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  • Writer's pictureMeher Fatima

Dhaba Talk: A Window into the Community

Does conflict and politics still define the lives of the people of Kashmir or are there more pressing challenges facing the communities? Meher Fatima attempts to decode this on her recent encounter.

There is an element of curiosity to traveling alone on public transport. In such scenarios, one observes the surroundings more keenly. There is more scope to explore the areas in an uninhibited manner. Such an opportunity came up for me recently. I needed to travel from Jammu to my hometown, Doda, for a marriage. The visit, at maximum, constituted three to four days. So, I convinced my family to let me travel by bus. It is strange but I feel traveling alone in a bus is much safer than traveling in smaller vehicles (being a woman is tough!). Nevertheless, my family agreed.

Jammu to Doda is a two-hundred-kilometer stretch. My hometown is situated along the banks of the river Chenab. Doda is a valley, surrounded by hills on all sides. It is not as expansive as Kashmir though. These dhabas on the roadside are a characteristic part of the cultural landscape in the region. These local dhabas in the Chenab region and Jammu share culinary similarities with dhabas in Punjab. Though Punjabi dhabas serve more palatial options, dhabas here mainly offer vaishno (vegetarian) and Kashmiri cuisine in non-vegetarian. This is a fine example of cultural confluence. These dhabas cater to locals as well as foreigners alike. These establishments emerge in the most humble of settings, their essence lies in serving eatables at minimum cost.

These establishments are usually localized. They are not found everywhere. Most dhabas are located at a few places where most buses and cars halt for meals.

Usually, I have visited these places along with my family. Thus, there did not remain much room to interact. So, when our bus stopped at one such dhaba, I saw an opportunity. Since I was unaccompanied, I decided to interact with the people running the establishment.

There were two prominent dhabas in the area and incidentally, the dhaba, otherwise called 'Vaishno' dhaba with a Hindu owner served only vegetarian food and the one with a Muslim owner served non-vegetarian food. There are certain locations en route Jammu-to-Doda where such dhabas or cafeterias exist side by side, a subtle sign of firm segregation but harmonious coexistence. Also, Muslim Hotels usually serve both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food. The Vaishno ones also welcome people belonging to all faiths. That is why I termed it as subtle segregation. I went inside the Muslim one. I did not go to the other one as it was crowded. There were only three people inside. The owner looked at me with slight surprise. It is not every day an unaccompanied woman comes inside the premises. He was probably in his forties, while an older person worked as his assistant. I ordered rajma chawal. This is a famous thing to try in a dhaba around Jammu (though not comparable to Rajma Chawal in Punjabi dhabas).

Rajma Chawal is a famous delicacy of the area.

After finishing my meal, I asked for the bill. It was quite cheap, almost sixty rupees for a plate for a plate of rajma chawal. I asked him how are they able to provide affordable meals when the prices of basic ingredients are getting high. He said inflation is indeed a factor but most of the people who visit these dhabas include truck drivers, bus drivers, labourers and other minimum wage workers engaged in transit. They try to keep prices at the lowest so as not to turn away these people who cannot afford beyond a limit. This widens the scope of their earnings as well. By keeping prices low they attract customers almost from all strata of society (actually the economics of dhaba). I kind of agreed with what he was saying.

I also enquired if the women in the area visit these places alone. He smiled knowing well I caught his surprise. He said women, unaccompanied, remained a rarity. Although he added some groups of female students visit sometimes. This, again, underlines the importance of dhabas for the local population as they also serve as public spaces for women to socialize.

A peak into the inside of the dhaba.

Then I ventured into political territory. Since a Vaishno dhaba existed next to his (a Muslim's) hotel, I asked him if he faced any kind of ‘issue’ in recent times given the state of politics. He dismissed my inquiry by saying one cannot afford politics in this business. Theirs is a local small business that is essentially dependent on the number of passengers or drivers visiting them. Hence volatile politics does not concern them as their businesses depend on passengers and other people engaged in transit and transport. In a contemplative tone, he pointed out the futility of such engagement and quipped how they would be bargaining starvation as a cost of deliberative involvement in politics.

A fountain of natural spring water near the dhaba. It is used by everyone visiting the same.

He also pointed out the impact of developmental work on the businesses in the area. For instance, before the tunnel at Nashri came up, the sweet shops and dhabas flourished around that area. Since the inception of its construction, and inauguration, the businesses were forced to relocate. Coincidentally, the area where this dhaba is located was also being expanded for the construction of a tunnel. He said while the tunnel considerably shortens the traveling time, it would impact the local business. These local businesses then have to start from scratch at a new location as they do not get enough compensation from the administration for the relocation.

He was worried if this route is also surpassed their businesses might take a hit. Before I could discuss more, our bus driver signaled us to board. I paid my bill and thanked him for giving me time.

This brief conversation was quite insightful. about politics, well, yes, it has become difficult to wade through it. After revocation of the Article 370, political verbatim in the region has gone down significantly. Locals are more careful with their political utterances as the consequences of saying or doing something politically controversial may lead to unwanted attention and security convergence. I remember in one of the popular dhabas my family and I visit frequently, the owner installed a signboard of “Political discussions not allowed”. Coincidentally, the owner of the said dhaba is a Sarpanch himself. Once, when I was with my Uncle's family there, my Uncle asked him why he installed the board. He replied his dhaba being a public restaurant, and 'open to all faiths', must not get dragged into anything pestering. In hindsight, it seemed he was more worried about his political prospects and did not want anything politically controversial to get caught on camera and lead to the closure of his business. It highlights how people are more worried about the impact than the issue itself. One could understand the dilemma confronting the owner. It is one thing to be critical but the combination of being critical and being from Jammu and Kashmir can prove taxing. It may often lead to some undesirable consequences!

The other issue of the economic cost of development is also an important one. Before the Nashri tunnel was erected, the Kud-Patnitop route was the most feasible connection between Jammu and Doda-Kishtwar districts. As a result, Kud had a sprawling market of sweets and other eatables which attracted many customers. After the tunnel, most of these businesses had to relocate, some even shut down. The administration was also not able to adequately compensate the business class. This shows different sides of developmental works and their impact on the local economy.

The local economies need a continuous supply and need to earn daily to sustain themselves in these uncertain times. So, not everyone can afford to take sides in the name of politics.

This journey became an insightful one. This made me realize that while politics is a constant disruptor, people have worries beyond it, and sometimes those worries overpower political frictions. One such issue is the economy. The local economies need a continuous supply and need to earn daily to sustain themselves in these uncertain times. So, not everyone can afford to take sides in the name of politics. Many people have families to care for and a community to look after.

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