People who know the value of the hand-embroidered salwars, buy from us regularly. But many people don’t understand or value the workmanship.
The past two winters, when the temperature dropped in Kashmir, and it grew too cold for farming, 21-year-old Ishfaq Ahmed hopped on a train, and three days later, came to Chennai. He brought with him hundreds of hand-embroidered salwars and saris. In Chennai, he carries them around in a big 25-30 kg bundle, and sells them door-to-door. Standing outside an apartment complex in Santhome, nearly 2400 km south of his hometown, Awantipora, Ishfaq talks of life as a seasonal migrant…
“Awantipora is very, very beautiful,” Ishfaq tells me, his English tinged with a little nostalgia. “It is near Srinagar and, this year, there’s been heavy snowfall.” The climate there effectively determines the people’s occupation. In the warmer months, agriculture is practised widely. “Rice, saffron, walnuts, almonds, mustard — they’re all grown.” Ishfaq’s family too depends on the land. “My father is a farmer. He grows rice and saffron in his fields, and uses both tractors and oxen. But all that is only from April.” In the colder months, the work moves indoors. “My sister, my family, almost everybody takes up embroidery in winter. Kashmiri embroidery is very difficult, and it takes anywhere between five to 15 days to finish one garment,” he says, showing me richly-worked fabrics from his white cloth bundle.
Although the pieces are very beautiful, Ishfaq says people are not always open to buying them. “People who know the value, buy from us regularly. Anna Nagar, Indira Nagar and Besant Nagar are good areas for sales. But many people don’t understand or value the workmanship.” To sell his wares, Ishfaq leaves his temporary home — a guesthouse in Triplicane, where he lives with some people from his hometown — right after breakfast, and travels around by bus, auto or share-auto. “A cook from Kashmir stays with us. He makes us our usual ‘namkheen tea’ (salt tea) and roti, in the morning. We return in time for dinner, and that’s mostly rice with a veg/non-veg side-dish.”
While in Kashmir, he hardly knew anything regarding Chennai, but now, he’s quite familiar with its lanes and bylanes. Ishfaq is also fond of the local food, and his only grouse is how hot it gets here in summer. “I don’t think I can bear the April heat!” he laughs.
The reason why he travels right across the country is purely an economical one — there aren’t any major industries in Awantipora, except the ones that make cricket bats. “Willow trees grow mostly in Kashmir, so bats are made there.” Tourism brings some revenue; but when the region is blanketed under two to four feet of snow, and colleges are shut, Ishfaq — along with a dozen people — set out to earn some money. “When I return, in April, my college will re-open. I’m studying B.Com.”
Chennai, Ishfaq says, is a lovely city, and he gets by with English and Hindi. “I also know konjam Tamil,” he says, smiling. His regular customers place orders for salwars, saris and scarves, which he sources for them; and occasionally, he also brings dry fruits from Kashmir. And while business isn’t bad, and the money is okay, walking around with a 25 to 30kg bundle slung on his shoulder, all day, is tiring. Is he used to it, I ask, as he lifts the bundle, in one smooth arc, onto his shoulder. But Ishfaq only smiles…
(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)