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The Dyer’s Day Out
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The Dyer’s Day Out

Reclining against the mud-plastered wall, Gull Khan’s soft-natured wife Noor opened the copper lid of the samovar, blew a mouthful of air into its chimney, and after adding a pinch of salt in the tea, she dropped the lid back with a shrill clank. The steam that leapt out spread a milky smell across the kitchen of a single-storey house at Gulabgam, a scenic village in Pulwama, where they lived with their children.

The birds were chirping outside while the morning sun peeped through the window panes and caressed the samovar, scattering light in all directions. The samovar, with the carvings of chinar leaves and almonds glittered as if it had been embedded with diamonds.

Noor dispensed the tea from the samovar into two cups, one for her husband Gull Khan, a man of around fifty, a clothes’ dyer and cleaner by profession, and a gentleman by heart, who had just returned from the village’s kander waan with freshly baked hot lavas.

Noor stood silent, waiting for the children to serve them tea as Gull Khan sat comfortably in a corner, took his cup and sipped the first mouthful. Meanwhile, he threw his wistful gaze all around the kitchen.

The kitchen they were having the morning tea in had been partitioned with a knee-high brick wall into two halves— the sitting side and the cooking side. On a white-tiled shelf, over the mud oven, were spice-filled glass jars. Steel, aluminum and copper spoons hung on rusty nails driven into the wall. At the center of the kitchen, dangling from a wooden rafter was a naked Surya electric bulb, its wire smeared with the droppings of house flies. A dull grey carpet covered the floor. Some textbooks, a J&K Bank’s diary, a pen and a pencil stub lay sprawled on it.  Large pictures of Nishat and Shalimar gardens were pasted on the mud walls.

When Noor saw her twin daughters, Zainab and Zara enter, she poured them tea into two tall tumblers. They sat next to her.

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Noor sent her stare to the pressure cooker that rested on one side of the mud hearth; on the other side the burning twigs crackled and flames from the dung cakes continued to cook rice in a cauldron.

In a moment the lone son of the family, Sameer entered. He sat opposite the door, still rubbing his puffy eyes. He was up all night because his college exams were going on. Noor strained the tea into a blue cup and put a few crackly and puffy lavas, in the tray for him.

“Baba, did you pay the last month’s debt to the kandur?”  Sameer asked before soaking the piece of lavas in the teacup.

“Not yet, dear. Will do it on Friday.” replied Gull Khan, tearing the lavas into two.

“Right, but pay him on the promised date. He needs money for his son’s treatment. Or people will talk bad about us.” Sameer said, concerned.

“Dear, will surely do on Friday.” Gull Khan said with a tinge of helplessness.

“Ok, Baba!” Sameer said while fidgeting with the cup in his hand.

Such a concern by Sameer, for the reputation of the family added to Noor’s worry. She stole a glance at Gull Khan and they exchanged a gesture of inadequacy.

“You know well, dear, we still owe ten thousand rupees to Karim or he will take the cow back. His date is already due.” Turning to Sameer, Noor said while stirring her teacup.

Gull Khan sighed and everyone fell silent for a moment.



“If everything runs smooth at shop, I will pay every debit in a month or two. Only if there are no killings, no protests.” Gull Khan said reassuringly.

“But it seems that gory happenings will never abate here.”  Zara chipped in.

“You know, at kander waan, Akbar Dar told me that somebody had knocked on his gate at midnight,” Gull Khan broke the news, munching the bread slowly.

“Oh please, Baba! I get scared,” Zara peeped, her eyes blanched with fear.

“It could have been dogs. Sometimes they batter the gates,” Noor said, guessing.

“No, not dogs. He said he heard footsteps too,” continued Gull Khan.

“Thieves then. They must have come for the cattle,” Sameer said, munching the bread thoughtfully.

“Shut up!” Zara exclaimed. “Keep your wild guesses to yourself. You always talk crap.”

Noor poured one more cup of tea to Zainab. She took a sip and said, “Army, I think.”

“Who can say? But Akbar said that he heard them talk in a language that he could not comprehend,” said Gull Khan.

“That is why I tell you to put off the lights early and sleep,” Noor said, slurping her tea.

“She is right,” Gull Khan said, turning to his children. “It is not safe to linger long in the dark.”

