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April 3, 1997


Homeward bound!

Pallavi Agarwal

Mohammed Yakub
Mohammed Yakub
If you want a fan club for yourself in what has often been described as the most beautiful state in the country of India, you don't have to be a militant leader any more. All you need to do is have the power to reopen all the cinema houses in Jammu and Kashmir.

On the face of it, it might sound ludicrous. Especially since you are talking about one of the most violence-prone states in India. But the youth of Jammu and Kashmir are not interested in wielding the gun any more. What occupies their attention today is a slim little gadget called the remote control. And a glowing 24-inch screen.

The beleaguered people of the land have secretly installed dish antennae in their houses in a desperate attempt to escape from the world of violence to the world of fantasy. This, despite the fact that electricity, whenever it manages to reach their homes, does not last for more than three hours.

Weary of the violence, animus and politics that has destroyed the very ethos of what life meant to them, the youth of Kashmir are seeking relief in the world of celluloid. They are keen that the latest film releases reach them as soon as possible, they hope that the new year will be characterised by its peaceful nature and that there will be more money to go around. All of which makes them sound like the next door Bombay kid. Except that these 20-something-year-olds are not exactly next door. And they are no longer kids.

"The situation in Kashmir has improved considerably over the last five months," says 25-year-old Mohammed Yakub, as he fingers the delicate Kashmiri handloom fares, now the lifeline for his people.

Yakub is a typical Kashmiri with alabaster-white skin, lanky build and a very Kashmiri nose (One of the characteristics of the Kashmiri people is that they have unusually long noses). He is at present in Bombay for the Indian Handloom Expo '96 fair organised by the Maharashtra Handloom Cooperative. The handloom cooperative society that he works for in Jammu has set up a stall.

Working with him are other youngsters including, surprise of surprises, a Sikh whose family has been based in Kashmir for generations. Twenty-three year old Surjeet Singh speaks Kashmiri and Punjabi with equal ease and wears the archetypal 'sardar' turban with pride.

Yakub, who has been educated till high school, sounds quite unhappy with the fact that he earns only Rs 1,800 from his job at the handloom unit back home. Yet, conversely, he is grateful since he has friends with better educational backgrounds who are doing the same kind of work but are earning less than he is. According to him, eight out of every 10 youngsters in Kashmir were either unemployed or employed in the handicrafts business which has now become the mainstay of most Kashmiri families. A sad fallout of the violence that has racked this beautiful land.

"Qualified doctors can have private practices," says Yakub, "but there is no value for engineers. Some qualified computer scientists, whom I happen to know, have migrated to Russia for jobs. You can't even get a government job here any more, not unless you have political connections."

Yakub was well-informed about everything happening in the rest of the country, to the extent that he even knew a lot about the on-going hawala racket where many political heads have rolled. He was also extremely well-informed about Zee TV. "I try," he grins shyly, "to watch at least three Hindi films in a day." It is his fervent hope that the latest Hindi films will be released in Jammu and Kashmir on par with the rest of the country.

The turbaned Surjeet shares Yakub's passion for Hindi films. The fact that he is a minority in a state where most others from minority communities have horror tales to relate does not seem to bother him. "Why should it?" is his straightforward question. "Muslims and Hindus have always been great friends of mine. Besides, all those Kashmiri pandits who had fled the land are all coming back." In fact, the relative normalcy in the present situation has left Surjeet - "Log mujhe pyar se Sanju bulate hain (I'm affectionately called Sanju by everybody)" - okay, Sanju, hoping that the situation would improve even more in a year's time if normalcy is maintained.

If you would like one word to describe these Kashmiri lads, it's confidence. Despite the fact that they are in a strange state - for most of them, this is their first trip out of Kashmir - and the fact that they are dealing with people who speak strange tongues (Marathi, the language of the state of Maharashtra and Gujarati being the main languages used), they are at ease. They handle querulous customers with a professionalism that would normally be associated with people much older than them.

Within five minutes of opening a conversation, they are already talking to you as if you are their best friend. But if the topic is not to their liking, they will clam up and turn hostile. And the minute you revert to something they want to or like to talk about, they are all smiles and bonhomie.