The kaleen waan (carpet loom) has been packed away. In the space it once occupied in Fatima Begum’s home, her brother Mohammad’s family has moved in to save on household expenses. “We stopped weaving after my brother tested positive [for Covid-19] in May 2021,” says Fatima Begum. She and her husband Nazir Ahmad Bhat have been weaving carpets for nearly 25 years in their home in Bandipore district’s Gund Prang village in Kashmir.
Fatima’s younger brother Mohammad Ashraf, 32, was a taxi driver before the pandemic and subsequent lockdown halted his work. He worked at the local taxi stand and earned up to Rs. 6,000 a month. “He sold his Tata Sumo in 2019 as there was an order to cull old vehicles,” says Mohammad’s wife Shahzada, who does all the talking as her husband struggles to speak, his history of asthma compounding the Covid symptoms.
The Rs. 1 lakh they got for the sale of his taxi helped them get through the year following the March 2020 lockdown, when Mohammad couldn’t drive a taxi. Their sons – Muneer, 12, Arsalan, 10 and Adil, 6 – continue to attend tuition classes given by a postgraduate student in their village. The tuition fees for the three children comes up to Rs. 3,000 a month, including notebooks and pencils.
Mohammad tried to keep up with daily wage work (sand collection) on the banks of the Jhelum river, that earned him Rs. 500 a day. He was irregular because his asthma made it difficult to do this work.
On May 21, 2021, when Mohammad began to feel breathless, Shahzada rushed next door to Fatima and Nazir’s house for help. They couldn’t get in touch with anyone at the local CHC [Community Health Centre] in Hajin to call an ambulance. “My husband, son and brother walked three to four kilometres until they got a lift and reached [CHC Hajin],” says Fatima, recalling the long journey with a sick man.
When they arrived at CHC Hajin – one of the three CHCs in Bandipore district that has a population of over 3 lakh people – no help was forthcoming; not even after Mohammad tested positive for Covid. “The doctors weren’t even coming close to the patients,” says Nazir. Mohammad needed oxygen support the next day. His family immediately did all they could to move him to the only government hospital with oxygen in Bandipora town – the District Hospital Bandipora (DHB).
“I was reciting holy verses from the Quran in the ambulance. It was one of the toughest and longest journeys of my life,” says Nazir who travelled with his brother-in-law Mohammad on the 22-kilometre journey to DHB.
Mohammad’s wife Shahzada is nine months pregnant – the child is expected any day now. Worried and anxious about her husband, she says, “When he was shifted to the district hospital I sold my earrings the next day. They were worth 8,000 rupees, but I sold them for 4,500 rupees because we have to buy things for the children, for the house and to cover our medical needs.” Struggling to run the house, Shahzada along with her four young sons and Mohammad’s elderly mother Raja Begum moved to Fatima and Nazir’s home.
Left: Shahzada Bano getting a pregnancy check-up at CHC Hajin in Bandipore district. Right top: Ten-year-old Arsalan is one of Shahzada and Mohammad’s four sons. Bottom: Shahzada with her two-year-old son Azaan. Photos by Umar Para
At the district hospital, Nazir is occupied with taking care of Mohammad. “Someone has to take him to the washroom with his [oxygen] concentrator. We have to feed him, give him his medicines and speak with the doctors,” says Nazir’s son, 21-year-old Waseem. A second year student of the Government Degree College in Sumbal town, Bandipore, Waseem has not been able to attend a single online class in the past month. “My elder brother Mashooq had to drop out of school after Class 10 to work and support the family. Jamsheeda [sister] is partially blind, and she could not study beyond Class 9. Only Asifa, who is my youngest sister, and I have been able to study,” he says.
When Mohammad’s condition deteriorated, he was shifted to Sher-i-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS), in Srinagar. He was finally discharged after nearly three weeks of treatment there. Despite being discharged, the toll on the family’s finances has not eased up. The family borrowed Rs. 25,000 from neighbours in May and relatives have also pitched in. “We have spent more than 57,000 rupees only on mamu’s [my uncle’s] hospital bills. Many are still pending,” he says, visibly worried about the weight of the debt.
Then there is the continuing post-Covid care of the patient that Nazir and his family must arrange for and manage. “The village auqaf (also spelt as waqf) committee donated an oxygen concentrator for him as he needs it day and night. But we face power cuts here every two to three hours and so we have to rent a generator for 500 rupees a day. We spend an additional 1,200 rupees for the diesel to power it,” says Nazir.
Nazir’s eldest son Mashooq, 25, has been doing any daily wage work that he can get – often on construction sites in and around his village. He earns around Rs. 200 a day for this labour. The family of 10 are trying to manage with this and the generosity of relatives. Fatima says it’s a daily challenge.
When Mohammad’s family moved in, the loom, which occupied one of the three rooms, was put away to make space for all the ten of them. Fatima and Nazir’s carpet weaving work came to a standstill. “We started making a kaleen last year and will get paid only after delivering it,” she says. This carpet will earn them around Rs. 28,000. They have a contract with a shop-owner in Srinagar who drives down from Srinagar by car, bringing naqshi (designs) and the raw material pann (a mix of cotton thread and sheep wool) and rang (dyes) with him.
Fatima says it takes her and her husband working eight hours a day, six days a week, for almost a year to complete a five feet by six feet carpet. “I learnt from Nazir when we got married. I was 15 and he was 16 at the time,” Fatima recollects. “I have been doing kaleen-kaem [carpet weaving] since it paid five rupees a day. Even now, what we make [80 rupees a day] is not enough,” says Nazir.
The 2011 census notes that carpets are one of the most important commodities manufactured and exported out of Hajan town, just six kilometres from Fatima and Nazir’s home in Gund Prang. Yet, carpet weaving families like theirs don’t earn enough from it to sustain themselves. When the apple season commences in September, Nazir picks up work as an agricultural labourer for a daily wage of Rs. 400. But the work lasts only 10 days. He earns the same amount sowing rice for four to five days in June and July.
Nazir and Fatima’s precarious financial situation has worsened with the many debts taken for medical expenses and the lack of space to continue with their one guaranteed source of income – weaving. Shahzada is grateful for the support and for having her husband back from the hospital. With Mohammad now home, and Shahzada’s child expected soon, their debt continues to rise.
Umar Para is doing an undergraduate course in journalism at the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU); he has been pursuing photography for a few years. He says, “The way PARI tells stories was a learning experience for me. I learned that little details matter. I had to cross-check everything from the spelling of someone’s name to whether their village had been recorded on the census. This process was a lesson in finding data that makes the story truthful.”