Desperately Dependent

For centuries Kashmir managed winters with traditions evolved by generations till the rundown Srinagar-Jammu road helped plain to find a market. Syed Asma reports how residents manage hedging the risk of getting into incommunicado during winters

Dried-Food-StuffOn a hazy January afternoon in 1990s, Fatima had her eyes stuck on the main door. She was expecting her father Mohammed Younis to move in and congratulate her for her success in the examinations. Younis had proceeded on leave from his Jammu office. He, however, did not enter. But the phone rang up.

Fatima jumped to pick the phone expecting it to be her dad. But it wasn’t him. It was somebody from the Police Control Room (PCR). The family was informed that Younis’s car skidded on the icy highway and fell into a deep gorge. He was dead.

Younis was reduced to just a number in the frequent tragedies that have frequented since pre-partition days on Kashmir’s 294 km long ‘arterial highway’. It has ruined lives, impacted economy and the lifestyle.

“The condition of the road is much improved now but accidents do take place though numbers have reduced,” says a cop, who was deployed on the highway. “There are certain spots which are still dangerous.” But the cop’s observation exclude the winters when weather throws the highway haywire. Traffic Police officials say the road faces interruptions, almost four times a week, during winters. If there is sliding or a stretch caves in, it can go for weeks, they say.

Kashmir’s location made it accessible only to adventurers and invaders. Residents throughout ages were aware of the topography and rarely remained dependent on the outside supplies. Historically, salt and tea were the principal items being imported from Indian plains and the wool from Tibetan plateau.

Realization of this limitation made people self-dependent. Dried vegetables and massive storage of pulses for winter were the key outcome of this phenomenon.

A resident of Nowshehra, Haleema is almost 85 years old and she remembers her chorus of managing winters for her huge family. Their day started with Dalcheen Kehwa and ended with Gulkand. Different Khamirs treated their illness, and there would be cereals, dried vegetables and pickles in lunches and dinners. For almost six months houkh seun would dominate the kitchen.

Hamidullah, her husband, would purchase vegetables in bulk from the market. With other females around she would wash, cut and convert it into garlands and keep it hanging for drying up. “We used to sit and sing while working, at times created our own lyrics,” she said. “It was such an enjoyment and we used to remain busy all day.”

In not so distant past, homes in Srinagar and the villages would look, as if decorated, by long garlands of brinjal, turnip, gourd, chili, quinces, apples and fish. “It was a common practice then, every house – big or small, rich or poor, city or in village, would do it,” insists Haleema, now a great-granny. Tomatoes would be cut open and dried on mats.

Then, there was another system of preserving some of the vegetables like turnip, reddish, onion and the potato. They lay buried in ground in a meter-deep hole called khau thus preventing it from the frost. Covered by straw, the khau would be opened once the vegetable would be required in the kitchen. It is a natural system of extending the life of some vegetables in cold regions and is still in vogue. “It was our way of refrigerating things,” says a smiling Hamidullah.

Other items that would help residents manage their winter better for protein was the poultry and the migratory birds. Then, homes would rare a small poultry that would be consumed during winters.

Houkh seun, says satirist Zareef Ahmad Zareef, was a big market then. Bohri Kadal, Zaina Kadal and Gadi Kocha were the main three markets. “Traders would purchased fresh vegetables from Dal dwellers, dry it and then load it in boats and get to Bohri Kadal through Nallamar,” remembers Zareef.

The markets are still around but it has stopped selling what it once thrived on. Mohammed Shabaan is eighty and he was a whole-seller in Maharaj Gunj. Now he spends most of his time home. “I don’t like to be on the shop anymore. The market has lost its charm,” Shabaan says.

Change of Maharaj Gunj was the natural outcome of the change in political geography of the place. With almost all routes connecting Kashmir with the rest of the world closed, the erstwhile Banihal Cart Road became the main contact. After the Baihal tunnel was set up, accessibility increased.

Post- tunnel, 24-seat lorry was introduced and people started moving out for Rs 9 to reach Jammu in 12 hours. Then, Zareef says, bus would leave from the Tourist Reception Centre. Soon after the trucks jumped on the roads and gradual improvement in affluence made Kashmir depend on Jammu, and Punjab.

Now all kind of fresh vegetables and fresh fruits from across the world are available in the market. With the local market immensely dependent on ‘imports, the highway plays spoilsport. Every time the road closes, Kashmir gets tense. A dozen odd controlled atmosphere stores (CAS) are now planning keeping part of their spaces exclusively for fresh vegetable storage.

Haleema and Hamidullah, however, still live in a different world. They feel shocked over the availability and consumption of fresh vegetables.  “I don’t know what it is,” Haleema says. “How can they get grapes or a tomato in winter?”

But the septuagenarian couple does not know the tradition survives. To hedge the risk of vegetables getting off the shelves, people have not closed the option of consuming houkh seun. Farmers still sun-dry the surplus vegetables they grow during summers consume part of it in winters and sell the rest to the city. See around, tradition survives in modern Kashmir.


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