Down a narrow, winding lane off Lal Chowk, an iconic square in central Srinagar, stands the decrepit Hotel Ash. Past a reception desk with no attendant, and up a rickety flight of stairs, is room number 5, which serves as an office for three local newspapers. Inside, on an October evening, I found Malik Rafi, the 37-year-old owner of the Urdu weekly Kashmir Manzar, peering fixedly at a computer screen. Rafi is the publisher, editor, designer, and sometimes even distributor of the newspaper, which boasts a staff of exactly one. Beside him, two men typed away frantically at their keyboards—one the owner, and the entire staff, of the Kashmir Glacier, and the other of the Daily Nigahban.
Rafi, like dozens of other newspaper owners working out of Hotel Ash, begins work every day at 6 pm. Besides the Kashmir Manzar, he is the only staff member for two other papers too, though these have other owners. He scans the news wires for stories, and picks enough to fill his pages. Then, he starts editing and designing. On the days he needs to close an issue, he finalises it by midnight and sends it to a nearby press. At around 3 am, distributors collect printed copies, before taking them to vendors. Rafi’s papers rarely carry original stories. “Ninety percent of newspapers in Kashmir rely on news agencies,” he told me. “You just have to cut and paste, design the newspaper and deliver the copy.”
Hotel Ash is one of several buildings in Srinagar’s Press Enclave area that, according to several publishers like Rafi, house some five or six dozen small newspapers. These are colloquially called “lithos”—presumably a reference to lithography, a cheap and largely obsolete method of printing, though no one could tell me for sure. They carry little to no original content, and sell no more than 500 copies each—but their publishers get false certificates from chartered accountants reporting inflated circulation figures.