Srinagar, Jan 19: Around 30-metres ahead of the cremation ground on the busy Batamaloo-Karan Nagar road, Nandini, an eight-year-old girl is sharing her snack with a stray dog as she helps her mother in sorting the used clothes at their stall.
The plot is a hub for the migrant workers involved in the trade of buying used clothes in exchange for new utensils.
Nandini and her brother, a couple of years older than her, are helping their mother, Sunita, in folding and stockpiling the used articles as they call it a day.
Sunita (50), a member of the Waghri community, whose women are known as Bartanwalis, has been in this business for the past two decades.
Hailing from Ahmedabad in western Indian state of Gujarat, Sunita says she learned the trade from her in-laws. A broad smile deepens the wrinkles on her forehead as she goes down the memory lane.
Opposite to their stall, Kundan Kishan sits crossed legged behind a pack of warm clothes with colours like red, violet, beige and black visible from a distance. Grey, blue, brown, and black trousers are stacked in another column. Above Kishan’s head, camouflage track pants and baby jackets are hanging on the fence.
His stall, like every other here is multifarious - from kids’ jackets to women sweaters to denim pants to traditional Kashmiri pherans, the migrant vendors sell almost every kind of thread here.
From Rs 150 to Rs 700, depending upon their condition and types, used articles are sold at different rates here.
While many of the sellers are second generation businessmen, several others like Kishan are from the third generation.
They buy utensils like frying pans, pots, pressure cookers, sauce pans, and other steel-made cookware items and then roam around different parts of the city to sell them in exchange for used clothes, says Kishan, putting his hands inside his jacket pockets to keep them warm.
Other than steel utensils, they give plastic buckets and tubs too, however, unlike steel utensils, which they purchase in bulk and as per weight, plastic items have to be purchased according to an item's price, Kishan explains.
Those utensils and containers are then exchanged for second-hand clothes by going door-to-door in different parts of Srinagar.
They accept clothes of every type and size, however, reject those whose conditions are too bad and almost irreparable, he clarifies.
Kishan says they roam the city for around three days a week during summers, collecting whatever they can, segregating cold and warm clothes and those that need repairing. Then stitch and iron them before putting them on for sale.
However, during winters, they don’t go out and instead stay at their stalls selling whatever warm clothes they have collected during the summers.
The warm clothes, he says, sell sufficiently in the cold season, enough to put food on the table for them and their families during the harsh winter.
The best sales as per Kishan are done on Fridays, Sundays and Mondays.
Kishan is a 42-year-old man from Delhi’s Tilak Nagar and has travelled to many parts of India, like Gujrat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, in quest of earning his livelihood.
However, for him, Srinagar has proved to be the best place for doing business and to feel a sense of security.
The claim of feeling secure is seconded by every migrant seller here, who say most of them are from “low castes, making them a victim of racism in other parts of the country.”
“We are treated very well here, not only in the market but even when we go door-to-door to exchange utensils with clothes, Kashmiri people invite us inside and offer food, ration and sometimes money too,” migrant vendors say.
While Kishan has been here only for only seven years, many migrant workers say they have been here for the last three decades and are a witness to the hospitality of Kashmiris.
Jagdish Kumar, a 59-year-old man from Gumat Chowk in Jammu is one such vendor who has spent over three decades here. He has been here during the turbulent political situation in ’90s, 2005 earthquake, 2014 floods, and COVID outbreak.
Kumar says he has never felt threatened by Kashmiri people and during the desperate times, he says his Kashmiri acquaintances always helped him.
“Like me and my children were their own, they provided everything from money to ration even as they took care of my kids,” Kumar recalls.
Rajesh, a thin and cheerful man from Punjab’s Tarn Taran district, says he has been doing this business for the last 25 years in Kashmir.
“Before coming to this plot, I used to peg my stall near the Batamaloo chowk and one day a firefight took place in the area, I kept my head down and looked around, when suddenly a Kashmiri vendor grabbed my hand and took me to a shelter,” Rajesh recalls comically.
The thing that has changed and slightly affected them, is the amount of rent landlords here charge them, Rajesh says.
“Before, I used to pay between Rs 800-Rs 1000, but now rents are around and over Rs 4000,” laments Rajesh as he helps Kishan in packing the stock.