“If only we had enough money! Then we could have erected a tall concrete walls all around the yard,” said Noor, her voice tilting with anxiety.

“Baba, at least get the wooden gate repaired. Its hinges are broken.” Zara demanded. “Even a dog could knock it down.”

“I will tell Majeed Chaan. He will come and set it right,” Gull Khan assured her.

“Hell with this life here! Isn’t it better to die? One can’t study peacefully either outside or at home.” Sameer grunted.

Gull Khan frowned at Sameer; he wanted to say something, but he didn’t.

“It is far better to be in some jail and study at ease.” Sameer said and stormed out of the room.

As everyone finished the tea, Gull Khan drew his jijeer near him and stocked it with tobacco. Zainab rose and, walking towards the mud oven, fished out a spoonful of charcoal embers and brought them in a kanger to her father. Then she and her sister left to their respective rooms

Gull Khan collected the burning embers from the kanger and placed them on the chilim. He placed the pipe between his lips and took a few draughts. Smoke from the jigeer and steam from the samovar seemed to be clinging to one another. The air in the kitchen grew cloudy and pungent.

“How many times have I asked you to quit smoking? But nothing seems to affect you. My God, when will I get rid of this damn jijeer from my house?” Noor nagged Gull Khan.

“Don’t curse it. It has been my solace and my friend in hard times.” Gull Khan teased her.

“Don’t you see on TV how injurious this is?  But nothing seems to affect you as you watch those awful ads with the pipe in your mouth,” Noor said bitterly.

Gull Khan didn’t respond. Taking a few more drags he looked at his watch and stood up. He reached for the bottle of P Mark mustard oil on the mantelpiece and poured some of it into his left hand and gently applied it on his thin, dry and untidy hair.

“Is my lunch box ready?” he said.

“Yes, I will pack it.” Noor replied gently.

“There is a lot to do in the shop these days,” Gull Khan said, wiping his oily hands on a torn towel.

“First, get the news from someone.” Noor said.

“Why? About what? Did you hear anything?” asked Gull Khan.

“I mean, confirm whether all is well out there. Is there a hartal in Pulwama?,” she insisted.

“No, there is no hartal in the town today as far I know,” Gull Khan denied.

“But yesterday I heard Hassan talking about hartal with his sister-in-law. He said it would be throughout the valley,” Noor said.

“Yes, there’s a call for hartal, but it’s for Friday, not today,” Gull Khan assured her.

“Acha Naer khodayas hawala. Be careful. May God be with you.”

Gull Khan boarded a Sumo to reach Pulwama town which was around ten kilometers away from Gulabgam. He perched himself next to a heavily built bearded man who was reading a newspaper. Gull Khan looked out of the half-open window, murmuring “God make my livelihood simple and easy.” He was relieved to see children walking to school. The Sumo was moving at a moderate speed and a stereo with a blue light blinking on its face was playing a Kashmiri song.

Gull Khan turned his head right and his glance fell on a bold-lettered headline in the newspaper spread over the bearded man’s knees: “Another youth injured in firing succumbs” read the news.

“Oh my God, have mercy on Kashmir.” Gull Khan prayed under his breath. He ran his hands over his head and kept quiet.

The driver suddenly braked with an abrasive screech and waved to stop a car coming from the town.

“Is there any trouble in the town?” asked the Sumo driver after turning off the stereo.

“Not now, but yes, there was trouble an hour ago—some stones were hurled and people were scared. But everything is good now. Go on.” the car driver replied. The Sumo drove on.

“What has happened?” asked one passenger from the back seat.

“Nothing to worry about.” replied the driver.

Gull Khan’s heart beat with a strange feeling when he began walking briskly through the market towards his shop on a road lined with shops selling antiques and art, jewelry, dry fruits and accessories. He crossed the road and passed by the greengrocer’s shop full of fruits, the butcher with his bloody lumps of meat on display, and a book seller.

As he reached his shop and looked around. There were fewer people than usual and only a few cars parked there. His shop was small, and wedged between larger shops it looked as if it had been squeezed in. The peeling blue paint on the signboard spelt out ‘Bright Colours’, and beneath it, almost illegible, ‘Dyer at Your Service’.

