Zenab Parveen: Pioneering agri-preneur

There is a Ladakhi saying that a man is tested by his words and a horse is tested by its first three steps. I would qualify this further to say that a farmer is tested by the wear and tear of their spade. And, in Ladakh such a saying is best exemplified by women, who generally wield the spade.

This insight struck me when I met Achey Zenab Parveen. She welcomed us with a worn-out spade on her shoulder as she spoke about the joys of farming. I met Achey Zenab when I accompanied a friend who was driving over to Saboo village, which is about eight kms from Leh town, to collect saplings. It was a beautiful spring evening with a hint of cold winds. The orange sky was dotted with grey clouds that mirrored the emerging greenery on the ground. When we met Achey Zenab, she was plucking onion and cauliflower saplings that she was preparing for a lady waiting to collect them. I was fascinated as she recounted her journey from a newly-wed bride to a successful agri-preneur who successfully balances her responsibilities. She was a breath of fresh air in a world saturated by overhyped corporate careers.

Zenab Parveen was married in 1999. She was inspired to take up farming by her father-in-law, Haji Ghulam Rasool. He used to grow vegetables and run an agri-based business. The farm would produce vegetables for the family and what was surplus was sold to the army or in the market. Achey Zenab explained, “My father-in-law would say that vegetables never go waste because they always sell due to food shortages. He would take great pride in the fact that we are able to grow our own food.” Following in his footsteps, Achey Zenab started experimenting with new crops and methods to see what grows well. This experimentation resulted in the development of a nursery that generates an annual income of more than three lakhs (INR 300,000). She has emerged as a leading figure in the agriculture sector in Leh, especially as a supplier of saplings at the start of the agricultural season. Her customers are drawn from Leh town and areas around it who flock to her nursery in Saboo to buy saplings of vegetables and flowers.

I was very interested in knowing how climate change has impacted agriculture in Ladakh. Achey Zenab explained, “We were not able to grow many vegetables till some years back. Many of these varieties reached Ladakh with the arrival of Moravian Missionaries who introduced potatoes and other vegetables. Since then, we Ladakhis have been experimenting with different vegetables. At times, people say that there is no future in agriculture. I say we need to keep experimenting. With a changing climate, I am able to grow more varieties of vegetables than my father-in-law. Till 20 to 30 years back, we were only able to grow barley, turnips and potatoes. Now we can grow almost everything that is grown in the plains of India.”

In order to ensure that the food is healthy, Achey Zenab minimises the use of urea. However, she is honest in admitting that many plants do not grow without a little fertiliser. She won my respect with her honesty and for resisting ‘green-washing’. She explained, “I bought around 40 to 50 bags of chicken droppings and cattle manure as I had heard that they were good for plants. I sprinkled a thin layer of this mix in every plant bed.” As she spoke, she dug the soil and plucked out the onion sapling to show me the droppings in the multi-layered manure below the soil surface.

I wondered about how she managed to water her farm. Achey Zenab explained, “Till water starts to flow in the streams, we use water from the bore-well. Once we get water in the streams, we use it as it is much better for the crops than water from the bore-well. The soil hardly retains water from the bore-well as compared to stream water. Also, people have told me that there is a slight difference in taste for vegetables grown with stream water as compared to bore-well water.”

When I asked Achey Zenab about popular plants, she got up and said, “Onions. I have around 100 beds dedicated to onions, which are purchased by the army as well as shopkeepers.” She explained that she has more than 200 beds in her nursery between February and May. Since February is still cold in Ladakh, I wondered how she managed to grow the saplings. She replied that she uses mulching sheet when she sows seeds as it helps maintain moisture and heat till the seeds sprout. After that, she uses a low tunnel-style greenhouse till the end of March. Finally, she removes the saplings when they are ready for sale. She also explained that the weather fluctuates a lot in the spring and many plants like cauliflower are not able to adapt to such variations. Later, she uses the same beds to grow her own vegetables till the end of October. When asked about her favourite vegetable, she said without hesitation and a glowing smile, “Hag-sag (Kale family of collard greens)! It is tasty, easy to grow and is very popular. Even its seeds are in high demand. My family hardly buys leafy vegetables from the market as it takes a long time to cook and it’s tasteless.”

