Behind the charming voice of Mohammad Rafiq Pi as he entertains radio listeners in northern Jammu and Kashmir state lies a story of struggle, of a young man who lost his father and house in childhood.

The 26-year-old, who is also known as RJ Rafiq, became an overnight success when his station Red FM began to broadcast to the Valleys earlier this year. He is so popular that he now plans to relate his life story in a book that is likely to be released in 2019.

It doesn’t have a title yet, but the theme will reflect his belief that “life is a struggle and struggle is yet to begin”. 

For Rafiq, that struggle started at the tender age of eight when his father Muhammad Yasin Pir, a mason and small-time trader, was killed in a road accident at their remote village of Nilam in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, about 70 kilometers from Srinagar. He left behind his wife, homemaker Atiqa Begum, and five children.

Three years later, after the shattered family had started to rebuild their lives, their simple home was destroyed in a fire, forcing Atiqa to beg, borrow and steal to feed her family. Rafiq’s life took a different turn in 2005, when he took a scholarship exam and was admitted to the Jammu and Kashmir Yateem Khana orphanage in Srinagar.

Also known as Raahat Manzil — “abode of relief” — the orphanage offers free boarding, lodging and education to destitute children. Rafiq said it was the only choice for an increasingly desperate Atiqa.

Starting a new life in an orphanage

“No mother wants her child to be away. Nor does the child want to be away from her, but for us there were no other options,” Rafiq told Asia Times from the Red FM studio in Srinagar. While he cheers up listeners on Vela Panthi, a music program for youths, memories of those hard days at the orphanage are never far from his mind.

“Your life is confined to the walls of the boarding school. Nothing happens as per your wish. From food to sleeping to the dress you wear, everything is governed by discipline, not choice. Until my class tenth exam I would often cry that I wanted to go back home,” he said.

The orphanage is run by Jamaat-e-Islami, a conservative Islamic group operating in the mountainous region of Kashmir that has seen three decades of violence. It is largely inspired by a fundamentalist doctrine that views entertainment like listening to music as un-Islamic. “Though children from other communities, including Hindus and Sikhs, also study there, each of them followed their religion,” Rafiq said. “As for Muslim kids, it was strictly an Islamic lifestyle.”

Yet Rafiq was full of praise for his orphanage. “They groomed me on multiple fronts. They taught me patience, something vital for life. Patience can be waiting for your turn to use the washroom when three-four kids are in a queue. There is patience even in visiting the marketplace once in a blue moon. And I learnt it all, patiently.”

The budding author is dedicating an entire chapter of his book to an interview with the trust’s chairman, Syed Ashiq aka Ashiq Kashmiri. “My story will be incomplete without him,” Rafiq said.

Auditioning in a talent quest

After clearing his standard 10 exams in 2008, Rafiq started getting interested in the “outside world.” Blessed with a melodious voice, he was drawn to music and would “secretly” listen to radio programs, especially Chart Busters on Voice of America.

One day he “bunked” from the orphanage to audition in the Golden Voice of Kashmir awards, a talent hunt for budding singers. There was an awkward moment when the hosts asked him for a contact number.

“I didn’t disclose that I was from an orphanage lest they look down upon me. Instead, I played it bold and shared the warden’s number, saying it was that of my parents,” Rafiq said.

A few days later the warden took a call on his phone informing him that his “son” had got through the auditions. Rafiq was “thrashed” mercilessly for having left the orphanage, and especially to attend a music concert. However, Rafiq did manage to persuade the warden to let him go to the awards, in which he did well.

To better his education Rafiq enrolled for a degree in humanities at a  local college; he ended up slipping out of the college to work at a call center for six months, but did attend classes for the rest of the year. He also participated in talk shows on state-run station Radio Kashmir.

“Though I was getting pocket money from the orphanage, I wanted to earn a bit more because your life changes in college. You need to get access to things like mobiles to be in touch with the outside world, at least for the sake of a career. I secretly procured a second-hand phone,” Rafiq said. By the time he finished college he had an approved radio voice and began doing voice-overs for advertisements.

A dream job in the radio business

After he completed the humanities degree, Rafiq’s mother wanted him to study a post-graduate course in education, hoping he would qualify for a government job as a teacher. “I didn’t argue that I was interested in making a career in media and instead followed her wishes,” he said.

While studying for an education degree at Chinab Valley College in central Kashmir, he got a part-time job at the campus. But once he had graduated, Rafiq said goodbye to the orphanage: he needed to find a place to live in the city or would have to go back home.

His solution was to take a job at Sen Channel, a local cable network, that also gave him some “shelter”; he looked after transmissions during the nighttime hours. Pursuing his “dream job” in media, he also completed a post-graduate diploma in mass communications and a post-graduate course in English at the University of Kashmir.

Now well-versed in media jobs, he started working for event management firms, handling “anchoring events to camera jobs” and still finding time for a role in celebrated producer Ekta Kapoor’s 2018 movie Laila Majnu. Finally, when popular national radio station Red FM ventured into Kashmir, he landed a job as a radio jockey.

It changed his fortunes overnight, bringing him instant popularity among listeners for his witty anchoring. “Alhamdulillah, I am fully satisfied,” Rafiq said, but added he still has many plans for the future.

“Apart from radio, I want to start a small business so that I earn more and give the best to my family, especially my mother. I want my mother to see the world of all comforts,” he said.