Ashraf hails from Anantnag in the Kashmir Valley. More than half of the year he is away from home earning for his family, comprising an ailing mother, wife and two little girls. He is one among thousands of Kashmiris who travel across the country to sell their local products such as shawls and carpets.
I remember him frequenting our house since long. Smiling and courteous, we always welcomed him to showcase the shawls. Initial prices notwithstanding, a chat and a cup of tea would get those prices crashing to less than half. 'Pure Pashmina' claims would mellow down to 'mixed Pashmina' or even refurbished and embroidered Amritsari shawls. At the end of the three-hour marathon and the whole verandah spread with shawls and suits, he would succeed in getting around the ladies of the house and some eager neighbours.
I wonder how he ever sensed us being on leave in town, for pronto, he would be there the very next day. My delighted wife would term it telepathy. During one such visit, when he came to know of my posting in Kashmir, he was extra magnanimous and in the spirit of a 'sense of belonging' granted additional discount.
We realised his long absence when my sister flew across from the US to shop for the wedding of her daughter. Her first concern after the jet lag: "Bhabhi, could we get Ashraf over? The shawls I carried last time were a hit. I want a cart full this time for return gifts." Unable to contact him, my sister took whatever Ashraf's shawls were lying at home, leaving my wife exasperated.
Well, it was after a while that the doorbell rang early one morning. The whole family, including my mother, who, otherwise is wary of salesmen, gathered around Ashraf in excitement. He greeted us with the usual warmth but subdued exuberance. I thought I caught a forlorn look for a moment. As it unfolded, he was in Srinagar tending to his ailing mother, admitted at the local civil hospital, when the fury of the Jhelum flooded the town. The hospital had turned into a lake.
Marooned for two days and giving up hope of survival, hundreds of victims experienced a 'God send' in the form of army relief teams. Slowly but steadily, the brave men of the armed forces evacuated the ill, aged and their caretakers to safety.
With a choked voice and tears in his eyes, he took out a neatly packed loi (shawl for men) and placed it at my feet. I hugged Ashraf, who viewed me as a representative of the Indian Army, the saviour of his mother. The gesture was his humble way of acknowledgement. Through him, we felt the gratitude of our brothers and sisters in Kashmir who now live to flourish again thanks to our valiant soldiers. I was touched when he said, "Huzoor, I told them of my acquaintance with Colonel saab (referring to me) because of which they evacuated us from the hospital right till our doorstep!" How naïve of him.