Gull Khan unlocked the shutter. The air inside smelt of chemicals and the walls were grimy with years of dirt, the cement floor streaked with different colours. The clothes were crammed together, with the exception of some dupattas and two pairs of pants hung on wooden pegs. A few piles of badly stacked clothes awaiting their turn in the large red plastic dying-tub added to the unkempt appearance. The shop was narrow and long, with shelves spanning both sides. To the left stood the cash desk in the belly of which Gull Khan would keep his customer register.

Asalamu Alaikum, Khan sahib.”

Walaikum Salam.” Gull Khan returned the greeting from a regular customer.

“Are you fine?” enquired the customer.

“Alhamdullillah. Alright. Kar sa hokum; what can I do for you today?”

“I was waiting for you outside. But then I entered the barber’s shop and waited there. You know there was a chagg a moment before.” informed the customer.

“Yes, we heard about that in the Sumo.” said Gull Khan. “That is why it took a bit longer today. No one knows what will happen the next minute here.”

“Really, nobody does. And, yes, are you done with my clothes?”

“Yes. Your pants are ready. I dyed them the day before yesterday,” Gull Khan replied.

Gull Khan slipped the folded pants into a white polythene bag and handed it to the customer who in return gave him two hundred rupees and left.

After checking his day’s schedule, Gull Khan pulled down two dupattas from the shelves.  But before he could roll up his sleeves and pull up his shalwar to begin soaking the dupattas, he saw the nearby shopkeepers pulling down shutters. People were scampering in all directions, some crying and some blowing whistles. Children too were wailing. Gull Khan stood bewildered for a moment before he hurriedly put his things, he had just stalled outside, inside the shop.

“It is like hell to have a shop in here.” Gull Khan murmured as he pulled down the shutters.

The other shopkeepers were standing in front of their closed shops, waiting. A few rumors were making the rounds. Gull Khan recalled the newspaper headline he had read in the sumo. He realized that the disturbance might be the aftermath of the killing of the youth by army.

In the meantime, he saw that some Rakshaks –and some other armored vehicles – reach the main market, accompanied by local police and the CRPF. Their arrival changed the scene so swiftly that the market looked like a densely-peopled soldier cantonment. The Rakshak jeeps looked as if they had been beaten with hammers, the countless rusty dents indicating the stubbornly withstood bouts of stone pelting. The uniformed men began to move together, shooing away the people. Within a few minutes, the market wore a deserted look, the road emptied of civilian vehicles.

Some shops with their shutters half-closed stood empty, the shopkeepers having melted away left their makeshift shops to the mercy of the market. A few women watched the scene from rooftops. There was a sharp sound. A stone flew down and rolled on the road a few meters away from Gull Khan, before hitting the leg of a sleeping dog which woke up howling and limped towards an alley. Immediately, another one flew and hit the signboard of a grocery shop before falling with a thump and splash into a drain, spattering the muck.

Gull Khan froze in shock and wanted to hide somewhere. There no longer was any point in running away because the stone-pelters were ready to bombard the security forces. Without even taking the time to aim, they hurled one stone after the other.

Gull Khan felt like an old man caught in the crossfire. He was searching for shelter.  Eventually, he darted towards an ATM kiosk across the road. He thought he was now safe. But the kiosk’s door was locked. However, a neighboring shopkeeper called Gull Khan in just before pulling down the shutters.

Inside the shop, it was too dark to see anything. Gull Khan peeped through an old bullet-made hole in the shutter. He could also hear the horrible, deafening sounds. If it is anywhere, hell is here. He thought.

Outside, in the marketplace, a group of boys— tall, short, weak, healthy, ugly and handsome— all with their faces half covered with cloth, marched towards the forces. As they came near the armored cars and pelted them with stones, the STF, CRPF and local police personnel retaliated, shooting a dozen teargas canisters.  It was eye-watering and smelt of pepper.

Nar-e-Takbeer,” a boy shouted, pumping his fist into the air.

Allah hu Akbar,” a group of boys replied.

Aazadi ka matlab kya?” a guttural voice broke out from among them.

La-ilah ha ila lah,’” the boys shouted back.

The loud slogans fetched new boys who ran hurriedly towards the group to join them. Within a few minutes, this small group swelled into a big crowd pelting stones at the forces.

“We want!” a tall boy wearing a black T-shirt clamored.

“Freedom!” the other boys answered unanimously.

“Go India!” a little boy shouted, straining his throat.

“Go back!” the boys answered more loudly.

