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Staying connected in the valley

In a terraced government-maintained park in downtown Srinagar’s Khanyar area, a motley crowd of young men — students, professionals and government employees — has been religiously meeting on all shutdown and curfew days in the last two-and-a-half months.

india Updated: Sep 25, 2010 23:25 IST
Peerzada Ashiq

In a terraced government-maintained park in downtown Srinagar’s Khanyar area, a motley crowd of young men — students, professionals and government employees — has been religiously meeting on all shutdown and curfew days in the last two-and-a-half months. Not to chart any plan for stone pelting but to play carrom: the new rage to kill time in the Valley marred by protests and curfews.

At a time when every business house suffered setbacks due to continuous civil unrest since the killing of a boy in June, followed by shutdowns and curfews, there are two products witnessing a booming business: carrom boards and Internet devices.

The sale of carrom boards is up by over 500 per cent since the last three months. Otherwise a winter game on the verge of extinction, there is a sudden rise in the number of people buying carrom boards to pass time. “I sell 10-20 boards on a day when there is no curfew or shutdown. In normal times, I would sell 10 in three months, that too in harsh winters,” says Imtiyaz Ahmad, who owns a sports shop in downtown Srinagar.

The by-lanes of downtown Srinagar, spread over 5 kilometres, are dotted with small groups playing carrom on a sunny curfew day. Many sports shops have even run out of stocks due to unexpected sales. “I had pending stocks of carrom since 2005 and have cleared it now,” says Mujtaba Sofi, another sports shop owner.

Out of more than 100 days of unrest, only 8-10 days were working days in the entire Kashmir valley. Security forces’ action against violent protesters left 64 people dead.

“In curfew times, it becomes frustrating to live in the confines of our houses. So we decided to play carrom everyday and started a mini-championship. Otherwise we will turn into mental wrecks,” explains Aijaz Ahmad, a resident of Khayar, and student at the Kashmir University.

The sale of Internet devices and SIM cards is also going up. “The Internet has become an alternative medium of news in Kashmir as well as to stay in touch with each other since SMS is not working. We have received hundreds of applications for our special Internet offer,” says Sumair Qureshi, an Aircel employee.

So much so that two major cellular companies — BSNL and Tata Indicom — have stopped issuing devices due to non-availability of stock.

On the Internet, hundreds of residents have picked up a different object, not stones, in their hands to stay connected: the popular Bouncing Ball on the social networking site Facebook. It’s a game played on Facebook from the respective ends of the users’ computers. Each player has to ensure the balls descending from the site do not touch the base by firing from a gun. The score depends on the levels one crosses. Basharat Ahmad, a Mass Communication student who lives in the uptown Rajbagh area in Srinagar, has formed a group of 15 Bouncing Ball players.

“Regular curfew and shutdowns shrink a sense of space and social activity. It gets frustrating. After the daily dose of news about deaths, I retreat to the game to stay away from realities that surround me. It helps soothe my frayed nerves,” says Ahmad, who tops the group with more than 50,000 points.

“I spend 4-6 hours every day. To reach the 50,000 mark, one requires several hours of focus and patience,” he explained.

There are dozens of such groups which hit the screen regularly to outsmart each other. Relatives and friends of many have not been able to meet each other because of the stone-throwing youngsters and baton-swinging security personnel on curfew and shutdown days. So the game helps them to stay in touch and connected.

“I have not met my school friends for several weeks now. The game keeps our friendships alive and kicking! One can sometimes feel the friend is on the screen’s other side,” says Najeeb Ahmad, 17, a student of Iqbal Memorial School.