When I asked her about variety of crops that grow in her farm and kitchen garden, Achey Zenab’s eyes started shining with excitement. She said, “I grow most varieties of cauliflower, cabbage, potatoes, capsicum, brinjal (eggplant), collards, chards, tomatoes, chilly, spinach, carrots, suede, onion and local radish. It feels nice to have a variety of vegetables at home at a time when processed and packaged food items dominate our diet.”

Even as we were speaking, she kept receiving calls from people who wanted to buy saplings. She is now assisted by a Nepali couple by the name of Puran and Komal. Puran was busy preparing bundles for a client who wanted more than 100 onion saplings that evening. Komal was collecting coriander from the polythene-covered greenhouse. Achey Zenab’s son helps her with accounts and client management. Her husband helps in transporting vegetables and with de-weeding whenever he gets time from his transport business. Achey Zenab too delivers vegetables when the quantity is low or if there is no alternative. In the evening, her sister, who is following in Achey Zenab’s footsteps, comes over from Thiksey with her two sons to help. Achey Zenab also sells tomato puree and sugar-free apple juice from raw materials that she grows herself.

I noticed various flowers around her home and asked her about them. She explained, “Those are Phlox and Godetia that has six to seven different colour-types. They are in high demand.” She explained that there is a lot of demand for flower saplings in Ladakh as people prefer them to bouquets. She said that there are 50 types of flowers but only a few of them are for sale.

She remains a shining example of an independent person. Her success as an entrepreneur has been recognised by different organisations. Most recently, she was awarded the prestigious Kisan Mitra at a national-level farmer’s meet in Jodhpur, Rajasthan by ICAR-CAZRI. She has been receiving such awards since 1995 and remains a torchbearer in the field of entrepreneurship. She has also been an important voice in Ladakh who has helped break stereotypes about agriculture. She loves her work and remains very popular in the agriculture sector. In fact, the Director of CAZRI always makes it a point to visit her farm when he is in Ladakh. Similarly, many other scientists from across the country visit her farm to consult her on various matters.

In the context of this experience, I could not help but wonder about her vision for the future of agriculture. She replied, “If one can persevere, agriculture and farming is a great way to be independent, generate an income, and produce your own food. People will never stop eating food and so you can keep selling it. Unfortunately, today’s generation are hesitant to take up agriculture-related work as it requires a lot of hard work, patience and commitment.”

Photographs and text by Namgyal Angmo

Namgyal Angmo is an avid collector of stories of people’s lives and experiences.

A beacon of hope: Kifayat Hussain

Over the last three months Ladakh has witnessed many ups and downs on account of COVID-19. It started with panic followed by a shortage of essential goods, protests over the stalled evacuation of pilgrims stranded in Iran and quarantine centres across India, and periodic reports of new COVID-19 positive cases in Ladakh. The administration, especially healthcare workers, has been on their toes even as people have remained confined to their homes.

In the midst of this chaos, a Ladakhi teacher has emerged as a beacon of hope for people around the world. In addition to spreading a positive message, Kifayat Hussain has also been trying to break stereotypes and prejudices that people have about COVID-19 and patients who have tested positive for it.

Kifayat is a mathematics teacher at Lamdon Model Senior Secondary School in Leh. He remains very popular amongst his students who are spread across Leh and Kargil districts. His popularity is largely due to his ability to teach mathematics by simplifying complex concepts and his commitment to students and the subject. I have had the privilege of being his student and can personally vouch for each of these qualities that make Kifayat a great teacher. He was very gracious and generous with his time when I called him to discuss his recent experience.

He explained that his life was fairly normal till 3 May. He was following his daily routine and conducting classes online. In early March, Ladakh’s first COVID-19 cases emerged in Kifayat’s village of Chushot in the neighbouring hamlet of Chushot Gongma. A few weeks later, COVID-19 positive cases also emerged in Chushot Yokma, which is Kifayat’s immediate neighbourhood. As a result of these cases, the whole village was declared as a containment zone.