Mache khandar nache kus?” a short boy shouted as he danced.

Ponde` police bay kus,” the boys replied sarcastically.

Then the furious boys cussed the forces who too responded with expletives, showing their raised thumbs and fists. The volley of abuses between them continued.

Then a white jeep of the forces revved and attempted to chase them. The boys ran helter-skelter and hid behind the tin sheets, walls, shops and stationary vehicles, hunkering down like soldiers in a war. They smeared their faces with salt to blunt the effect of the tear gas. Some boys ran up to the terraces of the shops quietly, carrying the stones, their hands trembling and lips quivering. They were burning with rage. Then, there was silence for a moment. It seemed that nothing serious was going to happen. But as the jeep passed by a butcher’s shop, a boy hiding behind a cart flung a stone with a loud cry, “Now or we will miss.” The stone hit the side of the jeep with a clanking metallic sound. Other boys emerged, as if from nowhere, and bombarded the vehicle. There stones and brickbats coming from all directions. The jeep screeched to a halt. One boy stood in the middle of the road, thumping his chest and carrying a big boulder in his hand; he threw it. The boulder swung in the air for a moment before hitting the front of the jeep and denting it. Another boy flung a brickbat with such a force that it broke into pieces as it hit the jeep, small chips flying across the road, A few boys sprinted towards the road, screaming profanities, their blood simmering. They tried, as they had planned, to overtake the jeep and set it ablaze. Some banged at the doors of the jeep with iron pipes and wooden clubs. Their slogans reverberated in the air. The jeep moved a bit, and the driver tried to reverse as its nervous wheels bumped over the brickbats and stones. Its exhaust pipe released a trail of smoke, blocking the view of the boys.

The boys continued to circle it and bang on its doors like blacksmiths beating iron. Seeing that another jeep closer to rescue. A boy shouted “Run,” and everyone disappeared into a nearby lane between two buildings. The second jeep veered off the road and hurtled towards the boys, but the stones scattered on the road arrested the vehicle’s speed and the boys found a safer place. The forces fired teargas shells from a distance, injuring a boy. A pungent smell filled the air. Later, seeing that the boys hadn’t given up, the forces resorted to aerial firing, frightening humans, animals and birds. The stone-pelting lasted for almost an hour, injuring one fifteen-year old. Fortunately for those stuck in the clash, the boy’s injury weakened the boys’ resolve, and they eventually dispersed. An hour later, the forces, too, left.

When the normalcy limped back to the market Gull Khan came out of the shop. He thanked God that he was safe. The reminder of the two-hour dreadful clash was clear in the debris of the brickbats and stones scattered all around with the air carrying the sharp smell of pepper.

Unaware of all that had happened, Gull Khan’s gaze fell on a small child, who after tearing off from his father’s hold, joyfully kicked the stones and bricks on the road. For a brief moment, Gull Khan wished he were like that little child—innocent and carefree. He experienced a flashback of his childhood. He remembered his father carrying him to the fair at the Rangmula shrine, trudging through mustard fields, wearing the new clothes his father had gotten stitched for the occasion. Gull Khan could still recall the rich taste of the sweets he and his father would enjoy sitting on a swing those days. The yellow balloons, the tangy snacks, the beating of the drums, the shining faces of his friends – these vivid memories brought tears to his eyes that mingled with the sting of the teargas but the honking of a motorcycle broke the string of his thoughts.

Gull Khan saw passers-by wiping tears. A few sneezed and coughed. The market still looked deserted. It was now an undeclared hartal. The shopkeepers decided to return home. They knew that if they dared to resume their business, they would have to face threats or find their shop’s shutters damaged the next morning.

Gull Khan scurried to the place where passenger vehicles would park whenever there was a clash. He boarded an over-packed Sumo. The driver looked cheerful and drove at a moderate speed as the vehicle seemed to resist its heavy load. The return home seemed unusually long to Gull Khan. A young boy in the Sumo broke the news that the boy who had been injured by the security forces had been declared dead on arrival at the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. The passenger cursed the forces before falling silent. A strange heaviness took hold of Gull Khan’s heart. For a moment, he seemed to hear the mysterious wails of a woman. The image of the mother of the boy thumping her chest and pulling her hair and, later, stroking her dead son’s hair flashed across his mind.

