Four years before the armed uprising, he came to Kashmir on an educational trip. Kolkata was still Calcutta when he decided to stay with the defiant population and braved hostilities on them. With the conflict-battered community’s support, he eventually became an address of the popular eatery in uptown Srinagar.
The day is falling, but Calcutta Sweets, popularly known as Molvi Saab’s Dhaba, remains the bustling zone in Srinagar’s Hyderpora. Inside sits a group of tiresome labourers from Bihar , and some chirpy local boys — eagerly waiting for their ‘order’.
The place resounds with debate. The local boys, mostly teens, are mapping the current political situation of Kashmir, with rage and reason. As they talk, a non-local boy smiles and grins, near the counter, as if following every single word being exchanged over the table.
But before one could confuse him with any other non-local around, he comes forward to take your order in soft-accented Kashmiri.
He’s Kaleem-ullah, seemingly a specimen, of an age-old adage: appearances are deceptive. He seems as much Kashmiri when he talks, as the other chirpy boys around.
The boy is the younger son of Sheikh Mujeeb-u-Rehman or Molvi Saab — the man running the Dhaba.
Before coexisting in the society like its inseparable part, Rehman in his 33 years of stay in Kashmir had come a long way.
It was 1985 when he first came to the valley to get himself enrolled in Arabic diploma course at Kashmir University. But as the varsity wasn’t offering any such course then, the boy in his early 20s felt frustrated. He stayed for a while, and started spending hours reading at Naseem Bagh.
“I always wanted to seek education and read,” he says, attending the mounting rush at his eatery. “I was in my 3rd standard when I used to walk to my uncle’s house to read a Bengali newspaper.”
He had brought the same habit to Kashmir, where for the first few years, he found himself roaming like a nomad in meadows.
To sustain himself, he began teaching the Holy Quran at different seminaries, besides joining some schools. In between, he tried to go the Kashmiri artisans’ way: exporting Kashmiri Shawl, and cloth to West Bengal.
But as the venture didn’t prove resourceful for him, he focused again on his core competence area — Education, and completed his Molvi Fazil degree from Calcutta University.
Following a brief hiatus, Rehman returned to Kashmir in 1989, the year it exploded in massive rebellion against Indian State. Coming back as a married person, he understood that Kashmir was no longer the same place. But he decided to stay put.
“I’m also among Kashmiris who experienced being caged after feeling few moments of free air,” he says. “Post-90 Kashmir was totally different. I was no longer the same person again after passing through that phase.” He doesn’t want to single out his own plight during that terrible time when death was keeping no calendar in Kashmir.
By 1994, Rehman started a small sweets and tea stall. Then streets of Srinagar were tense, often erupting in sudden clashes and explosions.
“Those were terrible times,” he recalls. “I was witnessing a daily bloodshed on one side, and struggling for my family’s survival on the other side.” Amid curfews and clashes, it was tough for a non-local to smoothly run a shop in Kashmir. But in locals, mostly out of work themselves, Rehman found the cushion support.
“It was because of their generous gesture that I never felt as a stranger in Kashmir society,” he says. “When it comes to hospitality and humanity, no one can match Kashmiris.”
When floods hit the valley in 2014, Rehman says, he witnessed the best display of the humanity in Kashmir.
“Anxious and out of work for days together, I was secretly approached by some Kashmiris, who took care of me and my family during that worst period,” he says, getting emotional. “They were the same Kashmiris — whom I’ve seen offering tea and water to the armed forces on streets, and yet the troops never shy away from pointing their weapons towards their kids.”
As the locals opened their spaces for him, his family became the part of the larger Kashmir community. All these years, he says, his wife and kids didn’t feel away from their relatives and home.
But being part of the politically-charged society had its own costs for him. His two sons and a daughter—born and brought up in Kashmir—identify themselves with the politics of the place.
His younger son has already faced two FIRs in alleged cases of stone pelting.
“Even after hundred years,” Rehman says, “parties to Kashmir dispute have to sit down along with Kashmiris and resolve this dispute.”
But now, thirty three years later, he wants to return to his roots. He may be successfully running two small eateries—one in Hyderpora, other in Khan Sahab Budgam—but he has already started constructing a house in his native place. He mulls to move there, somewhere in 2020.
“But Kashmir will always be my home,” he says. “I will always cherish it for giving me so many good memories of hospitality and humanity.”
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