A year ago, pharmacist Nasir Patigaru, 29, was having dinner with his family when his sister-in-law, a teacher, mentioned an orphanage in the area.
Patigaru, who has lived in Anantnag all his life, was intrigued to think that there had been children with no parents living so close to his large joint family and he had never heard of them.
A few days later, he decided to visit the children and take them some treats of chips and candy.
There, among the 20 girls aged five to 13, he met five-year-old Iqra, a kindergartener with sparkly eyes who hugged him repeatedly and prattled to him, addressing him as ‘Bhaiya (Brother)’ all the while.
“After that day, I was hooked,” says Nasir, smiling. “I was very touched by their affection.”
Iqra and her two sisters had been left at the orphanage by their father after their mother died in an accident; he had since remarried.
“For days, I kept thinking about the children, especially Iqra and her sisters. With a budget of about Rs. 40,000 a month, the children were comfortable at the orphanage.
"They had everything they needed. But something was missing — I guess, affection,” he says. “The caretaker, after all, was a 23-year-old woman, virtually a child herself.”
Patigaru decided to talk to four close friends — all businessmen in the same age group — about doing something to bring a little more warmth and cheer into the orphanage.
“At first, the five of us would just go and have tea with them twice a week,” says Masooq Ahmad, 29, who owns a computer showroom.
“They opened up immediately, discussing little squabbles, talking about simple things like TV shows and cartoons... things one would talk about with one’s family.”
Then someone mentioned an upcoming birthday and the young men decided to organise a surprise party, complete with greeting cards, cake, chips and games.
“That party was such a massive success that we made a list of all the kids’ birthdays and we now organise a party for each one,” says Patigaru.
Over time, as the children began to discuss their extra-curricular interests — mainly art, craft and music — the five men each picked a field and turned unofficial tutors.
They now visit two or three times a week, spending hours talking to, teaching and playing games with the children.
They also spend time once a week reading and telling stories, in a ‘reading room’ stacked with hundreds of storybooks donated or bought by the five men.
Other children from the area now visit the reading room to browse or borrow books, and joining in during birthday parties, giving the little occupants a chance to make friends,form a link with the outside world.
What started out as a little kindness, meanwhile, has turned into a Facebook page called the South-Kashmir Social Services Society, with members across the state, and two other reading rooms for underprivileged children set up with the help of the new members.
The group accepts no donations, instead helping one another with new initiatives, buying all books and materials themselves.
“Most of us earn well,” says Ahmad. “And in Islam, you are supposed to donate a share of your savings to those less fortunate than yourself.”