Located on Lambert Lane, Mohammad Yousuf runs a tea stall from a small cart. These days his customers are only reporters who throng the cart for a cigarette and a hot cup of coffee with some snacks. “Business is not brisk, but I am earning enough to feed my children,” said 47-year-old Yousuf, a resident of Rajbagh in Srinagar, who has been running this teacart for the last two decades, as a group of BSF soldiers order for four cups of tea and an omelette.
Yousuf has been operating his tea stall, without any interruption since Kashmir started protesting the death of Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander Burhan Muzaffar Wani on 8 July. More than 70 civilians and two policemen have died and thousands have been injured. What makes the current wave of unrest different from the earlier two is the sheer number of people blinded-partially, or fully, by pellets guns, which the central government has refused to ban.
Yousuf's tea stall is the meeting point for reporters who hang there for a breather before rushing to meet deadlines. Even as the Valley was under curfew for over 50 days, Yousuf religiously opened his tea stall every morning without any objection. "Even during the worst days of militancy in the early nineties, I never stopped selling tea. But the last fifty days have been a nightmare. When police sees a lot of rush here they shout and say ‘close it down,'" said Yousuf. “I have to take care of my children and their studies. For their sake, I take the risk of coming here, despite this strict curfew,” he added.
Yousuf says he sells more than hundred cups of tea, not just to reporters, but also to paramilitary forces, who are deployed to keep the protesters at bay in Lal Chowk area. “First they (forces) used to tell me to shut my stall and I would remain on tenterhooks but when they realised I was the only one selling tea around here, they they became my customers," Yousuf explained.
Yousuf's stall is also hotbed for news. Civilians, once in a while, also visit the place to get an update on the situation in the Valley over a steaming cup of tea. They are most interested in when the Centre would announce concession on Kashmir and streets will be alive again. The steps leading to the closed shops work as makeshift benches for Yousuf’s customers. Stray dogs too assemble around the cart for the leftovers.
“It is the only place in this dead city were we can come and have a cup of tea and update ourselves on what's happening. It is better than an emergency gate of the SMHS hospital," Iqbal Kirmani, a reporter with local newspaper Kashmir Reader said.
Journalist from Delhi and elsewhere, covering the latest spell of protests, are an also seen around Yousuf's stall which is the only lively thing in the Lal Chowk Area. Prominent hotels have closed down, restaurants are shut and dozens of hotels in Srinagar had to layoff their workers once the curfew started stretching longer than anyone had imagined.
"It is sad but we had to shut the hotel because we couldn't afford the losses," Sajid Farooq Shah, owner of the Comrade INN hotel in Rajbagh, said.
Kashmir's economy has suffered a tremendous loss of around Rs 6,400 crore due to the curfew which last for almost two months. And even if reports surfaced that the curfew has been lifted from Kashmir, any possibility of life returning to normalcy anytime soon seems like a distant dream. "Kashmir is suffering losses of about Rs 135 crore daily. This estimates to over Rs 6,400 crore so far," Mohammad Yaseen Khan, president of Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation (KTMF), said recently.
The tourist hotspot of Boulevard Road in Srinagar is desolate. Hardly any soul can be seen around, apart from the gun-wielding soldiers, as residents peep though the windows of their houses after hearing a tap on the street. The once bustling bazaars and sparkling houseboats in Dal Lake are silent and lifeless; more terrifying in the night than the day. Policeman guard a chest-high barricade covered with coils of concertina wires, and hardly allow anyone to move towards Boulevard road.
"How can we talk of our business losses when people of Kashmir are getting killed and maimed almost every day,” president of Kashmir Transport Welfare Association (KTWA), Haji Bashir Matta, said.
In Srinagar, where curfew has become the way of life, Yousuf's tea stall has come to symbolise life and how to keep hope alive in a conflict-ridden region. Where there is no sign of life visible for miles, this tea vendor gives hope, not just to the reporters, but also to others others who throng his cart.