Sohag Banerjee of Kasba is click-happy in Kashmir, filling his 4GB memory card in a single session of shooting Dal Lake in all its frosty glory. Abdur Rashid of Baramulla is walking down a dusty Bally road around the same time, hoping he will get a job so that he doesn’t have to go around seeking donations anymore.
Abdur is one among nearly 1,000 “tourists” from Kashmir visiting the city this winter, their forced journey of discovery to the east as painful as the valley has been joyful for the Calcutta traveller experiencing the romance of a shikara ride.
“I never imagined we would be doing this…begging from door to door, you know. We are tired. Every day our villages are being bombarded. We are in the firing line of both the terrorists and the army. And then there is the snowfall and biting cold,” says Abdur, 24.
Over the past fortnight, these visitors have been spotted at many of the touristy places in town: outside South City Mall, at Howrah station, on College Street, in front of Dakshinapan, Victoria Memorial and Belur Math.
This group of mostly young Kashmiris carry a piece of paper each, detailing their plight and requesting donations. Some passers-by oblige, many don’t care to give a second look. It hurts. But as Rashid says, “at least we are assured of peace for three months”.
He lives in a camp under Vivekananda Setu (Bally bridge), his makeshift winter home one among 130-odd tents made of bamboo, plastic sheets and worn-out Kashmiri carpets. The camp population is made up of people from the strife-torn border districts of Baramulla, Anantnag, Budgam, Poonch and Bandipora.
Children of the displaced Kashmiris stay in touch with their studies at the camp. (Sanat Kr Sinha)
A few are students, such as Mehraj who is doing his post-graduation in English at Kashmir University. He has failed to get a job in the city because prospective employers ask for a guarantor the moment they hear where he is from.
When he is not out looking for employment or donations, Mehraj teaches children at the camp. “I believe this is just a phase and Kashmir will go back to being a happy place. Then I would like to visit Calcutta again, as an employee or a tourist,” he says.
Every visitor to the camp is greeted with a smile. They don’t mind the curious glances, they are only wary about the cameras.
“Ghar se dur koi dusre state mein sadak ke paas pada hoon. Mera photo mat lena, please. Agar humare state mein koi dekhega toh kabhi koi kaam nahi milega (I am away in a state where the street is my home. Don’t take my picture, please. If someone back home sees it, I wouldn’t get a job),” pleads a young man.
Almost everyone is apologetic about not being able to show Kashmiri khatirdari (hospitality). “If only you came to meet us in Kashmir,” says a woman.
The responsibility of collecting donations lies with around 15 boys and girls conversant in Hindi. Every morning, they split into small groups and board buses at Dunlop towards different directions.
“Whenever someone gives us an address where we can get some help, we go there,” says student Younis Nadeem (name changed on request).
The Jammu & Kashmir Student Relief Committee makes a list of the donations in cash and kind at the end of the day. The food and the money are then evenly distributed among the families by the eldest member of the camp, called Shah.
But why Calcutta? “We have camps in several cities. This one was set up by traders around three years ago and our numbers have increased because people have gone back and narrated stories about how Calcutta has a big heart,” smiles Younis.
Aparna Moulik, the chairperson of Baranagar Municipality, told Metro that water tankers were being sent to the camp every day.
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