Tall and dark, with a nose that seemed to have been carved by the heat of the plains far more than the cold winds that shape the mountains, Riaz Ahmed did not look like a Kashmiri, though he did claim to be one.
He ran into me at the market, introduced himself, asked me where I was from and then said he had something rare and beautiful to show me. I had time to kill and so I took the bait and followed him up a narrow flight of wooden stairs into a small room that sat on top of a restaurant. The room, washed white and blue, in bands, like a flag, had no furniture. Just a rack at the back, with shawls and scarves and bed-spreads and a carpet, stretched wall to wall, on the floor. A window opened onto the street below.
Horse hooves clattered along the road, now wet from the rain. The babel of wood carvings, caps and shawls, and another train of ‘ghodawallahs’ urging their steeds up the steep incline made up the sounds of Pahalgam. And the sights, if you looked beyond the street sprinkled with trails of horse-dung and a 500 metre long stretch, where a gaggle of shops, leaning on each other like a bunch of drunk gangly teenagers, stood out like warts and begging-to-burst boils on Keira Knightley’s exquisite face, was one for the gods.
Green valleys, the gorgeous Lidder meandering its way down the Panjal and a winding boulevard lined with poplars that led away from this valley of shepherds that was once Pahalgam….
“Yeh dekhiye…bilkul nayab! Ekdum asli….” My reverie was broken by Riaz’s practiced pitch. I turned, just as Riaz unfurled a beige shawl. The fabric waved and rippled in the air for a brief moment and settled at my feet.
“This is the real stuff… exquisite and beautiful! Just touch it and you will know…”, Riaz insisted with a twinkle in his eye. I obliged and in that moment I must have betrayed a trace of sensual surrender for he added… “Ah, you like it! I have more… as many as you might want.” I was surprised. The delicate and incredible lightness of the fabric I now held between my thumb and my forefinger reminded me of the time I had held a butterfly’s wings as it settled on a flower. Th at time, I didn’t know that my innocent act had doomed the butterfly but now if I bought this shawl, I knew I would be commissioning the murder of another dozen chiru.
Less than a decade and a half or two ago, most people were not aware of the origin of the shahtoosh – the king of wool. In North India, a respectable dowry was incomplete without a shahtoosh shawl to adorn the bride. From Milan to Miami, no party was worth its wine if it didn’t have a few leggy ladies wrapped in one of these. Weddings, fashion runways and irony of ironies, charity balls and auctions of the best sort were incomplete without one of these. And they had spun a romantic yarn to go with the exotic beauty of the ‘toosh’. If you asked them of the origin of the ‘toosh’, they’d say it came from the upper reaches of the high Himalayas. In those forbidding passes where no man can stay for long, there roam the wary ibex. The billy-ibexes with their scimitar horns and bushy beards would roam these barren wastes and rub their chins on bushes and boulders and leave a little of their beards behind. Tibetan nomads would wander through these passes, looking for their trail, and then collect the downy hair and trade it with Kashmiri shepherds. From there, it would reach the special looms of Kashmir’s famed weavers, who have the only hands skilled enough to weave this fine hair into shawls with the ‘unbearable lightness of being’.
A beautiful garment, a great story and no guilt…. Th at suited everybody just fine until George Schaller came along and pooped every body’s party. Good old George has spent a good number of his days on the Tibetan plateau in his legendary quest for all creatures great and small and had come across hunters with skins of the chiru – the shy and nervous Tibetan antelope. They told him the skin and fur was sold to traders from Kashmir but he couldn’t make the connection until he was approached by a friend from the fashion industry to help trace the origin of the gorgeous shahtoosh. They followed the trail and soon enough, Schaller made the connection between his encounter with the hunters and the shawls hanging in the wardrobes of some of his friends. Th at was in the early 1990s. He urged the international community to ban the use of shahtoosh and while most countries involved in the trade agreed, enforcement agencies took a while to get serious about cracking down on the trade. The Jammu and Kashmir took another 10 years before imposing the ban within the state.
Even now, political groups try to score points in the state by raising the issue of removing the ban for the sake of Kashmiri weavers. Well meaning but ill informed journalists write about the possibility of breeding Tibetan antelopes in captivity in order to revive the art of weaving shahtoosh. (More on that in a later issue)
Meanwhile Riaz, having piqued my interest, took out more of his wares. I feigned appreciation and then asked him, isn’t it illegal? “ Don’t worry sir, kuchh illegal nahin hai. No problem. We have been selling shawls to everybody who matters… everybody you can name… Delhi mein logon ko ‘toosh’ ke bina neend nahin aathi…” I was shocked. Here I was led to believe that shahtoosh was banned and once people knew the truth about the cruel trade, it would surely not have a market but as things stand, there seemed to be a thriving trade in the contraband.
Didn’t he or his clients ever get in trouble? Riaz smiled but his eyes were mocking me. “Sir, toosh ka shauk bade logon ka shauk hai. Woh sab kanoon ke bahar hain. Wahi kanoon banate hain… my clients are too big and powerful. They can’t be touched. Even if I’m travelling to Delhi or Mumbai with a big consignment, or even if it’s one of my men and if I get into trouble, all I have to do is make one phone call and all is well… sab theek ho jata hai… You don’t worry… I guarantee you and your shawl will reach home safe” he said and grinned. I wasn’t sure who was the cat and who the mouse in this game of ours. I was wondering what my options were… Option one: I could inform the cops but they obviously knew already and weren’t bothered. Or I could let it be and walk away because nothing would come of it anyway. Or, option 3, I could inform environmental agencies about this exchange… and that’s done. But I’m sure it wouldn’t go anywhere beyond Riaz and his fellow shawl merchants getting hassled a bit and having to make a few phone calls.
The chiru are shot and killed mercilessly for the fleece. New born fawns are skinned while they bleat and bleed. The raw wool is traded in by these hunters from Tibet in exchange for tiger bones. And it has been reported that a fair share of funds from this illegal trade is diverted towards procuring weapons and resources for terror groups and other perpetrators of organised violence. And the sad truth is that it’s people like you and me and mothers of my friends whose vain demands are fuelling this cruel trade that is dipped in the blood of innocents, is pushing not one but two species toward the brink of extinction and supporting factions who will eventually end up hurting us and all we love in the worst manner possible. Th is story has only begun and I will pursue this issue with all who I think can help, but you alone can help far more than the most dedicated enforcers of the law… just promise me that you won’t ever fall for the blood-thirsty charms of the shahtoosh nor let your friends or relatives give in to its lure. And if you have some already, ‘return’ them to the forest department. Actually, I don’t trust that idea much. Burn them all instead. Th at’s what they do to ivory and tiger skins. What’s going up in smoke is not an heirloom, or an example of exquisite craft smanship but the symbol of your naiveté at best and cold vain thoughtless greed on the other. Neither can make you proud. And either way, you are responsible for at least half a dozen murders. And who knows how many more murders, possibly human, your lakhs would have funded.
All that blood is on your hands. Atone now! Unwrap, unfurl and bury or burn…