As the early afternoon sun sparkles on the lanes of Industrial Estate Anantnag, machines blare at their peak. A clutter of tin scraps dots the roadsides. At the end of Lane no. 5 is Ghulam Qadir Kharaati’s austere shop where he is busy slicing poplar clefts on a band-saw.
Even as I enter his shop head-on, Qadir is unmoved by my arrival, something unusual and strange. My greetings turn dim in the din of running machines. As I draw closer and greet him, Qadir turns off the machine and lifts his head to welcome me.
Despite being visually impaired, Qadir can grasp his tools like any other carpenter. Holding a chisel in three of his right-hand fingers, he slides the rest of it against a benchmark attached to his planer machine to help him judge the coordinates of his workpiece. Before a particular piece is put aside as declared fit for the customers’ use, it has to undergo a final trial. It is the gentle caressing by Qadir’s hands by which he determines the coarseness of its surface and the depth of its cuts and grooves.
Qadir, 55, was a class 9th student when his father noticed his erratic way of keeping his books and other things closer to his eyes. He remembers his father taking him, in 1980, to one Dr Harbachan Singh who, after diagnosing him with problems with his vision, suggested him to leave his studies and start some business instead.
“I could not see smaller things clearly, neither was I able to read properly.” Remembering the names of few all-time hits in Urdu fiction, Qadir says, “Even though I was fond of many things academic, I had to leave my school and take over my father’s wood-carving shop at Lalchowk Anantnag.”
“We used to mostly make wooden toys. I learned the intricacies of the art from my father,” he adds. For the next three years, Qadir worked under his father’s tutelage and mastered the art.
As soon as he became ready to work like his father, there was another twist in his life waiting. Their shop was gutted in a fire. This forced the family to count on others to help them with their household expenses for many years to come. During this time, his father also died, burdening him further as the new family head.
Hailing from Sarnal Gulshanabad Anantnag, Ghulam Qadir Kharaati was married in his early age. By the time doctors declared his last traces of eyesight lost, he had fathered three daughters and one son. Burdened by his responsibility as the family head, he gradually started with the machine his father had procured earlier and learned the new art of working with it to make wooden posts used in railings.
This was, however, not the end to his trials. When he re-started to work on his own, he was compelled to give it a break soon after. The reason was him suffering a sudden heart attack. However, the well-timed help from the local Auqaf committee got him a pacemaker implanted and saved his life.
Unnatural to a hardened worker like him, Qadir happens to be a jolly man full of dynamic experiences. Recollecting the names of some known Indian film directors like Prakash Mehra and N N Sippy, Qadir talks about his youthful liking for movies and his frequent visits to different cinemas in Anantnag and Srinagar. Qadir and his friends, in his own words, would bunk off school and slip into the local Ashajipora cinema to watch Bollywood superhits for hours together.
“I once dreamt of being with Amitabh Bachchan in a huge gathering. He called me in front of all and asked me to sing something I liked. I sang Khai ke paan bana raswala… from his movie Don,” Qadir says with loud laughter.
Speaking of his fondness for Amitabh, Qadir says, “Even if I am no longer able to watch him, I still listen to the songs from his movies and the scenes appear before my eyes from my memories. I am a great fan of him. I wish to meet him once. Can you make that happen?”
Qadir also shares his memories of dreadful 1990s when ‘Tehreek emerged’. “Newspapers would announce the death of tens of persons daily and shops would often shut minutes after opening. Those were the perilous times.”
Since his workshop is away from his residence, Qadir depends on his son to ferry him there and back. “All these years, I have developed this daily habit of packing my lunch, other eatables and necessary items at home and leaving for my workplace. I have a family. How can I stay home?” Qadir says.
At the workshop, Qadir has, over the years, grown accustomed to all the corners of the place. “This place is my actual home. I do not find it difficult to work nor do I struggle while searching for anything here. I have put all my things at their specific places etched on my memory.”
One can only feel amazed at how skilful and accurate the master is at his art. Qadir believes that being blind does not mean disabled. He says that he has carried on with his work as a lifelong challenge to prove that life is worth living no matter what.
Living with his wife and two of his children, Qadir earns a meagre amount from his small workshop to feed his family. Counting the different expenses he spends his earnings on, the only thing he asks me while leaving is ‘if something can be done for the exemption of the electricity bill at my workshop’.
“I saw many ups and downs in my life. Except for when I suffered that heart attack, I have never relied on peoples’ help. Allah never let me down.”