Bilal, an 18-year-old boy from Lawaypora, Bandipora (North Kashmir) who collects garbage from Asia’s biggest fresh water lake, Wular, in order to earn his living, is now the brand ambassador of the Srinagar Municipal Corporation.
Bilal is also the subject of a documentary by Jalal, a local filmmaker. Jalal wanted to make a film about Wular Lake; while at a tea shop in Srinagar, he met Bilal, who was serving customers. Jalal was intrigued by Bilal, but when he returned to the tea shop at a later date, he found the owner had been fined under the Child Labour Act for employing Bilal and wasn't disposed to sharing any information about him.
A few months later, Jalal was shooting at Wular Lake, when through his 400 mm lens, who should he see but Bilal! The boy was collecting garbage from the lake. Fishing, or scavenging nuts from the lake was one thing — but why garbage? Jalal decided to ask Bilal.
Bilal told Jalal his story: his father had passed away when Bilal was eight. Bilal left school to support his family (an elderly mother and two sisters), who lived in a mud house on the shores of the Wular. He would collect plastic bottles and polythene from the lake, and make a living by selling the trash. Later, Jalal visited Bilal's home and felt even more connected to the boy and his story. He decided to make Bilal the focus of his documentary instead.
Jalal filmed Bilal as the teen went about his work at Wular Lake, and the documentary (Saving The Saviour) won several accolades — named the second best film at Shezhen, China; the Palmdale Vision Award in California, and a slew of prizes at the 6th NSFF, Mumbai. The Srinagar Municipal Corporation also named Bilal their brand ambassador.
Bilal is now a popular figure; people know him and appreciate what he is doing. Bilal’s home in the village of Lawaypora is about three km from the Bandipora town. When we went to a restaurant there to have our lunch, Bilal selected a good one. Everyone seemed to know him — even the restaurant owner, and Bilal was greeted warmly by other patrons.
When we drove to his place, Bilal made sure he greeted everyone he knew along the way, and we stopped when he saw his friends and waved at them. His neighbours greeted him like a star. At his home, where his mother waited, Bilal changed his clothes, collected his oars, and took me to the Wular Lake. We picked a boat from the banks and then Bilal began his work, collecting the trash from the work. Here too, he was hailed by others on the lake — including a gaggle of girls. I asked if he had a girlfriend, and Bilal blushed, admitting that after his story was reported in the press, several girls would call him up and ask if he was interested in a relationship. 'I have so much to do though, who has the time to think of love-shove?' Bilal told me, even as the big Chinese handset he carries rang several times. To each of the callers, he replied that he'd call them back. Turning back to me, he wondered if being famous and having a job was such a big deal.
Bilal told the people he met that he would soon be travelling, and that he'd be visiting the US. The filmmaker, Jalal, confirmed that Bilal has some seminars/award functions lined up in Delhi, Chennai and later, the US. Bilal for his part, is happy that his fame has made it possible for his sisters to study further and for his mother to have anew house. As for cleaning the Wular, Bilal says it's a job that gives him satisfaction, and that it means a lot to be able to help in cleaning the lake that is part of the place he calls home.
All images courtesy Javeed Shah
Bilal with his mother at his mud house in Lawaypora, Bandipora, North Kashmir, about 70 km from Srinagar.