Bare Lives: Making Brooms for a Living

Every year, thousands of non-local migrant workers arrive in Kashmir from various Indian states to make a living. Many among them bring the raw material for making brooms, a trade which gives them a better life than they can think of in their home states.

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In the busy, dust-laden market of Batamaloo locality in Indian administered Kashmir, several non-local migrants are sitting on a pavement with stacks of brooms laid out in front of them. A lean, seventeen-year-old, Raju Ram is one among hundreds of non-local broom makers who arrive in Srinagar city every year. Raju came to Kashmir three years ago with his family and started making and selling brooms to earn a living. “This is the only profession I know. I can’t do anything else,” he says with a resigned look on his face. Raju inherited this occupation from his parents who, in turn, earned it from theirs, continuing a family business that has been going on for generations.

In 2011, Raju, along with his family, left Indian state of Rajasthan in pursuit of ‘a better livelihood in Kashmir.’ His father had been coming to Kashmir for more than eight years and he was drawing good business. “In Rajasthan, the broom making business is in decline. Kashmir is far better, although doing business here is a bit tough,” Raju says.

Raju looks older than his age. His face looks burned and he squints while speaking. Poverty and lack of opportunities in his home state of Rajasthan brought him to Kashmir. Now, every day is a battle to eke out a living for himself and his family. Raju rides an old bicycle atop which he carries his stack of brooms which he sells to shopkeepers around Batamaloo.

“My area of operation is Batamaloo. I don’t venture outside of that,” he says. His father travels to other places in the city, selling brooms made from the leaves of date palm trees, ‘which grow in multitude in Rajasthan’. To earn a living by selling brooms was a natural choice for Raju to make. “There is nothing else out there that I can do. My entire family is into this business, so why should I do anything else.” The money earned from this profession is very little. Raju says it’s enough to keep him going but life has no meaning for him.

“Poverty has taught me this lesson. The only thing I know is how to feed my belly.” The searing indictment is followed with a smile. “Ab Kya Karsakte Hain (What can one do)?”

Every day, Raju wakes up at 7 and immediately starts arranging the brooms on his bicycle. “I have to sell a lot of these before I leave.” For past three years, Raju comes every five months to Kashmir and stays for three months.

“During this time, we have to sell our entire stock,” he says. On a good business day, Raju sells about 20-30 brooms. “But business has been bad for many days now,” he says. The raw material costs his family around thirty thousand rupees and to earn a small profit on this involves battling day in and out amidst heat and rain. The only consolation for Raju is that in Kashmir, broom business is better than in Rajasthan.

“Kashmir is beautiful, but not without its troubles. The local people around the place we live trouble us. They want us to leave,” he says. His remark draws a suspicious look from a sari-clad woman who approaches us and takes Raju away. “I am his mother. Please stop bothering us!” she says.

Like scores of other non-migrant broom-makers, Raju lives in on a clearing of land converted into a slum dwelling on Jammu-Srinagar highway near Bemina locality. From a distance, the place looks like a mass of garbage until you see people moving about in it. Small tarpaulin covered hut-like structures lie scattered in the area. These are homes of the broom-makers, handmade by them. A foul stench wafts through the entire place, refusing to evaporate in the air.

In front of a makeshift hut whose contents lie about like the entrails of a dead animal, a woman is sitting on her haunches thrashing a broom on a spiked plane of wood. Her ragged clothes are featureless. Everything here is dirty, torn and reeking of stench. A naked, unwashed child is asleep in the hut as another plays in the dirt.

Khema, a man from Rajasthan in his thirties, is talking to few customers. His wife is in process of making a broom, thrashing the thick date palm leaves on a spiked wooden surface to make them thinner and perfect for a proper broom. The entire family has remained unwashed for months on end. “There is not enough water here to drink,” says Khema’s wife. Khema arrived in Kashmir some two months ago with a stock of brooms to sell. Khema is worried that his stock will not be finished in a month. “Ramadan was a good month for business,” he says.

Khema first arrived in Kashmir eight years ago with a promise of earning a decent livelihood to his family. The money he has earned barely goes above subsistence. He recalls his life in Rajasthan as one of perpetual misery. “Rajasthan is poor. There is not enough to eat and a consistent water scarcity. In Kashmir, we are far better off,” he says.

Khema’s twelve-year-old son, Billo, carefully begins to take off the tarpaulin cover of the hut they live in. On the previous night, strong winds and rain had blown the cover of their hut, exposing the entire family to rain. “But we managed to not let the rain affect the brooms,” Khema says. He joins his son in rearranging the tarpaulin cover.

Billo is an eager looking child who has come to Kashmir to help his father, leaving his studies midway. Khema believes it is time for him to learn the trade of how to make brooms. “There is not much he can do with himself if he studies. It’s better for him to learn the trade as early as possible,” he says.

Asked what brings him to Kashmir every year, Khema rubs his belly and utters a single word – ‘bhook‘ (hunger). As he finishes tying the tarpaulin cover to the roof of his ‘hut’, it begins to rain again.

Originally published here — https://www.authintmail.com/2014/feature/bare-lives-making-brooms-living

IRFAN MEHRAJ 

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