Srinagar: Her red-cheeks and black-dyed hair defy her age. But at 75, Noora’s appearance is deceptive. The lady who once served fried delicacy to two Prime Ministers of Kashmir, Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, isn’t anymore attending a beeline of the eager customers in front of her renowned signpost of fried snacks in old city’s Naid Kadal. Just like her crumbled house in the area, this famous snack-seller has battered to the point of renouncing her trade she served since sixties. And, the same is spreading an apparent wave of nostalgia among the locals of old city and elsewhere.
Naid Kadal with its medieval structures is a typical old city locality. A lane at a few steps from the main road opens up to Noora’s shop. Down the lane is a graveyard located in the lawn of Naqashband Sahab shrine where the martyrs of 1931 are buried. A thick layer of dust on the shutter of her shop is a glaring sight. Behind her shop, Noora lives a secluded life in an otherwise vibrant neighbourhood. The congested area is crying for some space, so does Noora who is confined within the four walls of her room and is silently battling with her bad health.
For almost six decades, the locals say, Noora’s absence from the shop was a rare sight. “I am 55,” says Abdul Majeed Khosa, a local, “but since my childhood, I would frequently visit Noora’s shop to buy mounj’guel.” “Because of her consistency,” he continues, “and of course, her delicacy, she remained a popular figure in old city throughout her life. In short, Noora is somebody, who needs no introduction.” In fact, says Shabaan Dar, a local grocer, Noora would have been still running her shop, “hadn’t her sons turned her down…”
In her mud-painted room, Noora is playing a warm host in spite of health problems. The body language of this mother of three sons is apparently striking some imaginary relationship with the visitor. With her damp eyes and long pressed smile, she signals an apparent depth of her longing for something she lost. “I mostly put up alone here,” she says, while frequently shaking her head. Some health complication has triggered nonstop head shakings in her. Over the years, the same has become her signature move.
“My sons after marriage decided to live separately.” Suddenly, her apparent longing starts making a sense now. “And now, they want their share in this house, but at the cost of rendering me homeless. Sometimes, I visit my daughters, but I can’t stay with them forever for obvious reasons.” She has three daughters besides three sons.
But before Noora was forlorn, her shop would be seldom shut. After her sons started moving out with their families, she started feeling the burden until one day she couldn’t shoulder it anymore. “I have no regret what they did,” says Noora, a widow, “but yes, at least one of them could have stayed back and shouldered his family trade which wasn’t bad at all.”
Noora was 15 when she came to Naid Kadal as a bride in early ‘60s. “As a bride, I was very beautiful,” her eyes sparkle while recalling her pleasant past. “A few weeks after my marriage, I started helping my father-in-law and husband on a shop.” At the outset, the teenage bride would chop vegetables and prepare marinated mixture for snack making. “Later, I learnt to prepare certain unique snacks from my father-in-law,” she continues.
Monje’guel, mostly sold around Sufi shrines in Kashmir, is made of the lotus stems found in the lakes of Kashmir, besides with potatoes, onions, fishes and chillies. The chopped vegetables, chillies and fishes are mixed with rice flour and other ingredients. The mixture is then deep fried twice to make it crispier.
It was her father-in-law, she says, who “introduced” a few well-known variety of snacks in the local market like besrakh or a cup-shaped sweet and kande ghazri or a finger-like sweet. “After my father-in-law made it,” she says, “others followed.”
Earlier it was believed that either their makers have quit the line or have passed away. A handful of snack makers mainly made these sweets, that too on the eve of Eid, marriage ceremonies or religious festival at local Sufi shrines. Both of these sweets are now making comeback in Kashmir markets. Even confectionary and bread shops of Kashmir now sell besrakh.
Noora kept experimenting and came up with new varieties after the demise of her father-in-law. “It is me who has introduced marchewangan (marinated chillies) in the menu of mounj guel,” she claims.
The new varieties gave Noora’s family a distinction of being the ‘first among the equals’ in the galaxy of Kashmiri snack makers in old city in past. As word spread, many known people would place their orders from her shop. Among them was late Kashmiri leader Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah for whom the delicacies from Noora’s shop would be sent to jail. “I remember, it was early 60s and I had just started making snacks. During the same time, we started getting orders from Bakshi as well as Sheikh Abdullah who was in jail at that time,” she says.
The vacuum, left behind by Noora and other traditional snack makers, is now being filled by non-Kashmiris. Every evening, people could be seen encircling carts run by the people from Bihar and UP to relish snacks in many parts of Valley. Besides, being a tourist place, Kashmir receives lakhs of tourists annually. And to woo international tourists, Kashmir ’s tourism department keep organising the traditional food festivals. But traditional snack-makers, like Noora, are ruing over “indifference” toward them. “See, we mainly include those items proposed by hoteliers and other stakeholders. Our job is to provide a platform and nothing else,” Talat Parvez, director tourism department Kashmir told this reporter. Parvez, who in recent past went to woo tourists in Israel, says the state tourism department is yet ‘to spare a thought’ to highlight mounj guel in their menu.
Inside her room, Noora awkwardly stands up and opens the door of her storeroom packed with black-tinted frying pans and large plates. “Look,” she points at her dusty utensils, “everything has come to standstill,” she says and shuts the door.