the simple story of a man can tell the complex story of an entire
people. And that is perhaps so with shoeshine man Shafi Sheikh who
has watched events unfold over the decades from his perch at the
famed Lal Chowk in this Jammu and Kashmir capital and is described
by friends as the archetypal Kashmiri - political, innately
courteous and unfailingly honest.
Shafi, 50, has been shining shoes at Srinagar's city centre Lal
Chowk since he was 15. Governments have come and gone, but the
fate of this Kashmiri, who thinks nothing of spending an entire
day scrounging for empty polish tins to help a stranger with her
lab experiments, has remained unchanged.
When opposition leader and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) chief
Mehbooba Mufti carried out a lantern procession in Srinagar
against the appalling electricity situation here the other day,
Shafi simply laughed the incident away.
"If she had been in power, it would have been (Chief Minister)
Omar Abdullah carrying out the lantern procession today.
Governments have come and gone since I started shining shoes as a
"Today I am nearing old age. After a few years, I might not even
be able to work as a shoeshine. If that happens, neither Mehbooba
nor Omar would come to my home carrying food for me and my
family," he said.
He is a simple man with simple needs. Thanks to the fine job he
does shining shoes of office- goers and college students, Shafi
says he earns around Rs.100 a day, just enough to keep his family
"When the weather is okay, I carry my box of shoe polish, creams
and brushes early in the morning to my work place outside the bus
"In these chilling winter days, I usually start my work around
10.30 a.m. since the polish needs a little warm weather to spread
out and shine properly."
"In rain and snow, I remain at home as nobody needs a shoe shine
in bad weather," he added with a smile creasing his wrinkled face.
Interestingly, Shafi has used his right to vote in each election
in the Valley and the diktats of separatists to boycott elections
have had little effect on this hardy soul.
"My father was a cobbler in the army. Our family has always voted
in the elections. That is a family tradition I continue to stick
to," he said.
Shafi said he and his family have traditionally voted for the
regional National Conference (NC) despite the fact that various
governments that came to power here did little to improve his
"Mt father always voted for the NC founder Sher-e-Kashmir. I have
voted for Farooq Abdullah and his son Omar Abdullah. We are loyal
NC supporters and after generations it would not look nice to
betray the family loyalty," he stated.
The political philosophy of a man who has never had a formal
education is hard to understand, but his loyalty is unflinching --
to politics and to any cause close to his heart.
When retired engineer Nisar Ahmad approached him for some empty
shoe polish tins, Shafi initially simply ignored the request.
But, when the 60-year old engineer told Shafi he needed those
empty tins to carry soil samples to the lab where his daughter is
pursuing her doctorate, Shafi could not withhold the gentleman
"Sir, I have around two dozens of them at my home as I do not
throw them away because of their sharp rims which can hurt a
pedestrian or even puncture a car tyre. If you come to my home, I
shall definitely be able to help," he said.
Shafi entrusted his shoeshine box to a friend who sits besides him
on the pavement doing the same job and left with the needy father
to help him.
The innate goodness and courtesy of the simple hearted Kashmiri
impressed many a passerby.
"How many of us can leave our business at its peak and go to help
a fellow human being who might never ever be able to return his
courtesy," said Abdul Qayoom, Nisar's friend who had accompanied
the engineer for the whole day looking for empty polish tins in a
city that has remained plagued for over 20 years by violence and
"This is perhaps the reason god keeps us going. As long as we have
Kashmiris like Shafi, nothing would ever be fully lost whatever
the upheavals and catastrophes we might undergo.
"The life of this ordinary Kashmiri has lessons for all of us even
though he never went to a school here," he said.
(F. Ahmed can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)