This girl wants you to 'Dial Kashmir'
Meet Mehvish Mushtaq, the first Kashmiri girl to develop an Android app dedicated to the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
When she wanted to telephone a cousin's school some years ago, Mehvish Mushtaq was lost.
The school's website was down.
She didn't have a phone book handy and there weren't any directory services that could help her with it.
After considerable search, that included calling up the cousin's classmates, she finally got the number.
Then there were occasions when a hospital's number wasn't easy to come by.
Each time a situation arose, she would scramble for information.
Mehvish Mushtaq stays in Srinagar where information isn't easy to come by.
Telephone numbers and contact details are available but they remain scattered online.
So when as part of an online course on Android application development, Mehvish Mushtaq was required to create an app, she knew just what she wanted to make.
"There was an urgent need for an app that made available all the relevant information at one place. When the assignment was handed to me, I thought to myself: 'Why not make something useful?'" she says.
Dial Kashmir lists out everything there is to know about Jammu & Kashmir -- from phone numbers and addresses of essential services and tourist attractions to contact details of local business and prayer timings.
An update even has a gallery featuring breathtaking photographs of everything from the Char Chinar to the Dal Lake and Kashmir at its glorious best in spring.
With this, the 22-year-old has become the first Kashmiri girl to have developed an Android app.
It has also made Mushtaq something of a celebrity not just in Kashmir but also online.
A user, Nisar Sofi, gushes about it on the Google Playstore page: 'This is an awesome application I have ever seen. (I) love this application (...) no words to mention, very interesting and useful.'
But Mushtaq still seems to be the girl next door, shy, not very media savvy and a woman of (very) few words.
None of her responses go beyond a couple of sentences:
How has the feedback to Dial Kashmir been?
You are an inspiration to many of us. In what light do you see yourself?
"I am humbled... It makes me push harder to achieve something more."
But sitting behind a computer screen, somewhere in Srinagar, Mehvish Mushtaq has been quietly and patiently chipping away, making the app more user friendly, ironing out the creases, removing the bugs...
When you insist on her elaborating on her response about the feedback she's received, Mushtaq doesn't talk about the glittering function in Mumbai where she was recently felicitated.
Instead, she recounts the time when someone was able to track down the number of a government official or that other time when someone else was able to contact the municipal corporation to remove a dead animal from the street using her app.
Those, she suggests, are the achievements that really matter.
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Image: Mehvish Mushtaq developed 'Dial Kashmir', an Android app that helps people of Jammu & Kashmir find phone numbers and addresses of essential services and tourist attractions to contact details of local business and prayer timings in the state
Photographs: Courtesy Mehvish Mushtaq
This girl wants you to 'Dial Kashmir'
Mushtaq, who holds an engineering degree in computer science SSM College for Engineering and Technology in Srinagar, credits her family for her achievements.
"My mother is a homemaker; my father is a retired Indian forest service officer and my elder brother is an engineer who also holds a degree in business management and works in New Delhi," she writes in an email response.
"They have all been there for me whenever I needed them.
"They have never held me back from trying new things and have supported all my decisions."
Such unflinching support, she says, goes a long way.
It also means she has the liberty to not work full time and focus all her energies on the app, which by all accounts is an all-consuming task.
Mushtaq updates the contacts every week. This is crucial, she says, for the app to stay relevant and useful. But she refuses to divulge the number of contacts available on Dial Kashmir.
When she started out, Mushtaq spent weeks scrounging the Internet for databases and numbers of essential services in Jammu & Kashmir. For commercial services, she simply requested businesses to email her their details.
"Getting the contact details and classifying them was the greatest challenge," she writes.
Every once in a while, Mehvish Mushtaq travels to New Delhi where her brother works.
She is struck by the infrastructure in the capital but refuses to draw any more comparisons between Delhi and Srinagar.
She does however say that today's Kashmir "may not come across to you entirely as what the media depicts."
"It has changed.
"It is evolving with times.
"People have changed and so has the situation to a certain extent," she says.
Women, she adds, are now being looked at differently.
"The perceptual change has been about the roles women can play both at home and outside," Mushtaq says.
"I guess people realise now that how much homemakers contribute to society or how difficult it is for women to achieve a work-life balance."
However, she also admits that "to be able to live a normal life in the face of conflict remains the greatest challenge before young people today".
"I would not say it's all picture-perfect here, but people are picking up the pieces to move towards a better future," Mushtaq says.
That, she says, is what makes her optimistic about the future of Kashmir, a place she says she won't leave.
Even thought she refuses to get into the details, she says she plans to start a business and provide employment to the people in the Valley.
But for now, Dial Kashmir remains her priority.
"I would like to make it a one-stop shop for all information about (Jammu &) Kashmir, enable everyday people to connect better with the government services and just make finding essential information easier.
"It has to be worked upon," she says, "It has to be made better."
Image: A Kashmiri man rows his boat in the waters of the Dal Lake on a cold winter evening in Srinagar
Photographs: Danish Ismail/Reuters