By Pradipta Tapadar
Kolkata: Driven by unemployment at home, hundreds of Kashmiri youths make Kolkata their winter abode selling a variety of woolens, mostly hand-woven, to customers who eagerly await their arrival.
Though insurgency has seen a decline in the Kashmir Valley, there is high unemployment among educated youths who are compelled to fan out across cities to earn a living.
Muzammil from the outskirts of Srinagar is one such youth who comes to Kolkata every year during the months of November to February to sell his wares.
“Joblessness is one of the biggest problems in the Valley. There are many educated youths who due to lack of proper job opportunities are forced to take up selling dry fruits and shawls,” Munzamil said.
Junaid from Srinagar has been coming to the city in winter for the last 15 years to sell famed hand-woven Kashmiri shawls to buyers who lap them up.
“We have been coming to Kolkata since 1998-99. We sell here hand-woven Kashmiri shawls and carpets. The city has become our winter home for the last 15 years,” 35-year-old Junaid told PTI.
It was back in 1998, Junaid recalled, when he accompanied his father to the city for the first time in search of an alternative employment.
“In the late ‘90s when the Valley was riven by militancy and consequently business was dull putting people like us into great economic hardship, my father decided to explore the markets of eastern India such as Kolkata, Patna and Guwahati,” he said.
Junaid sells Kashmiri shawls at north Kolkata’s Hatibagan area. Hatibagan and its surrounding areas serve as a hub of shawl and carpet-sellers, there are nearly 50 of them, catering to buyers in north Kolkata.
Like Hatibagan, there are places like Dunlop, Jadavpur, Park Circus and Gariahat where these youths set up their camps to sell their goods.
“The shawls and carpets we sell here are genuine hand- woven materials,” Rashid, who sells shawls at Gariahat, said.
“Before setting out for Kolkata, we go to villages during September-October where shawls are woven,” he said.
Rashid said that like hundreds of other vendors, the trip to Kolkata in winter also serves as an escape from the severe snowfall in the Valley.
On being asked how they make their living in the non-winter months, Junaid said it was not a big problem if the tourist arrival was normal.
“But, during the height of insurgency when tourist inflow had taken a beating, our business was also affected,” he said.
However, here too their business is no longer what it used to be even six to seven years back, for the reason that there are too many fake Kashmiri shawls and carpets being sold on the streets of Kolkata.
“There are many people who claim to sell original Kashmiri shawls and carpets, and as they are cheaper people naturally flock to them unaware of their genuineness,” some sellers said.
The price of a original Kashmiri shawl ranges between Rs 3,000 and 5,000 depending upon the quality of the cloth and hand-woven design, they point out adding whereas the fake variety fetches just Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500.
Junaid also observed that it was not a one-way trade for them. When they return, they stack up their empty sacks with traditional Bengal handloom sarees such as Dhaniakhali, Baluchari and Murshidabad silk, which are in great demand back in Kashmir.
Junaid, Rashid and others had a word of appreciation for Bengal’s friendly attitude towards them, saying in many parts of the country they are seen with an eye of suspicion.
“Not in Bengal, which has welcomed us with open arms, be it in Kolkata, Murshidabad or Malda. We feel like it is our second home during winter season,” Rashid said.—PTI