This Ramzan has been an altogether a different experience for me. I was reporting for The Citizen on Gujjars being targeted through a communal narrative in certain areas of Punjab and adjoining Himachal Pradesh. And while talking to a cross section of social activists I stumbled upon another story on shawl sellers from Kupwara and adjoining areas of Jammu and Kashmir.

Just like any reporter I collected some numbers of the persons trapped in Punjab and some of them in the Una district of Himachal Pradesh. As I collected information calling a few of them for details, someone circulated my number amongst the larger community facing hardship. They flooded my phone with calls for help.

They were facing a difficult time. To begin with the heat was becoming unbearable. The money they had earned during the winter season from November to March was running out as the lockdown had compelled them to use it for their survival. Many had not been able to collect the monet from the market in the first place. And were worried about how their families at home would manage without these earnings.

Their biggest worry was food. Like workers across the country they rented single rooms in groups of four or more, just to sleep. Normally the day was spent outside, trying to sell the shawls in different localities. They ate outside at the dhabas and with the lockdown all these were shut, with food vendors also being put out of business. They did not have ration cards to procure cheap grains, and did not have the utensils or stoves required to cook in the rooms.

As a reporter all I could do was raise their concerns which I did through The Citizen. Beyond this I was equally helpless but for the Kashmiri Shawlwallas I seemed to be their only link to the world outside.

One person who called me persistently on behalf of several others was Rayees Khan who was trapped in Amb area of Una district. The pain and anguish in his voice was too overbearing as he kept talking about his anxious parents and siblings. These shawl sellers were also concerned about managing the fast of Ramzan that was around the corner then. Looking for some way to help them I started calling friends in political circles, mainly those working on the ground, and many of them from the Left parties . They all promised to do ‘something’.

A couple of evenings later I again got a call from Rayees. He was speaking in a choked voice thanking me. I was wondering what had happened when he said, “We have been delivered a gas cylinder and a stove. Our life has become manageable for Ramzan,” he said thanking me on behalf of all the members of his group.

Till date I am unaware who was responsible for just supplying them with these basic items but I am relieved that they got some help.

I thought the calls would end but that was not to be. Around midnight that I got a call from an old man showering blessings in a Kashmiri accent. The man introduced himself as Rayees Khan’s father.

As if this was not enough, early next morning there was another call. This time it was the sweet voice of a young girl who introduced herself as Tabassum, Khan’s college going sister. She also expressed gratitude. There was another lady beside her who was speaking in fast paced Kashmiri. All that could be understood was the word ‘Dua’ and the rest was incomprehensible. Tabassum said that the voice was of her mother who had been praying for me during Ramzan.

From that day onward I became friends with the family. Rayees Khan managed to reach Kupwara when the two state governments spoke, and allowed the Kashmiris in Himachal Pradesh to hire private buses to drop them to the Jammu border, from where they went to their respective districts. And served the mandatory period of quarantine.

Throughout Ramzan there have been calls from the family almost on a daily basis. The old lady continues to speak in the background in fast paced Kashmiri as chirpy Tabassum translates her words as blessings and an invitation to visit the family. Tabassum has been talking about life in Kashmir and her own small dreams. She has been sharing her Ramzan experiences and once even gave a call at the time of Sehri. She is concerned about the lockdown and the COVID19 outbreak.

Her father and Rayees have been calling to extend invitations to visit them as soon as things become a normal. They have also promised to get in touch when they come next season to sell shawls saying they would visit me.

As Eid arrives, I am looking forward to greeting my new friends on their biggest festival along with my old friends. The pandemic has been very painful, particularly when pictures and videos of migrant labour trudging back to their homes amid hunger and misery have been giving sleepless nights. There has been disgust at the manner the COVID19 outbreak has been communalized and empathy for the poor has been lampooned.

The only silver lining has been to have made friends over the phone while working as a journalist. I do intend traveling to Kashmir and visiting them once travel is safe and life returns to near normal.