For most of her life she was pitied, taunted and told she can’t even manage to care for herself. But Nargis Khatoon, now 24, didn’t let any of that get in her way. As we sit for a chat at her office near the main bus stand at Budgam, she recalls those tough days.
“There was a time when I was unable to even stand up and walk. I am surprised at myself that I manage to run the business singlehandedly,” says Nargis who is differently-abled.
When Nargis was seven a paralytic attack stunted her body growth. The attack rendered her left arm and right leg defunct. But her disability didn’t sap her spirits. It proved out to be a spur instead. “I resolved to live independently and bravely.”
As Nargis reclines in her office chair to check the work for the day on her laptop, she tells me about her busy schedule. “Every day I come to office at 8 in the morning and work for 12 hours straight. The work is so much that I sometimes miss my meals. I hardly have any free time.”
Nargis runs four businesses that she started two years ago on her own. As the chat is on, she excuses me to meet some clients down stairs. I see a dozen customers, mainly to get their travel tickets, waiting for her. Nargis owns and runs a travel agency, guesthouse, stationery shop and general store. With so much work on hand, I now understand why she often misses out on her meals.
But, as she tells me, she isn’t done yet. “I want to expand my business. I have an unquenchable thirst for more and more work.” Nargis employs half a dozen people in her business ventures and plans to take in more as she expands her business.
How do people who doubted that she can manage herself react to her success today, I ask Nargis as she takes me around her office. “Today they feel shame, but are also proud of me when they see how I have grown my businesses,” Nargis tells me with an air of confidence and satisfaction.
“People only look at the happy side of the story. But they have no idea of how much I have struggled to achieve it.”
Nargis says that there was a time when she had no one to support her save her parents. “Our relatives,” she adds, “often pressed my parents to stop my education and make me sit at home.
“My parents always stood behind me. They never let me feel I had any disability. They encouraged me to go on and on.”
There were difficult times for Nargis and her parents as they were told she was “useless.” “They would tell my parents they were wasting money on my education.
“My uncle once told me on my face that I cannot do anything in life.” But Nargis proved not only him but everyone else wrong. “Now he feels proud of me.”
Then she gets a little philosophical.
For Nargis it wasn’t just the barbs from her relatives she had to bear. The society in general was insensitive towards her. People had no more than taunts and teasing remarks for her. “People would laugh at the way I walked. They would pass teasing comments at me,” recalls Nargis.
I ask Nargis of any specific incident she finds particularly hurtful and she quickly recollects one.
“Once I was travelling in a bus from Lal Chowk to my college, NIT Hazratbal, when an elderly woman sitting beside me said, ‘Don’t your parents feel any sharm (shame) in sending you to college? You should have been resting at home.’ That was a cutting remark.”
And how did she react to it? “That day I went home, crying and told my mother about it.” For Nargis her mother is not just a mother, but her best friend. And what she told Nargis still echoes in her. “My mother’s words were so inspirational. She told me, ‘You have no deficiency. It is the deficiency in the eyes of those who think you have any deficiency’,” recalls Nargis.
Despite a discouraging and heartless attitude from people around her, Nargis turned her disability into an asset. Being independent became her goal. “I wanted to do something innovative where I wouldn’t be dependent on others,” says Nargis.
This feeling emerged from a self-realisation. As she grew up, she became increasingly mindful of her state of being differently-abled. Instead of giving up and giving in to hopelessness, Nargis thought of taking on it head-on. “Being independent became my need. It came from the fact that I was very conscious that I am different than others. I wanted to be on my own.”
While Nargis has firmly established her business credentials, her academic record isn’t any less envious. She could have made a rather easy career out of her professional qualification, but chose to take the difficult road less travelled.
In 2009, Nargis, appeared in the All India Engineering Entrance Examination, qualified it and was selected for a B.Tech course. She still remembers how one of her uncles doubted that she would it make it.
It was during her student days at the NIT that Nargis thought of launching an independent business. Her idea of setting up a travel agency became a reality two years later. But it wasn’t easy going. “The beginning was tough,” Nargis recalls. And then, there was the usual string of doubts by people around her — how can she do it, she is a girl, she is not physically t and so on.
The hard part came when Nargis went over to the government office to register her travel agency. When officials there saw her physical condition, she was told to drop the idea. “Not only that, I was even teased for thinking of such a venture,” recalls Nargis.
“I wept that day and got extremely discouraged and thought of abandoning the idea. I felt so weak.”
It was again her mother who stood behind her to carry on. Her words proved out to be what Nargis calls “enlightenment” for her. “Mother told me that people only try to discourage. Follow your heart and do what you believe you should be doing.”
Nargis did just that – followed her heart. Soon the travel agency – Al Kaiwan — was operational. Over the next two years Nargis launched three other businesses: Rehbar Guest House, Al-Kaiwan General Store and a photocopying shop.
Apart from being differently-abled, were there any challenges Nargis faced because of her gender in a male-dominated, patriarchal social setup? “Yes. Being a woman and thinking of doing something of my own is difficult as the society has not yet accepted that women too can think on their own and run businesses,” Nargis explains to me.
People even tried to persuade Nargis’ father to stop her from getting into business which is often considered in our society as unsuitable for women. “There were lots of people who told my father it was wrong to let me launch my own business. They told him that Nargis at her travel agency o ice in Budgam a woman can’t do business,” she says. She recalls a shopkeeper once told her father it was unethical to let her run the business. Nargis recollects what her father told this man to shut him down: “She is my daughter and I know what is right and what is wrong.” Her father though illiterate, is for Nargis “the most educated man in her life.”
Nargis is a qualified engineer and I ask her if she ever thought of going for a formal job. Her answer is expressive of the confidence and self-esteem she has developed over the years though, as she tells me, she was a very shy kid. “The very idea of being an employee of someone frightens me. I will never work for anyone. I love to be independent.”
With four well-established business firms, Nargis is seen by others as a source of inspiration. “My friends from India want to start ventures of their own and often call and discuss their ideas with me,” she says. Locals also often seek her advice for setting up their own business.
The travel agency and general store Nargis owns is named after an angel Kaiwan (revered by a Muslim sect), which means brave. The name was picked up by her father, not only for the sake of the name, but to inspire Nargis. “My father told me you are a Kaiwan and this is a great inspiration for me. I will be brave,” Nargis tells me as I am about to wrap up my conversation with her.
Later I spoke with Nargis’ father, Ali Mohammad Bhat, and found the final words that could be a social game changer of sorts. “Fathers need to understand that daughters are capable of great things and we must always encourage them,” Bhat told me.