Arbaz is 14 years old. He is poor, illiterate and malnutritioned. However, in spite of the odds, he is the only earning member of his family, taking the responsibility of 7 other people. He is a sledge-puller living in a decrepit corner of jannat – Gulmarg, one of the most beautiful hill stations in Kashmir. And, it’s Arbaz who is the protagonist of my blog.
I got introduced to this young man three years back when I visited Kashmir. From the moment I set foot on the Kashmir soil, I was enchanted by the breath-taking beauty. It was January and covered with snow all over. It felt like Kashmir was an unearthly land with a blissful beauty. I experienced the first snowfall of my life in Gulmarg. At that moment I felt even if I have to die the next day there would not be any regrets.
No wonder it’s the land that gave birth to and further triggered several royal romances. Sultan Yusuf Shah of the Chak Dynasty got mesmerised by Gulmarg’s beauty where he often visited with his beautiful mistress, Habina Khatoun in the 16th century. He was the one who renamed this jannat as Gulmarg, Meadow of Flowers, from its original name Gaurimarg or The Fair One by the shepherds, in the honour of the Hindu goddess Parvati.
Gulmarg was also witness to the romance of Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his Begum Nur Jahan. The localities still boast about the fact that the wild flowers of 21 different varieties were collected by Jahangir for his gardens from here.
I shared my enthusiasm with Arbaz and told him how lucky he was to live in such a beautiful place. He seemed confused. All the beauty, romanticism and unearthly qualities vanish away with hunger pangs, he told me. Being the eldest in a family where the father got killed by militant insurgency, Arbaz was denied of his childhood at the age of 12. He willingly shouldered the responsibility of the entire family of 7. As if he had any choice.
While the -14 degrees centigrade was an out-of-the-world experience for me and other tourists, for Arbaz it was a harsh reality along with the bitterness and disgust associated with the struggle for daily existence in unnaturally cold environs. He longed for the summer days when the weather will be slightly better. Enjoying Kashmir while staying in plush hotels with central heating system is a completely different experience than struggling with the decreasing mercury during the freezing nights.
Arbaz said he made decent business in the tourist seasons but even then it was not enough to keep his family going comfortably. He admitted to having attended school when he was very young.
But it is not the studies he craves for. He longs for the endless games he used to play with his friends when he was much younger.
Unfortunately, a land that is only blessed with beauty, Kashmir till date does not have the multiple modern facilities enjoyed by similar hill-stations in Europe or America. So Arbaz can only pull the sledge during the day. He hopes against hope that he will find other job options for the evenings or nights but now all that he does in the winter evenings is sit with his family and suffer in the cold. “Winter is the worst time of the year for us poor Kashmiris”, says Arbaz.
One thing that touched me about Arbaz was that even when he was voicing the most dejected and depressing incidents of his life, there was a twinkle in his eyes. Probably, it’s the confidence of the youth. Slowly maybe the glitter will fade away and get dimmed with the passing years, or probably not.
One of Arbaz’s friends, tired of the dejection and hopelessness of this place, had run away. He is now leading a better life in Delhi. But then better is a relative term. Is he happy running away from home, family and his duties? Arabaz doesn’t know what the future holds. Maybe he will die like his father, or run away or be a sledge-puller throughout his life till his shoulders wear out from the burden.
Dusk was approaching and soon it started to snow from the heavens…