The Nomads of Winter

 

Chitvan Gill follows a community of seasonal migrants who escape the icy cold of their homes in Kashmir, a journey and way of life that has endured for over four decades.

 

Delhi is a city of a thousand stories, of myriad ways of life. Each of these stories has its own drama, provoking shock or rage, occasionally even wonder, at the ways in which man adapts to great fortune or to severe adversity.

 

I experienced a gamut of emotions when I first chanced upon a cluster of colourful tents and shanties. Built on the fetid remains of a landfill in a hidden corner of East Delhi, the camp bore a strange, almost festive atmosphere that was in sharp contrast with its surroundings. From their dress and appearance, it was obvious that the people here were Kashmiris. I learned that most of the people here came from Kulgam, though there were a few families from Budgam, Kupwara and Baramullah, all lying to the west of Srinagar, along or in close proximity to the troubled Line of Control in the Valley.

 

It would be natural to jump to the hasty conclusion that these were victims of Kashmir’s long-drawn tragedy, of extremism and terror; but nothing could be further from the truth. I was drawn to their story, and discovered that this encampment springs up each winter, and was home to a large community of seasonal migrants who escape the icy cold of their homes in Kashmir. This is a journey and way of life that has endured for over four decades. What had started as a distress migration of impoverished peasants was now an established annual ritual.

 

Here, deep in the heart of Delhi’s underbelly was a poignant, little known story of quiet dignity.

The beauty of joy: four little girls, Aina, Afreen, Falak and Aina, stand above the melange of colourful tents that are their homes for the five winter months each year.

Setting up camp: On a barren landfill, a little township springs up overnight, built out of bamboo, straw mats and plastic sheets, with the astonishing speed and efficiency that comes from years of practice. The whole family pitches in, creating living spaces within the day of arrival.

An enduring way of life: Across generations families make this journey, the old and young alike have grown accustomed to this extraordinary sojourn.

In contrast to their makeshift exteriors, the interiors come as a surprise, colourful and warm, decorated with durries, carpets and zardozi chadars, divided into separate living spaces.

Life is a carnival! It is the children who make this camp special. Greatly indulged by the elders, they amaze you with their confidence. They revel in this time of freedom, imbuing the camp with an air of unbridled joy.

Little girls make strong fashion statements.

Despite the cold, the acrid air and the squalor that surrounds them, there is joy to be found here.

Across generations the journey continues…

 

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