted many who rely on it to make their ends meet.

“After last summer, suddenly everything was shut, and we could not move or work,” says Mohammad Younis, owner of Delhi Tent House in Rambagh, Srinagar. “Since then we’re just sitting, as there’s no business.”

After New Delhi scrapped Kashmir’s semiautonomous status last year, the ensuring clampdown crippled the local industry at the peak marriage season in the valley.

“Last year,” Younis continues, “I had many advance wedding bookings. It looked like a promising season. But then, it all came crashing down.”

As all his bookings got cancelled, anxiety gripped him. All of a sudden, Kashmir became a hopeless pursuit for him.

“After a long overhaul, we were hoping to resume our work in 2020,” Younis, sulking at his shop, recalls a harrowing time of his life. “Then Covid came and we once again became captives with shattered hopes.”

Even as some marital merriment has returned, there’re hardly any takers of Younis’s lavish tents and banquets.

“The earlier guest list of a minimum 400-500 people has now come down to 20-30 people, or even less,” Younis continues. “Why would people get a tent pitched for just 50 people?”

It makes sense too. “Who would want wedding to become a breeding ground for this vicious virus!”

But this arrangement is coming at a huge cost for the likes of Younis. He has already lost lakhs of rupees and his countable staff—whom he had to lay off in pandemic.

At present, Younis mainly receives orders for single copper plates that he has introduced at his shop to replace the trami system keeping in mind the social distancing norms. This move has altered the age-old Kashmiri culture of four people having food together from a jumbo plate.

“The transition from trami to single plates has reduced the quantity of the mutton from 4-5 quintals to 30-40 kgs,” says Ghulam Nabi Baba, President Anjuman-e-Behbood-e-Ashpazan, a body of traditional Kashmiri wazas.

A native of Waazapora, the heartland of Kashmiri feast chefs called Wazas, in Old Srinagar’s Rajouri Kadal, Baba recounts his tribe’s gradual fall and fading from the scene.

“What would normally require 15-16 people gets done with just 2-3 wazas now, because people are downsizing the marriage events and therefore there’s less cooking which requires less workforce,” he explains. “The situation has badly hit our livelihood.”

Many wazas under Baba now work on a shift basis in which they take turns to cook wazwaan in order to ensure that all of them get some earning to survive.

The dent created by lockdowns is equally impacting other traditional cogs in the wedding wheel.

Na chu kaar, na chu baar (We’re out of work as well as action),” laments matchmaker Fayaz Ahmad, in his single-room accommodation in Srinagar. “The crippling situation has only escalated our existential crisis.”

The affable person was eleven, when he became conscious of his different identity. It was the same feeling which makes his tribe believe that they’re “woman in man’s body”. But after facing brickbats, he abandoned his home, and started living with his ilk in a hushed Srinagar pocket. He eventually took refuge in matchmaking for living.

“This society isn’t leaving many choices for us to survive,” glum-faced Fayaz continues. “Amid slurs that are being thrown at our identities, we somehow survive on matchmaking, but Kashmir’s uncertain landscape is now robbing us from that source of living too.”

Unlike some in his community, Fayaz would also sing and dance during weddings. But as Covid literary consumed Kashmir’s festive weddings, he mainly sits home, wondering about the uncertain times ahead.

Wearing the same thoughtful face, Jasvinder Singh looks sullen at his shop in Srinagar’s Jawahar Nagar, where a street bustle is hardly cheering up this cloth merchant.

Running his forefather’s shop, Sajan Fabrics, Singh quips, “We’ve never seen losses at this scale!”

Barring 2014 floods and 2016 street protests, Singh doesn’t seem to recall as bad a time as he witnessed after the valley plunged into the abyss of communication crisis last year. Covid, this year, only became the last nail in the coffin.

Singh mainly sells seasonal bridal wears. But simpler marriages and smaller functions have cut down his clientele. The vicious virus has clearly dispirited the wedding-time festive flaunting.

“Even brides don’t want too many outfits because of the crippling situation,” Singh says

“Normally in a gathering of 400 people, there would be at least 200 ladies,” the merchant continues. “If we keep two outfits for two days that makes it 400 outfits, so we would sell in hundreds. Now that the gathering has been downsized to 50, it’s hard to even sell 100 suits.”

The trouble for Kashmir’s wedding industry doesn’t end there.

Few months after the abrogation of Article 370, when Sameer Ahmad reopened his shop, he was welcomed by withered flowers worth lakhs of rupees.

“I had to simply bin them,” he recounts.

Before August 5, the young florist in Srinagar had received many wedding bookings.

“For his function, one of my client had a budget of around Rs 3 lakh for flowers only,” Sameer says. “But in pandemic, he downsized it to mere Rs 35,000. In the end, the austerity axe is falling on us.”

From that point, the florist says, he has not been able to earn, and is no longer trying to market or bring newer varieties of flowers.

Clearly, many believe, in the current cauldron of crisis, big ambitions and dream projects are ending in despair. Along with Kashmir’s new-age self-starters, the traditionalists have also bagged whopping losses.

“In Kashmir,” says Bin Yamin Gulzar, “people usually make savings to build houses and do weddings.”

But since last summer, the pilot-turned-wedding planner says, the very idea of how Kashmiris plan or perform their weddings has changed.

There was so much of inconsistency in the system that even if people had saved money for the wedding, they did not know whether they should spend it or not, Yamin opines.

“The distress was never so deep for Kashmir’s wedding industry, as it felt in these lockdowns,” Yamin, who turned his father’s 45-year-old Gulzar Camping Agency into Gulzar Hospitalities in 2010, says.

Last year, like others, the wedding planner’s hands were full, before he saw his orders vanishing in thin air.

“If there was an investment of 100 percent in the wedding event, it came down to 30 percent,” he says. “And the trickle-down effect only forced us to think in terms of the survival of the fittest.”

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