From Kashmir to Delhi to New York to Las Vegas to Kashmir again – Babar Afzal’s life has involved half the world and countless experiences. The former McKinsey Analyst and ethical hacker is today a shepherd and an activist for rural affairs and the famous Pashmina goat.
Pashmina is a fine type of cashmere wool. The textiles made from it were first woven in Kashmir. The term “pashmina” literally translates to “soft gold” in Kashmiri. Pashmina came to be known as “cashmere” in the West because Europeans first encountered this fibre in Kashmir.
Pashmina is in demand around the world. Pashmina wool can fetch as much as $200,000 for a shawl in Paris and New York. However, the profits are diluted along the long chain of buyers, weavers, traders, middlemen, and wholesalers. The goatherds, eventually, get a meagre Rs 2,700 per kilogram.
Today, due to changes in the environment and urbanisation, the Pashmina goat is becoming endangered. Babar Afzal left his high-paying and lucrative career to save the Pashmina’s dwindling numbers
His story has been covered by many major international media outlets from Time to Bloomberg. The Logical Indian recently interviewed Mr Afzal about his journey, his work, and his aspirations.
From the luxury of Vegas and the ceaseless business of New York to the hills and valleys of Kashmir, yours has been a remarkable journey. What inspired you to leave Delhi’s bustling activity and a lucrative salary for the relatively silent job of a goat herder?
If you knew me when I was in college, you’d know that I wanted to leave J&K for good and never return. It was the time when terrorism was at its peak and there were no opportunities to look up to. I just wanted to leave my state and never ever return. And I did exactly that. My first job took me to Delhi and then to the USA, the UK, the Middle-east, and almost half the world.
It was later I realised that one of the key reasons I had a good stint at my fast global career – which was “problem solving” – was common to almost all the young people of J&K. Every young person that time was growing up handling multiple problems with limited resources in multiple manners.
Life was good with flying in private jets, living in luxury hotels, earning dollars, and stops at Las Vegas were a standard part of life. When you have friends back home who considered USD2000 per annum a great amount of money, I was topping USD200,000 per annum. I was on top of my game.
In 2011, I read a news story that said 25,000 Pashmina goats had died of starvation in the Himalayas due to starvation. This me feel very small. Maybe it was because as I child I would play with these goats in my village. I believe that the big decisions of your life do not take more than a moment; it is the small decisions that take long planning and risk analysis.
And in that moment, I just felt that I need to just reach these goats somehow and be with them. It’s been almost 6 years now and I never got time to look back. I have been travelling and living with the nomads and shepherds and become one of them.
Trust me, I never had any plan of doing what I am doing today. I was caught in emotions and I just responded with my heart, truthfully and honestly. And one thing led to another and it has been a lovely and beautiful journey which has no comparison to the life I led before.
As a former IT analyst, you said you found something “missing” in your life, something which was fulfilled by the beauty of Kashmir. What was this “something”?
That was the one thing for which we are born. It takes a life to find it and I am happy that I found that – the truth. When I left my corporate life for Kashmir, I believe there were many things at play with me that time. I was doing well, my spiritual understanding was growing, and my daughter had just entered the world. I don’t know what it was. I just decided to leave everything and move into the mountains without a plan. I was searching for something. Maybe the truth of some sort, as despite having everything there was something missing in my life.
In the past 6 years, I have been able to bring together a very large group of nomads, shepherds, weavers, craftsmen, and women together; now, we are jointly putting a structure together where a social enterprise would be owned by this community directly. With my work getting visibility globally, I am fortunate and am thankful that some corporations and institutions from around the world are considering working with us for their pashmina product range.
I support over 50 families today with my art and I am looking at auctioning my art in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru to raise funds for a social enterprise that would be owned by this community. I want to support over 1 million families in this region and empower them in many ways. I can’t do this alone anymore and need many strong hands to join me in my endeavour. My wife and I founded the Pashmina Goat Project (www.pashminagoat.org) and we are meeting many people who are helping us plan the road ahead.
You wrote a book. What is the story behind the book’s unique title?
The phrase “Six Times Thinner” is a play on breadth of a Pashmina goat’s hair when compared to human hair. I named the novel such so as to reflect the importance the Pashmina goat holds in my life, for it is the guiding force in my life, gently and noiselessly leading me towards my destiny.
What is the book about and how did you come about writing it?
