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A Date with a Kashmiri Shawl Seller

The writer sketches a beautiful and touching portrait of a Kashmiri shawl seller, who with his pleasant countenance and genuine demeanour wins the heart of the writer.

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In the post pandemic world, pathophobia still persists. Even now, opening doors to strangers provokes anxiety and fear. However, if the visitor happens to be a salesman with a honey sweet tongue, then all caution is thrown to the winds. This is exactly what happened one afternoon in December last year.

When the doorbell rang my wife opened the door. The caller was a peddler of Kashmiri shawls, stoles and phirans etc. My wife was categorical in telling him that we didn’t need anything he had on offer. But he insisted on showing the stuff. In order to make it clear that we didn’t want to buy anything, I too joined my wife. 

The moment he saw me, he greeted me, “Sat Sri Akal, Sardar Sahib. Aap Punjabi log bahut khule dil wale ho …You Punjabis are very large-hearted. Have a look at the clothes, just once; it wouldn’t cost you anything. Believe me, you won’t regret it.” There was something in his countenance and easy, unhurried manner that told me that we could trust him. He wore a grey woollen waist jacket over a black sweat shirt. A collared and cuffed grey kurta under the sweat shirt and matching ‘pathani’ salwar completed his outfit. His rectangular face, dimpled chin, deep set light brown eyes giving prominence to his brow, slightly convex wavy nose, and greying unshaved beard accentuating his roseate complexion bespoke his Kashmiri identity.

His persuasive manner melted my resolve and I couldn’t help opening the door to him.  Placing the bundle of his merchandise on the floor, he took out a fringed magenta sheet of cloth embroidered with flowers, spread it on the floor and sat on his knees to charm us with his measured eloquence and woollens.

Displaying an embroidered green phiran, he addressed my wife, “Sister, look at the fine needlework. Wherever you go wearing this phiran, people will bestrew your path with flowers and shower rose petals on you.” Then without giving any time for my complexion to turn green at his praise of my wife, he turned towards me: “Sardar Sahib, not one, you should buy at least two for my sister. People will envy your luck. You should also have this fine kurta for yourself, not one but two. You will look like an emperor walking by your queen’s side.” He must have uttered these words on umpteen occasions to many customers, but still he appeared different from any ordinary huckster. Moreover, affirming my intuitive trust in him as it were, he didn’t ask for the moon for his wares. So there was no haggling, something I hate doing while dealing with unscrupulous shopkeepers and street hawkers.

 

We purchased a few clothes from him. But I wasn’t done with him when he started getting ready to leave. Being addicted to oral narratives, my instinct told me he had interesting tales to narrate. Wanting to prolong his stay, I offered him a cup of steaming hot tea. The enticement worked as it was an unusually cold day. Holding the cup in both hands, he slurped the tea with relish.

Gulzar Ahmed Attar, this is his name, told us that he is a resident of Arigohal in Anantnag. He has a cloth shop in Pahalgam which remains shut during winters because of snowfall. It is during this period that he tries his luck in Patiala. He has been coming here for the last thirty years. His business had slumped because of covid. But he still came to honour his bonds with his customers. His son owns a small cloth shop in Abohar, Punjab. Controlling his emotions with some difficulty, he said that his daughter, who was now a student of M.Sc. was ‘just a small bundle of pink candy floss when she was born.’ In fact, he added that his eldest daughter had accompanied him to Patiala this time. She looked after the lodgings and kitchen. His pride in the scholastic achievements of his daughter was palpable in the manner he spoke about her. Looking skyward, he thanked Allah for the eldest one showing a path to the two school going younger ones who wanted to follow the trail blazed by the brightest star of the family.

I requested him to allow me to take his photographs, a wish he granted readily. I took his phone number. The idea was to listen to his stories again on the pretext of buying something from him.

We called him in January, about a month after his first visit. He brought some Kashmiri almonds, walnuts, a stole and many more stories as gifts for us. This time he talked about the natural beauty of the place where he lives in Kashmir. His ambivalent attitude to tourism was apparent in his remarks: “Sardar Sahib, we need tourism. We cannot survive without tourists. But there’s a heavy price that we pay for making our living from tourists.” When I raked the topic of militancy in Kashmir, his answer was poignantly illustrative: “We’re pawns on the chessboard of politics. If we keep silent, we’re killed; if we speak up, even then we’re killed. Bullets that strike them come from both sides. But still, Kashmir is very beautiful. Kashmiriat is still alive. You must come to Kashmir.”

When we gave him something for his daughter, he accepted it with both hands, a gesture of gratitude. When he took leave of us, his parting words were: “Allah willing we’ll meet again next year. Take good care of yourself and my sister. Whenever you come to Kashmir, come to us. We have a small house but a big heart. Acha Sardar Sahib, Sat Sri Akal.” He left for his home in February. We still exchange pleasantries now and then on the phone. 

In my childhood I was besotted with Tagore’s 'Kabuliwala'. Gulzar seemed to be a visitant from that childhood fantasy. He brought with him a whiff of his home and many stories for us to cherish forever. I know, we will be waiting for him every winter.

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Swaraj Raj is a former Professor of English, Head, Department of English and Dean, Faculty of Languages Sri Guru Granth Sahib World University, Fatehgarh Sahib, Punjab (India). He writes in his leisure time.