Despite this, Kifayat continued his daily routine of conducting online classes. On 30 April, Kifayat voluntarily decided to the take the COVID-19 test despite not having any symptoms as he wanted to be sure he did not have the virus before he resumed school. Three days later, on 3 May, Kifayat’s test returned a positive result. “After our village was declared a containment zone, I decided to be safe and take the test. On 3 May, I was told that I had tested positive for COVID-19,” he explained. His initial reaction was one of anxiety. “I actually felt a little depressed initially after receiving the test result. I was then admitted to the dedicated COVID-19 ward at Mahabodhi Hospital for isolation and treatment,” he added.

At this point, he felt he had two choices; Respond to these developments with panic and fear, or channelise his energies to achieve something positive. Kifayat chose the latter. On 4 May, he spoke with the management and Principal of Lamdon Model Senior Secondary School, Leh. “They suggested that I continue taking my online classes from the hospital. I was already thinking along those lines as I wanted to remain busy and continue teaching,” he said.

In response to a request from the Principal of the school, the district administration agreed to allow Kifayat to continue his online classes from the hospital. The school ensured that the necessary teaching material was sent to him at the hospital and the medical staff provided the necessary infrastructure Kifayat needed to conduct his online classes.

I could not help but wonder how Kifayat was able to focus his attention and energy on teaching in the midst of all the chaos and fear as well as the physical and mental impact of being COVID-19 positive. He replied, “Teaching has always been close to my heart. I often travel to Kargil to hold free workshops on mathematics. Before I received the test result, I would be conducting online classes from early morning till late evening. This has been my nature and it helped me channel my energies towards more constructive pursuits rather than succumb to negativity and anxiety.”

He then added. “I feel there are a lot of misconceptions about COVID-19 that need to be cleared. I personally believe that this disease is not that dangerous for people who do not have other pre-existing health conditions. If people become more aware then they will voluntarily agree to be tested instead of shying away from it.”

When the news of Kifayat’s test results reached his friends and students, they started reaching out to him. “Initially, I received messages such as ‘Get well soon, Kifayat’ and ‘Take care of your health’. Later, as my teaching videos started to circulate on social media, people started sending me messages appreciating my efforts, encouraging me and giving me virtual pats on my back,” he said. These messages poured in from friends as well as current and former students whom he has taught over the last 12 years.

As the nationwide lockdown curbed people’s normal lives, I asked Kifayat about the importance of finding something to stay busy. He replied that compared to other professions teachers have an added responsibility to continue working as students are directly dependent on them. He added, “We cannot remain in isolation. Our lives and actions as teachers have a direct impact on our students. If we continue working for them, our students will benefit and be engaged in the process of learning. If I decide to just sit and brood, then my students will also suffer. Teachers must keep working even during the COVID-19 pandemic and remain accessible to their students through different channels.”

When asked about his own health, Kifayat said that he is indebted to the hospital staff. “All of them have been very generous, supportive and caring from the very first day. The doctors and the other staff have been very caring and polite. All of them have been diligently carrying out their responsibilities and remain deeply committed to the welfare of their patients. Initially, I was a little apprehensive about how I would pass my time at the hospital. Soon, I did not even realise how time was flying by. The doctors and the hospital staff remain available 24 hours of the day and look into every minute detail.”

He explained that the hospital staff had told him not to count the days at the hospital as he would only make himself miserable. “The mannerisms and the conduct of the medical team at the hospital is a big part of treatment that ensures that patients recover quickly. They are always available and keep checking for any symptom of ill health. We cannot get such care and support anywhere else. They ensured that I received vitamins and other medication as we still do not have a cure for COVID-19,” he added.

I asked him how his family coped with this experience, especially when he was away from home. He replied, “Our family is very important to us. Unfortunately, the misinformation that exists about COVID-19 means that our family members start to panic. Thankfully, in my case they remained calm and supportive throughout this experience. We were able to speak over the phone to ensure that we all stayed positive. However, as a society we need to address the prejudice and misconceptions about COVID-19, which often leads to unnecessary stress and fear. Awareness is important,” he concluded. Kifayat has now tested negative for COVID-19 and has been discharged from the hospital.

