The Boulevard’s cultivation hope

Srinagar: In the summer, at around 4 a.m. as people wake up for Fajr, the morning prayer of Muslims, Mohammad Ramzan Akhoon leaves his single-storey house, trudging along the crackling wooden steps outside the front door. This is his everyday routine.

Adjacent to his house, he opens the door of a little shanty laboriously and reaches out to grab the gunny bags full of vegetables that his wife picks from their kitchen garden. A few years ago, the shanty, which has now become a storeroom, served as the only shelter for the Akhoon family, one of the few last surviving families on a patch of land placed in the middle of Dal Lake in Srinagar. Most, who lived there, have left in search of better homes and better facilities to other parts of the city.

Akhoon loads the gunnysacks into his small boat, which remains fastened to a slender poplar tree, and starts paddling through the stream of water that passes through his home in Habak, Shanpora of Srinagar and leads him towards the Dal Lake.

After paddling through the murky water, he reaches his spot — a wooden skeleton fixed on the roadside where he sells the vegetables — on the boulevard, on the opposite side of Dal. He spreads a tarpaulin, which he takes off every evening, over the wooden structure and starts to stack up the veggies in front of him in this makeshift shop.

“I have sold vegetables on this spot for over 18 years. Five years ago, I set up this structure for my convenience. I don’t own this roadside. but the authorities have never touched my spot,” Ramzan says.

Right next to this makeshift shop, between the roadside and mounds of dredged silt and mud from the lake, is a narrow patch of land where Ramzan has grown turnips.

“In summer, I will sow collard seeds in it. It is like this. For people it is just a usual roadside, for us it is our livelihood. The situations we face compel us to make adversities into opportunities…,” Ramzan says implying that life teaches one to create something out of nothing.

Ramzan has efficiently made sections of the strip and cultivated various varieties on seemingly barren and useless land. Ramzan grows turnips, radishes, carrots, and collard, among other vegetables on this strip. He has been doing it for nearly eight years now.

“Our kitchen garden is not that big, so I came up with this idea to use this muddy mound of lakeside to cultivate vegetables. It does no harm to anyone. The earning from it in desperate times has fed my family,” he recalls.

In 2014, their shanty was flooded with water. For three years, the family lived in a single rented room in the neighbourhood. Recent times have also been hard for the Akhoon family. With successive lockdowns in Kashmir, the family found it tough to survive.

“Although the produce was abundant, there were no buyers. But I could not have afforded to stay stagnant. I started selling vegetables on a cart in the adjacent areas. That didn’t fetch much, but saved my family from starvation,’ he says.

The younger son of Ramzan, Mashooq, 22, is handicapped by polio. He stays at home with his mother. The responsibility to manage his handicapped brother has always been on Mohammad Iqbal, 25, Ramzan’s eldest son. With her mother toiling to grow sellable vegetables in the garden and his father braving the mercurial climate of Kashmir, Iqbal was the only one taking care of his brother at home.

“I love my brother. He is not a burden for me but, at times, one gets annoyed at one’s own life. My studies took a hit after 8th. I could not go to school regularly. So, I failed in my 10th exams,” Mohammad Iqbal says reclining against a poplar tree in their courtyard.

After some time, her mother, Hafeeza, was diagnosed with a back problem and was advised by the local doctor to avoid her gruelling garden work. Subsequently, Iqbal had to furnish his service for their vegetable business, leaving his studies.

“The decision still pains me, but the circumstances made it inevitable for me to continue studying. I believe I could have done better in my studies had I continued. But my family and I would have suffered,” Iqbal says.

With a sliver of hope of normalcy, Iqbal decided to leave his family’s business and start working in a clothing shop at Nishat. Iqbal works there as a proprietor to date, and according to his father, contributes to the family income handsomely. His engagement is scheduled for December this year. Ramzan still runs his vegetable shop on the Boulevard.

“Shukur khudayas kun (I am thankful to God)… It is hard to believe that some years ago we did not have a roof over our heads. We have a house to live in, I have an earning son ready to be married off, and I have a nice family. I am thankful after all,” Ramzan says in glee.


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