The shoemaker of Shopian

Yousuf Sheikh, 37, is a permanent fixture on Shopian’s busy Gole Chowk for the last 23 years. Besides mending shoes, he is a witness to the recent history of the militancy-hit town

The shoemaker of Shopian

Gulzar Bhat

Holding a shinning awl in his sturdy hand, Mohammad Yousuf Sheikh pierces the sole of a leather shoe and passes the waxed linen thread through it. Within minutes, he blind stitches the sole with the welt. Putting the awl aside, Sheikh applies polish on the shoes using his forefinger. He then takes out a horse hair brush from a decrepit wooden box and buffs the shoes until the pair shines and looks well-nigh like a new one. The worn-out mat Sheikh is sitting on forms the contrasting background for the shining shoes.

37-year-old Sheikh, a resident of Meemender in Shopian, some 52 kms south of Srinagar, has been mending shoes since he was 14. He is popular not only among the locals, but also has patrons in neighbouring towns like Kulgam and Anantnag.

"I have been sitting here for last 23 years and I always remain flocked by the customers," says Sheikh with a smile. A wooden tool box, a few brushes, half a dozen small round tin polish boxes, sponges are strewn around him. His makeshift “shop” is located in Gole Chowk, the commercial hub of Shopian.

Sheikh earns around Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 a month and he is highly satisfied with his work.

"It is a craft that I have learnt from my father, a master shoemaker. For generations we have been doing the same job for living," Sheikh says.

He belongs to Kashmir's subaltern Watal community -- a disadvantageous group facing social discrimination since ages. Largely landless and poor, Watals are associated with “menial” occupations like manual scavenging, shoe mending and sweeping. They hardly have any representation in political or bureaucratic power structures in the region.

Sheikh, however, claims that he is loved by all and sundry for his shoe-mending skills. Apart from his excellent shoe mending skills, he is known for his helping nature and wisecracks, according to locals.

The man has had several brushes with death over last two decades. He survived at least 4 to 5 grenade attacks and was caught many times in crossfire.

“Bullets many a time whizzed past over my head. Even on several occasions I thought they grazed my head,” he says.

Since the inception of militancy, Shopian has always remained a volatile area. In 2016, after the killing of Hizbul Mujahidin militant commander Burhan Wani, the area emerged as an epicentre of militancy.

“I have seen bullets tearing holes in the bellies of people,” he says, adding that on occasions he helped people rush the injured to hospital.

He recounts how once in 2002 he was saved by a police officer when a few policemen tried to bundle him in an armoured vehicle after militants attacked them near his makeshift shop.

"The officer was my client. When he saw me, he ordered his men to let me go,” he recalls. Shaikh would have landed in certain trouble had it not been for the officer on that day.

Veteran communist leader and trade unionist H.R. Wanchoo was the only leader who fought for the Watals’ rights and vociferously advocated abolishing manual scavenging. However, after militants killed Wanchoo in 1992, the community was rendered voiceless.

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