My maternal grandfather’s pockets were always full of coins and everyday one of them was mine. It was invested into me everyday with a smile and a tap on my back to run and buy whatever I liked.
It was like, “Go child, go, the world is yours.” A one rupee coin invested into me with love and confidence brought me amazing self-esteem and self-worth. It gave me the freedom to choose what I wanted to do with it–everyday.
It gave me relationships, ideas, interactions, communication and it also brought me an amazing awareness of downtown Jammu city whose gullies I ran through fast on my small toes to spend that one rupee.
It bought spiced chana (black gram) in thick creamy yogurt from Nanku, a packet of Chinar biscuits from Maldar’s hatti (shop in dogri), four kashmiri rotis from the shop where kashmiri youth kneaded dough with their feet, a few Cadbury toffees from Maun’s dukan and wonder what not.
Each of these was a story that’s today literally worth significance in the market. Chinar biscuits was Jammu and Kashmir’s lone biscuit brand–it was what Parle-G is to India today or what Oreo is to the US in terms of brand awareness.
Everyday evening grandfather whom I called Baaji would be sitting in Maldar’s shop on an old wooden bench and the moment I would appear his one hand would go on the shelf to fetch me a chinar packet and the other would give one rupee to Maldar.
Today my grandfather, Maldar and Chinar have all passed away. In fact today it’s hard to find any original brand from Jammu and Kashmir with that kind of mass, cultural appeal and indigenous identity.
Nanku’s spiced channa in thick, fresh yogurt has also passed away with him. Downtown’s Jammu taste buds have evolved to momos, chowmein and spring rolls while retaining its kachaloos (taro spiced chat), samosas and sweets. Nanku’s family today sells pastries, cakes and aerated drinks. Until someone like Vikas Khanna rediscovers Nanku’s recipe, I fear the net worth of Nanku’s idea will die forever.
In the 100 meters of the market around my grandfather’s home, there was an ice cream factory, gold and silver jewelry shops with skilled craftsmen, grocery stores, bakeries and eateries.
Today they are reduced to groceries selling almost nothing local, eateries and a library on subscriptions where young people can spend time.
Like in the rest of India and in many regions of the rest of the world, the local industry in Jammu died being taken over by the global corporations. Jobs got shifted to metro hubs with small cities in India turning into human resource production centers.
While in the rest of India, local innovation and start-ups were encouraged, conflict didn’t allow that to normalize in Jammu and Kashmir until in recent years. So while those educated moved out of Jammu and Kashmir in search of a better life, those left behind with no job market skills were pushed to face a difficult social context and an ill equipped educational ecosystem which in early 1980-90s was only about a few public educational institutions.
I remember in my grandfather’s generation helping an ill-equipped son with a job was either about “sifarish” or about seed investment in a shop or a matador in Jammu. What happened with those who had neither of these? How did societies in Jammu and societies in Kashmir cope up with this respectively? What happened to the psychosocial parameters of these societies?
Sources told me today there are a total of 89 start-ups in J&K registered with the state authority under the new start-up policy that started in 2018. And there are 1842 start-ups from J&K recognised on the StartupIndia portal. Let’s compare it with Delhi and Karnataka.
Delhi and Bengaluru are the startup capitals of India with a total of 5000 and 4514 startups, according to latest reports. Compare the gap and leave behind some of the leading national corporations that were once startups in these regions.
I’m sure the investment reality in Jammu and Kashmir is more nuanced and while there’s a push by the administration to encourage investment, there’s a need for more research and enhanced policy support. While start-ups have to be encouraged, focus has also to be cultivated on a wholesome eco-system that encourages innovation and investments.
Dreams and Paper Boats
Surprisingly, despite having seen almost all wars that India, Pakistan fought, Baaji never talked about conflict or politics. Every morning I found him reading newspapers in his friend’s shop, an army veteran. In fact he talked and lectured me very less.
He would raise his head from behind the paper and smile at me. When rains would flood our street, Baji would sit at the door making paper boats with the same newspapers.
We would then put them into water and watch them disappear into the flood. Whenever I expressed disappointment at a drowning paper boat, Baji would say, “No problem! We can make a new one.” Today when I reach my grandfather’s home, I still feel the same excitement and hope when I see that newspaper cupboard.
Today there are a record number of locally published newspapers in Jammu and Kashmir. I myself counted over a dozen local English newspapers in a Srinagar street last year and I have sighted around a dozen of English and Hindi locally published stuff in Jammu as well.
The veteran is dead and his shop is converted into a restaurant and people no longer have time to sit in shops and bazaars to chit-chat.
We are all the time on smartphones and everyone has their own. We are hooked as unaware consumers of content and booked through our devices that without our knowledge may be connected to the deep web. Geopolitical watchers are worried about global powers infiltrating our phones, collecting our data for their AI and manipulating our minds and emotions through social media.
While Jammu streets no longer flood during rains, our minds and phones are flooded and have turned into a war zone. Where did this manifest first–inside or outside?
Numerous locally published newspapers don’t mean local, original stories and stellar journalism like what I have witnessed in a few family run or small scale journalistic endeavors in the United States. Yes, I expect that quality!
Infact Jammu didn’t even have a professional journalism course until a department was set up at the Central University Jammu in 2014. An alumni of the department, Pallavi Sareen, incubated Jammu’s first social media based news network in 2018 in a living room in downtown Jammu city. Called The Straight Line this endeavor for the first time ever started focussing on stories beyond mere conflict and party politics. It functioned from within a car for two years.
Lullabies and Visions
Baaji would sing lullabies to me in gibberish with such excitement and joy that even today they reside in my head. Though they were in gibberish, they were in Dogri tones. That’s culture and identity! Even in illegible words and even in silence it has an essence.
He would take us for walks through the long road of the Hari Niwas palace and tell us stories of kings and queens. I still keep exploring them in history and records.
While the lullabies in each moment of nostalgia translates into a new meaning, a new idea.
Bajji was very fond of animals. He was even friends with a street oxen, Bilu. Bilu was notorious for his temper in downtown Jammu. He would attack people and charge at honking cars.
Everyday morning he would come to Bajji’s door for food and Bajji taught me how to overcome my fears and be friends with such a toughened animal. I still live with that instinct and confidence about facing critical situations.
Today when a veteran journalist and a friend told me about $38 billion of annual contributions from small town India to the IT industry and about the need to invite FDI to small towns and not just the metros of India, I thought about Jammu.
Why were we devoid of such an ecosystem? What happened to us as a society and as people? What’s the journey going forward?
My thoughts speedily transverse from Bajji’s encouraged world to my cultivated endeavors to many people I have started to connect on this journey from “Kashmir to Haridwar.” May we remain sincere in our quest and may we cultivate inside what we envision to manifest outside.
Seventh in a Special Series titled ‘From Kashmir to Haridwar’ based on family history, anecdotes, cultural linkages and ancestry by journalist Venus Upadhayaya. Read the other articles here.