This book is about my journey from being a successful white hat hacker to being a shepherd in the Himalayas. Six Times Thinner is a story of accepting change. The book begins with me travelling business class in an airplane and reaches its culmination at the highest mountain of the world inside a makeshift tent all alone. I know that the real journey begins now and this book is just a part of what I have experienced and learnt.
It is a result of over two years of creating a story around various real life incidents that have had a profound and life changing effect on my life and made me what I am today. This story is part memoir and part fiction. Many of the incidents – like the Kangri incident and the one where I started in the face of death in my attempt to fight a snow leopard – are a gentle reminder for me to continue the journey I have embarked upon.
My journey into the Himalayas as a shepherd pushed me to delve deeper into my soul and the book is an outcome of that. A journey which was never planned and took me a moment to decide and how it became the most meaningful journey of my life. A journey which disconnected me with everyone to connect me with my own self and seek my own truth. It is a journey of following my heart and a quote by Rumi comes to my mind: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” I was slowly drawn to my destiny – which is protecting the delicate ecosystem of the Pashmina.
Pashmina is a fabric of the royals grown on a unique and sensitive animal that might soon be endangered due to climate change and uncontrolled industrialisation. It is also for the Changpas, who preserve the ancient culture and religion of Himalayas and who lead a quiet life at that altitude and if not protected will lose everything including their livelihoods. With this book I hope to shed some light on the travails of the Changpa tribe and the valuable lessons a shepherd could teach us.
This book is also a silent ode to the weavers who have already lost everything to the fake Pashmina flooding the markets. This book is my journey of thinking differently and trying to bring about change for the betterment of the Changpas, Pashmina weavers, and the Pashmina goats.
The book is divided into six chapters with each having an article, wisdom of the shepherds’ lesson and a piece of art which has taken me 5 years to finish. The work is done using the Pashmina hair (finest and the purest) and vegetable dyes to create a colourful work with hand using needles – which took me 5 years perfect to this work has forced me to disconnect and hibernate for months together while I was travelling like a nomad. I am happy that I like what I have been able to produce.
I fervently hope this book brings about a change in the attitude of people towards their surroundings and each one of us embarks on a journey that takes us on the path we were meant to walk on.
In its feature on you, Wired had an interesting title: “Key to a happy life? Swapping Vegas for the life of a goat herder.” Given that you have lived this transition, does the title do justice? What is the secret to a happy life?
There is unity underlying diversity at the surface. The endeavour of all the physical sciences till now has been to find that elusive unity giving rise to apparent diversity at the surface. On similar lines, all the emotions and hence actions of human beings at the surface have a common emotion or say basic intent to them ie to “set free”.
Individuals work all through their life for money, for happiness, for peace, for prosperity, for recognition or fame, but if all this is deeply and logically analysed, it boils down to set oneself free of all the bonds of life. Knowingly or unknowingly that is the ultimate goal of everyone irrespective of their directions or status in life. That is the highest mountain everyone is climbing though at different altitudes. There is no other option but to reach at the peak of this mountain as the shepherd keeps moving to feed his sheep.
What are your future plans? Are there any possibility of returning to the IT sector or do you want to continue working to improve the local industry in Kashmir?
I am envisioning leveraging the power of technology to drastically improve the quality of life of the shepherds. I have designed an application for the nomads which will empower them in the higher reaches of Himalayas to bid for their wool when it is ready. They would get mobile alerts of weather, prices, auctions, medical emergencies etc. This would connect them not only with their families but also globally with buyers. I am discussing this development project with a few people at IIT to commence work. Then there is a plan to integrate the weavers and craftsmen on a platform which will give them design intelligence from international markets, thus enabling them to make products that are marketable at a high price.
The journey has been immensely hard, but the efforts are paying off. The Pashmina Goat Project was bootstrapped from my personal savings, but it is getting great interest from angel investors who want to speed up the startup’s expansion plans. I am auctioning my artwork to fund the setup of three community centres across Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, Schools, Medical Centers, Pashmina Testing Laboratory and a Global Social Pashmina Brand Co-owned by this community. I have to raise USD10 million to make this happen and empower the communities for the present and future generations who are linked to the Pashmina Eco-System of India.
I have dedicated my life to this community and will continue to paint and create luxury pashmina art and do the advocacy work for this community. And at the same time build a community which understands and participates in global trade of pashmina. Saving the Goats, Economic Empowerment of Communities and Sustainable Development of this Eco-System, Building Trust and Customer Awareness for responsible pashmina buying will be the key.
Readers who are interested to learn more about Mr Afzal and help him in his future ventures can contact him here.