Text by Murtaza Fazily

Photograph by Anwar Hussain

Murtaza Fazily is part of the editorial team at Stawa.

Interview: Lhundup Gyalpo

Ladakh started featuring in English literature from the late 19th Century through colonial records, travelogues and historical accounts by western scholars. This led to a particular conceptualisation of Ladakh in the English literary domain. However, Ladakhi works of fiction and story-telling rarely appeared on this literary landscape. Fiction is an important medium that can rejuvenate the soul of Ladakh and articulate its sense of place. This void has finally been filled by the book Betty’s Butter Tea: Stories from Ladakh by Lhundup Gyalpo. I managed to speak with Lhundup Gyalpo at the book launch in 2019.

Tsetan Dolkar (TD): Why did you choose to write fiction? And in short story form?

Lhundup Gyalpo (LG): My journey as a writer probably started about two decades back when I became conscious of the chaos in my head. It talks to me about various ideas and thoughts, with emotions crisscrossing my mind at the same time. I could either have left this unattended or channelled it to create something. I tried various ways to address this whirlpool. Reading was useful but not enough. Finally, it seems I had no option but to write.

As a child, I was a curious person and interested in different things, especially philosophy. As I grew older, I realised the vastness of philosophy. I was submerged in the field and even considered pursuing it for the rest of my life. Over the years, ideas and thoughts kept collecting in my head. By the time I completed my studies, the chaos in my head was intense but was starting to organise itself into meaningful narratives. That’s when I realised that I needed an outlet to express them. I decided to explore fiction as it is the largest canvas to articulate oneself. It’s also my way of giving something back to society.

I chose short stories for my first book as I wanted to start slowly. If you are building a dam, you first need to build a bridge. Writing is very similar. I choose to write short stories to explore its scope. I am glad I embarked on this journey and now I am starting to imagine the possibility of writing a book.

TD: In your stories, you juxtapose different worlds. Every story has a foreign visitor and other characters in a Ladakhi context. This is also reflected in the title of the book. Why did you follow this theme in the book?

LG: The concept of identity is very important to me. It is also very relevant for Ladakhi youth today. We go out of Ladakh as children or teenagers for our education, employment or to pursue other opportunities. In this self-imposed exile, we visit many places, experience many cultures, and meet different people. By the time we return home after 15-20 years, the Ladakh of our childhood is gone. That cultural shock is peculiar. In Betty’s Butter Tea, I interpreted the experience of that shock. By placing foreigners in Ladakh, I have tried to reach out to young readers and help them realise that our homeland has always been a cosmopolitan place. I hope this will help them understand and appreciate the changes that Ladakh has experienced. I believe Ladakh needs to be interpreted and reinterpreted by each generation. The book was my way of facilitating this process.

Furthermore, Ladakh is a tourist destination and thousands of people visit the region each year. What they take from Ladakh is important to me. In addition to their experiences, they must also understand Ladakh, which is not possible in just a week or two. My stories are a gift to such visitors and meant to entertain and educate them at the same time.

TD: The story ‘The Book of Horror’ has an unusual approach. What was your inspiration for this story?

LG: I do a lot of thought experiments. For instance, I put contradictory situations together and see where my train of thoughts lead. ‘The Book of Horror’ is an experiment with narratives. Writers often amuse themselves and their readers with different kinds of narratives. You could, for instance, have unreliable narrators such as drunkards, schizophrenics, or convicts. This keeps the reader on edge as they are unable to determine if the narrative is true or not. The Book of Horror has multiple narrators. Readers have to be mindful of the narrator to understand the climax.

TD: The story ‘The World Record’ has many twists based on the experiences of the protagonist, Surinder. How did you develop this character?

LG: Writing fiction has many facets and ‘The World Record’ explores character development. The protagonist goes through a lot as he faces daunting emotional, psychological and physical challenges. The story explores how he changes as life happens to him.

