With their tea stall open, two men defy the norm in a standstill Kashmir
Shutters are down. Shopkeepers are huddled in their homes. As far as the eye can see, one can notice barracks parked at regular intervals on the forlorn streets. The city resembles a ghost town, so much so, that the picturesque beauty of Dal Lake is admired only after sparing a thought for the desolate houseboats and anchored Shikaras.
Srinagar - reflecting the picture of the Kashmir Valley - is in hibernation mode, awaiting approval to function from a frail 87-year old man under house arrest. Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of Hurriyat, releases an agitation schedule, or "protest calendar", around which the Valley revolves.
Except for two men.
Business as usual
Mohammad Shafi, 50, and Mohammad Yousuf, 47, arrive at Lal Chowk's Lambart Lane in the morning with business-as-usual written all over their demeanour. The two cousins have been running a tea stall here for the past 25 years.
They have seen the grisly days of early '90s and are living through another hostile phase now. "Even when grenades ruptured the buildings around me in early '90s, I sold tea from this lane," says Shafi, taking a break from work, while Yousuf keeps the stall going. "But the current phase is no less a nightmare."
Shafi used to run a houseboat at Dal Lake before opening up a tea stall. The lack of money for the maintenance and repairs ensured the houseboat leaked and eventually drowned in the lake. He is diabetic and has to buy medicines worth Rs 200 a day, along with taking care of five kids - two daughters and three sons - of which three are studying."I admire my fellow shopkeepers for following the calendar," says the robustly built, kurta clad Shafi. "I even identify and endorse the cause they are fighting for. We are all sick of the repression in Kashmir. But I cannot afford to participate in the strike. I have a family to feed."
100 days of unrest
It has been more than three months since Hizbul militant Burhan Wani was killed in Tral, triggering an endemic of protests, resulting in over 90 civilian deaths and 12,000 pellet wounds. The disaffection of the years, piled on by the current burgeoning crisis, has led to a mass strike, or hartal, in the Valley. And the strings of the hartal are firmly in the hands of Geelani, who remains shackled in his house. He regulates the hartal with the ease of handling an electricity switch.
If Geelani declares Monday a "deal day" from 5 pm to 8 pm, Lal Chowk has the look of Marine Drive during the stipulated period, before obediently going back to being dormant. Except, again, two men.
The only corner alive in Srinagar on a hartal day is that of the tea stall at Lambart Lane.
In the past three months, it has become an adda of sorts for local journalists reporting from the ground. Even journalists traveling from the rest of India, or for that matter foreign journalists, have tasted Shafi's tea.