Every morning, for nearly a decade, shop-owner Farooq Mohammed has taken a walk around Kodai Lake. The route does not change, running from Garden Manor to Bryant’s Park. But ‘Every morning is new,’ he says. ‘The sky is different, the clouds are different. You don’t have to be a photographer or an artist. You just have to be there to see it. I have one thing to say to residents: when Kodai is at its most beautiful, they are sleeping.’
Farooq’s talents find expression through his phone camera, and some of the most beautiful photographs you will see of Kodai’s picturesque landscapes. What might have started out as a hobby is often art, although he is too modest to use this description. ‘I’m an amateur,’ he maintains. ‘I started my morning walks around the lake with my earphones. One day, I saw a coracle and clicked a picture on my phone. That was my first good photograph.’ The phone, a Google Nexus 4, came with a camera worth writing home about, which is why Farooq took some pains to acquire it.‘ Avinash from Muncheez helped me get that phone,’ he says. ‘I’m quite crazy about my gadgets!’
The walks were also a Sunday routine with his daughter, Areeba, who lives in Kashmir now. He is part of a small Kashmiri community here, comprised of 10 or so families, all running handicrafts businesses.
Areeba speaks of Kodai wistfully, over the phone. ‘Of course it’s my home, that’s where I grew up. Every Sunday, dad and I would go for a hike, to a viewpoint or through the forests. I saw him develop an interest in photography―taking pictures hadn’t occurred to him before that. I think Kodai brought out the artist in him,’ she says.
Always equipped with his bowler hat and a good-natured grin, Farooq is hard to miss: usually spotted outside his store, chatting with fellow shop-owners and passers-by, beside Goldan Parks Inn (sic). Farooq is a well-known, much-liked part of the Kodai landscape, for the more than three decades he has spent here. He always welcomes you into the store for a quick chat and, more often than not, some sort of parting gift.
At our last meeting, also on the steps of Golden Parks, Farooq presented me with two large bags of Kashmiri chilli, their contents gloriously fragrant despite the two layers of plastic in which they were ensconced; and it’s not unusual for a present from Farooq, usually a box of fresh, crimson saffron, grown in Kashmir, to find its way to my house, both in Kodai and Bengaluru.
Walnut wood furniture is the family trade. ‘We manufacture furniture made of walnut wood, it grows abundantly in Kashmir and we have been in the business for generations,’ he tells me.
A couple of visitors walk into Farooq’s shop, The Craft Chain, as we speak on the phone one afternoon in August, momentarily interrupting our chat. I hear snatches of conversation from the other side―‘You want four masks? Just pay for two’. The visitors depart a few minutes later, with cheerful goodbyes.
The workday begins at 10 am, when Farooq opens up the store. ‘If the day is quiet, I listen to music, I read books―oh, and I love cinema. I get a lot of foreigners in my shop and I usually like to make people sit down and have a chat with them before they go. That’s how I get films from around the world―they give me a deep insight into different cultures, which I enjoy.’
That’s how things go at the store, packed from floor to ceiling with knick-knacks and collectibles – people come in for a purchase and end up staying for a chat.
‘Farooq is a master salesman, he can sell ice to an Eskimo,’ jokes Liyaqat Shafi, best known around town as Irfan. One of Farooq’s oldest friends, he is a third-generation resident of Kodai himself. ‘Our families live across the bridge from each other in Kashmir, we worked together in Chennai and my dad has often bought walnut wood furniture from his folks. He’s a sincere and generous man. He knows my father and he knows my kids―he’s friends with them, too. That’s one of the best things about him, he can find common ground with anyone, no matter how old they are or where they’re from. We have worked together and also run rival stores but with Farooq, it’s never been about the stiff competition that we otherwise tend to find within the community. I take friends and customers to his shop and he often visits mine.’
Farooq first arrived here in 1981, when he was 16 years old, to help his uncle, Ghulam Hassan, with his handicrafts shop. Back then, the town was a very different place, Farooq recalls.
‘It was so quiet. We would close the shop at 7 pm because you wouldn’t really see anyone on the road after that.’ There were only a handful of buildings that made up the town; a cluster of trees stood where his shop is currently located. ‘I remember seeing flying squirrels outside KIS. One man actually managed to catch a squirrel and was trying to sell it at Seven Roads!’
They would walk everywhere―only a handful of people had bikes. Entertainment happened at the Kodai Kalaiarangam Theatre, which played a different film every day and closed in 1987, opposite what is now the BSNL office. ‘We would watch seven films a week,’ Farooq chuckles. ‘After that, I would come back and sleep in my shop, instead of going home.’
Farooq spent six years in Kodai in the 80s, before moving to Chennai, where the family owned another shop. He would spend 13 years there before returning to Kodai in 2000. He has remained here since, with his family.
‘I’m always happy to be here, I have been in the South for most of my life and in Kodai for decades,’ he says. ‘And we change, we become a part of where we live and it begins to live with us. Now, when I go to Kashmir, I begin to feel homesick after a while. It’s difficult to fit in because everything has changed, especially me.’