TD: The story ‘Betty’s Butter Tea’ is set in Chilling, and the main character is an American girl married in a Ladakhi household of coppersmiths. In Ladakh, metal work is regarded as a lowly profession despite its social importance. Yet, in the story they are respected by the villagers, which shocked me initially. Was this contrast a conscious choice?

LG: We live in assumptions. One such assumption in Ladakh is people who do metallurgy work are of low caste. I did visit Chilling once. It’s a peculiar village settled by Ladakh’s royalty in the 17th Century. I noticed that every family practiced metal work though they too had social stratification. The story is meant to shake readers, especially Ladakhis, about relating social status with occupation. We don’t need to go far to see exceptions to these norms. The story was meant to appreciate traditional Ladakhi occupations such as carpentry, music, metallurgy etc, which remain the flag bearers of our society.

TD: In the same story, you describe art as “…pursuit of art is beyond the concerns of mundane.” What are your thoughts on art?

LG: While working on the book, I realised that if I judge it in terms of recognition, rewards or monetary gain, it would hamper my engagement with the art-form. Doubt remained my biggest hurdle during the process of writing though it did help me grow spiritually.

TD: You have also written, “Literature is a godly indulgence, sometimes even at your own expense”. What do you mean by this?

LG: Art exists for society but not the other way round. Compared to other professions, art requires a lot of sacrifice. If I am to trade myself for the larger good of society, I have to let go of myself at a very personal level. It is a sacrifice claimed by the god of art. I don’t know. This idea stems from this spirit (smiles).

TD: Many sub-plots in this collection are rooted in values such as empathy, compassion, friendship and understanding. How important are these values to your work?

LG: Empathy reigns supreme in the world of fiction. If a writer is putting himself/herself in the shoes of the character, the very act of writing stems from empathy. Each narrative has protagonists, villains, and numerous characters and the author is always practising empathy. Even the villain has some elements of the author’s personality, which needs to be understood by the writer. Fiction is a great medium to propagate these values in our society. In our formal, industry-oriented education system, we never learn and appreciate these subjects, which have a very significant influence on our lives.

TD: In your book, you have touched on all important aspects of Ladakhi society but somehow you have not explored political satire. Do you plan to write political satire in the near future? You have many sources of inspiration these days!

LG: (Laughs) Of course! I do intend to write political satire in the future. That’s the dam, my big project. It remains risky from a literary perspective. I first need to prove to myself that I can write before I start experimenting with satire.

Audience member: Who are your favourite writers?

LG: I have mostly read non-fiction and philosophy. Before I decided to write, I had no idea I would be writing fiction. Early on, a friend introduced me to Russian authors such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky who tried to resolve philosophical, social, and psychological problems through fiction. He remains one of my favourites. He led me to authors like Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, and Anton Chekov. These authors employ a lot of compassion, which is where I connect with them.

Audience member: Why have you used so many Ladakhi names for characters and places?

LG: Throughout my life, I rarely saw Ladakhi names in books. I believe that literature is the mirror of souls, including individuals, society and culture. I found that Ladakhi society was missing in literature. I was hell-bent on using our names to ensure that they are recognised.

Audience member: Why did you choose to write in English? Do plan to write in Ladakhi too?

LG: This is a matter of great concern for us. I had no option but to write in English. I would love to see our future generations writing in Ladakhi. Our inability to write in our mother tongue is the dichotomy of development, our education system and contemporary society. That said, Ladakhi language is like bullion as my ideas are based on books I have read in Ladakhi, while English is the currency of exchange. While I can read Ladakhi well, I currently lack the skills to write in it.

Audience member: What challenges did you face in publishing this book?

LG: Nobody wants your writing! You must write for yourself. You can overcome any hurdle once you realise that fact. I spent six months trying to get a publisher and reached out to national and international publications. It’s very hard, especially when you come from a ‘small’ place like Ladakh. Also, there is limited precedence of Ladakhi writers writing fiction with established publications. While they see the literary quality of the work, they also consider its market potential. Nonetheless, I am sure that our writers will soon overcome this barrier too.

Photograph and text by Tsetan Dolkar

Tsetan Dolkar is Assistant Professor in Geography at Eliezer Joldan Memorial College, Leh