Gull Khan got down at his village and went straight to Rehman Kak’s shop for tobacco.

“Mush Lalo, why are you home early? Is everything alright at home?” asked Rehman Kak, weighing the tobacco.

“Yes, all right at home. But not in Kashmir, not at Pulwama.”

“What happened?”

Gull Khan was not in the mood to talk, but out of respect for the elderly man, he narrated the events.

“These blood thirsty wolves are shorn of any mercy. They have plucked all the beautiful roses of this valley. I wish that I were the one killed,” Rehman Kak choked on his words.

Without saying anything more, Gull Khan left.

On his way from the road to home Gull Khan didn’t talk to any of the villagers. As he entered his home, his wife asked, “Why have you returned home so early?”

Gull Khan didn’t answer her, but went straight to kitchen looking for his jigeer. When he didn’t find it, he yelled at his wife. It was only after the kitchen was filled with the smoke from jigeer that he told her what had happened.

Noor pummeled her chest and soughed. She began to worry about Sameer who had gone to his college.

“Have you any balance on your phone? I would call my Sameer.”  She said nervously.

“We needn’t worry. He will be in his college.” Gull Khan comforted her.

“You know well about his temper. He always harbors anger against the forces. And I believe he would have left the college to join the boys.”

“You think too much. Here! Take it.” Gull Khan handed her the small Nokia phone, puffing out a blue tuft of smoke from his mouth.

Gull Khan moved to a corner and began to wonder how miserable his life would be if his son was hit with a bullet or if one of his daughters’ dead bodies were brought home, splotched with blood. He shook his head hard in an attempt to throw off these images but the thoughts continued: from where do parents get the courage to live after their sons and daughters are killed? Is a Kashmiri parent’s heart made of iron? Is Kashmir the most wretched among the valleys of the earth? Aren’t our graveyards bloating or are they still hungry for tender Kashmiri flesh? Are the Indian forces set to turn this valley into the land of mad fathers, childless mothers and wailing orphans? Is even our Allah cross with us?

With each drag on the jigeer, Gull Khan’s mind turned to a new question. He desperately wanted someone to answer them, even if it was the ghost of his father. He coughed and coughed and coughed.

Gull Khan did not get off the jigeer till Sataar Mir, the muezzin announced the call for Zuhr prayers.

Sometime later, Noor dialed the phone number. ‘The number you are trying to reach is currently switched off.’ came the automatic answer.

“His phone is off. What if…” Noor said with a suffocating tune.

“He must be in the class. Allah will protect him.” Gull Khan consoled her. “He will call us back once he gets free.”

The words of her husband drove away the fears of Noor. Before she could ask any more questions to Gull Khan, their neighbour Sara came in to ask:

“What do we have for lunch?”

“Tomatoes and cheese,” replied Noor.

“Okay, give me some. I have cooked potatoes. But my son Irfan doesn’t like them.  So here I came to take something cooked by you,” Sara said, passing the bowl to Noor.

Noor’s culinary skills were popular among her neighbours. She reached for a spoon lying on the mantle shelf, and as she removed the lid of the pot a sumptuous aroma spread through the kitchen. She stirred the dish with the spoon, filling the bowl to the brim, handed it over to Sara.

Noor then went out with Sara to give some fodder to the cow, which had long been mooing. As they walked towards the cowshed, Noor narrated to Sara what Gull Khan had told her.

“What must his mother be doing right now,” said Sara.

“Wailing and crying! What else. Malis maje pewaan taawan; such parents are ruined.” Noor grieved.

“Which village did Khan Saeb tell you the boy was from?”

“This one is from main town—Pulwama. The boy was just fifteen.”

“Oh! A young rose bud. May Allah bestow him Jannah!”

“Gull Khan said that the boy’s skull has split and his brains come out.” Noor said with a shudder.

“Please! Don’t say anything more.” Sara exclaimed with a stinging sensation. “I feel as if a kind of stupor has taken hold of the countries of the world, as if they are unaware of what is happening to us here.”

“Nobody cares. None. Our hope just lies in Allah’s grace.”

“You are right. You know, my heart leaves my chest the moment when one of my family members leaves for town. Anything can happen anytime there. I am worried about my Imran and your Sameer. Both are hot-headed.”

In between their conversation they could hear the mooing of the cow.

