Photo: Sajad Rafeeq
Photo: Sajad Rafeeq

Photo Essay: A Kashmiri in Mumbai

He fought floods to get to Mumbai for a photography contestand won

Sajad Rafeeq just kept on walking. It was September. Kashmir was drowning in torrential rain. Communication lines were down, the roads were either submerged or blocked by landslides, and thousands were stranded.

Undeterred, Rafeeq began walking from the hydropower project, near Chanderkote in Doda district, where he worked. The 27-year-old engineer was determined to reach Srinagar, some 150km away, to pick up his camera from home and get to Mumbai.

For Rafeeq, passionate about photography, was all set to take part in the National Geographic Covershot competition. He had been selected on a second attempt; contestants for the annual contest are selected on the basis of some photographs and a 2-minute video on themselves. The shooting for the competition usually takes place between September and January, when participants are assigned particular subjects and their field assignments are filmed and telecast. The theme this time was Mumbai —“Maximum City".

The skies had opened up just when it was time for Rafeeq to head to Mumbai. The deluge was unprecedented. Desperate to reach Srinagar, Rafeeq managed to hop on to a Railway Police Force bus. When the bus couldn’t take him any further, he walked, in part on an elevated railway track.

He managed to reach Srinagar—but couldn't get home. Parts of the Valley were flooded. He made his way to New Delhi, hiring a camera and reaching Mumbai just in time for the shooting. He was eliminated in the initial round, but got another chance through a wild card entry, and went on to emerge as the champion.

Photographer Raghu Rai, one of the judges, was particularly impressed by Rafeeq’s grit and determination. “It came across to us that Sajad, who almost swam across the flood in Kashmir and escaped to Delhi, didn’t have a camera, hired one and arrived in Mumbai. He had no communication with his parents because of the chaos back home," says Rai. “So we decided that here was an example who deserved to be the chosen one. I also offered my favourite Nikon D3300, a 24-megapixel camera, as a special reward to Sajad, a very deserving young man."

Of the many topics that Rafeeq was asked to shoot during the course of the competition, his favourite was Shivam Gupta, the young boy in Dharavi whom he chose as a subject. “I saw an artiste in him. He studies, then practises b-boying, and also helps his father, who is a vegetable seller," Rafeeq says. “What struck me the most about him was that despite the fact that he lives in a slum, where people struggle to survive, he has the courage to dream."

He was also surprised by the intensity of wrestlers at a local akhara and the vibrant and colourful lifestyle of the kolis, a fishing community in Mumbai, and their deep relationship with the sea.

But forever etched in his memory are scenes of a drenched Kashmir, none of which he could capture on camera.

Sometimes the best frames are etched only in your mind.

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