When his father could no longer work due to old age and bad health, it made young Gulzar a default headman of his family. But being a breadwinner came at the cost for the young shepherd: his unannounced engagement, based on his tribe’s tradition.
At 10, Gulzar barely remembers the last visit to his native village. He doesn’t even remember the last time he has taken a holiday. Nor does he remember if his father had sought his opinion when he was engaged to a little girl in his village.
Every morning, he leaves his home with a flock of sheep for the nearby hills and returns when the sun sets. He has been hired to take care of the sheep and to ensure that the flock is fully grazed. In Kashmir, the people working in this field are called Pahel (shepherds).
And Gulzar is one.
He routinely carries a long stick and wears an effortless smile. But Gulzar’s boyish appearance conceals his helplessness and compulsion.
In 1986, Indian Parliament passed a law, prohibiting the employment of children aged below 14, and an amendment in 2016 has made it an offence with imprisonment of up to 2 years and a fine of up to Rs. 50,000.
But Gulzar’s case is a bit different.
The minor has an aged father and is the oldest among the three brothers, and has two elder sisters, one of whom is getting married next year.
He hails from Frastdab, a small hamlet tucked some 20 kms from Chrar-e-Sharief, a town in central Kashmir’s Budgam district. The village receives almost 4-5 feet of snowfall every winter. And all the outdoor activities are halted until the snow melts in early spring.
Sporting a thick white beard, his father Muhammad Sultan is an occasional farmer. Their village offers fewer opportunities for the people to work. And Gulzar’s father, who’s in his mid-seventies, needs regular healthcare. He does not have the strength to deal with daily long commutes. This situation back home makes Gulzar as the default breadwinner for the family.
Indian federal government runs a social assistance programme called Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme with the help from the state governments. The programme is supposed to benefit the people living below the poverty line.
The scheme offers Rs. 200 a month to a person in the age group of 60-79 years and Rs. 500 per month to those aged 80 years and above. In the financial year of 2016-17, a total of Rs. 5,901 crore were spent for this programme.
Surprisingly, the flour in Kashmir costs around Rs. 300-400 per 10 kg, depending on the quality that a buyer wants to purchase. And Rs. 200 a month will not suffice even for the monthly ration needs of Sultan’s family.
People like Sultan, who live in a far-flung area, do not know about these schemes and if some of them do, they don’t pay attention because of the lengthy process and corruption involved. The administration often turns a blind eye towards it.
In Frastdab, it’s a tradition that ‘if you are giving your daughter in marriage to a family, you have to get theirs as well’.
Gulzar’s sister is getting married next year; the person who she is getting married to, is her own cousin. Her father has made a deal with her future in-laws that he would give his daughter in marriage only if they give their own in exchange for his 10-year-old Gulzar.
Since they agreed to the demand, the 10-year-old shepherd is engaged now! His fiancé is 2 years younger than him.
Gulzar’s father does not want his son to be “spoilt” in the village surroundings. And now that Gulzar is engaged, his father has handed him in apprenticeship to Akbar Dar, a butcher in Nagam town, a place that is some 16 kms from the city centre.
And the deal is, the young boy will stay with him all along the year.
In return, Dar has to pay an annual salary of Rs. 40,000 and has to bear all the expenses of Gulzar’s accommodation, food, clothes, etc.
In turn, Gulzar has to herd the sheep that Dar sells on his mutton shop. The little shepherd stays at home only when it’s raining or snowing. He also helps Dar on his mutton shop.
Mushtaq, Gulzar’s supervisor and the butcher’s son, says that he had advised Gulzar’s father that he wasn’t doing the right thing by engaging him so early.
But Sultan fears that if he delays the engagement of his son, his in-laws may refuse to marry their daughter afterwards.
Interestingly, before taking care of Dar’s livestock, Gulzar used to herd sheep for a professional shepherd. The work continued only in springs and autumns. For the rest of the year, he used to sit idle.
But working with the shepherd was not an easy job for him. Gulzar had to go deep into the forests in search of grass. And sometimes he would be so frightened that he would run away from his work. “The salary with the shepherd was Rs. 4,500 a month and now it’s Rs. 40,000 a year,” says Gulzar in a muffled tone.
Dar provides continuous work in all the four seasons which makes Gulzar feel less vulnerable and gives him some sort of monetary independence. The continual work has made him so confident that the young shepherd says that he himself is going to purchase the jewelry and clothes for his sister’s wedding.
Barely knowing how to read and write, Gulzar laughs at prospects of schooling in future. Behind his smiling face, he conveniently conceals his compulsion. But, his fiancé goes to school, where she is still learning Addition and Subtraction. Gulzar, however, has no idea what class she studies in.
He has seen his fiancé just because she is his cousin. Otherwise he might not had the privilege of knowing her before marriage. Gulzar complains that he was informed casually about his engagement. Nobody had asked him whether he wanted it or not. “But, what can I do now?” the shepherd smiles.
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