“I think a hundred times a day of Gull Khan and the children when they are out. I go to the road thrice a day and ask Rahman Kak at his shop if it is alright out there. Do you know my Sameer has gone to college? I am so … Oh, the cow!”

“I will see you later.” Said Sara

Noor started heading towards the cowshed.

“How much milk it gives you these days?” Sara turned back and asked.

“Around ten liters. Five go to the market and the rest we use at home.” Noor replied

“Okay, go and feed it. Now I understand why your daughters are so pretty with their glowing faces.”

“What do you mean? I didn’t get you.”

“Since you feed your daughters pure and abundant milk, they look beautiful. Milk shows on their faces.”

“Poor daughters need to be pretty. Rich ones get husbands because of their money; the poor ones because of their beauty,” Noor said with a pitying smile.

“Hmm. But if you get your Zainab married off to my Irfan, I will demand no dowry,” Sara joked.

“I agree! But my Zainab’s beauty demands an exorbitant mehar. You surely will have to sell the whole land,” Noor responded. Both of them gave a muffled laugh.

“I am quite confident your daughters will attract rich households.”

“Not if this killing spree continues. See how our boys are killed every other day. God forbid, if it goes on like this, parents will have no takers for their daughters as there will be just a handful of boys left.”

“You are right, Noor. We should seek the mercy of Allah. Otherwise, we are heading towards that day. God forbid.”

They both sighed.

A housefly hummed and landed on the bowl Sara was holding. She shooed it away and the bowl shook. The aroma of garlic filled the air.

“I will leave now. Imran must be waiting,” She said to Noor.

Adsa naer.” Noor concluded.

As Noor lumbered towards the cowshed quite unmindfully, she stumbled against a wooden peg driven into the ground that scraped her right foot. Serving a few sheaves of green grass to the cow, she walked back from the cowshed and sat in the kitchen nursing her bleeding foot.

She dialed the Sameer’s number once again but the phone was still off.  In a bid to arrest the train of ominous thoughts that began to singe her mind, she busied herself with washing of the utensils and mopping and cleaning of the kitchen.

The sun disappeared behind the dark clouds. Sensing that the clouds in the sky were about to burst Gull Khan went out the yard to collect the clothes Noor had washed in the morning. First, he took down Noor’s and then his own. The clothes smelled of Rin soap. As he pulled down those of his children, he felt like kissing them. He carried the clothes in his arms and went straight to Sameer’s room. But as he closed the door, it occurred to him that he had to take them to his room instead for ironing. He slapped his forehead and slammed the door while he came out. When he entered his own room, his eyes fell on the wall where the picture of Kaaba hung. He dropped the clothes and looked at the picture again, raising his hands towards it. With a penitent heart he prayed: “Hai maine badde Khudaye, Kasheer kartan yeme zulme nish azaad. Oh my dear Amighty God, set Kashmir free from such oppression.

Once finished with the prayers, he fished out the phone from his pocket to call Sameer but the call didn’t connect. He felt helpless and waited anxiously. Every second seemed an hour and every hour, a day. With every passing moment, his heart began pounding faster. Will our Sameer return home safely? He wondered and pressed the dialing button again but in vain.

A minute or two later, the phone in his hands rang. His face lightened and without looking at its screen he hurriedly took the phone to his ear expecting Sameer’s voice.

“Keep my money ready else I’ll take the cow back. I’m coming tomorrow.”, Karim’s bitter words blared from the phone.


  • Kander waan: Bread-makers shop
  • Lavas: a soft Kashmiri bread generally served at breakfast
  • Kandur: Bread-maker
  • Jijeer :Hookah/ hubble-bubble
  • Chillim : a cup shaped accessory of the hookah in which tobacco and embers are kept
  • Kanged: Kashmiri Firepot
  • P Mark: a brand of cooking oil
  • Hartal: strike/ call off
  • Mache Khander Nache Kus, Ponde` Police bay kus: (Literally) The meagerly paid police men are just capable to dance in the marriages ceremonies of the insane women. (A derogatroy remark for policemen in Kashmir.)
  • Chagg: A spontaneous run for life by a group of people when some danger is sensed especially in the markets of Kashmir valley.
  • Mehar: Money given to the bride by her husband/ in-laws once the marriage is fixed.
  • Zuhr: the name of mid day prayer for Muslims

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