From the Embattled Lanes of Srinagar, Two Young Men Have Taught Themselves How to Build Robots

Srinagar: In the midst of the all the strife and chaos in the Valley, two young Kashmiris have been quietly pursuing their passion for robotics – trying, then failing and finally succeeding at inventing robots, drones and much more.

Now, they’re gearing up to compete against others in India to get a chance to represent the country internationally. This is a peek into their lives up till this point.

Deep inside one of the narrow allies of Srinagar’s Karanagar area, 22-year-old Sheikh Najeeb Shafi lives in a two-story house full of electronic devices. The house, which retains an old-timey charm thanks to its architecture has witnessed all of Najeeb’s projects come to life, everything from minor machinery to his attempts to make a robot.

He is presently busy testing a two-wheeler balancing bot, which is exactly what it sounds like – a machine that balances itself on two wheels. Just as Najeeb’s invention starts running around the room on its wooden wheels, his co-inventor, 16-year-old Mir Faizan, returns from a day at school.

Najeeb and Faizan have spent most of their short lives experimenting with any electronic equipment they could lay their hands on. From destroying gadgets to repairing them – they’ve done it all.

“Once an electrician came to my house and fixed a bulb. When he turned the switch, the light shined and made things distinguishable. This fascinated me,” says Najeeb, explaining how he started on this path.

“After that,” he continues, “I started to take an interest in electronic stuff. I would destroy things and then repair them. I failed most of the time, but kept at it, trying different tactics. This, I should say, inspired me to try more.”

As a kid of barely ten, Najeeb remembers receiving a book about electronics from a senior at school. That book is still with him, occupying prime space on the desk where he spends his day experimenting. At first, he says, he couldn’t understand the book. “I would skim through pages and enjoy the pictures in it. But as soon as I realised what it was really about, I started reading it with concentration. It helped me connect myself to the confusing world of electronics,” he recalls.

After failing his 12th board exams three times in a row, Najeeb started spending his time making projects for final-year B-Tech students.

“I went on doing their assignments until I passed my 12th class examination last year,” says Najeeb, “now I am myself a B-Tech student and am busy doing my college projects.”

His parents weren’t exactly happy during that period, though. “My parents often forced me to focus on my regular studies because they thought my interest in robots would lead me to become a grease-covered local mechanic in the future,” says Najeeb.

However, he doesn’t blame them for being worried. He says, “My parents are not at fault here. The Valley has produced many people with different skills but they end up suffering because there’s a lack of platforms and facilities. Even my teachers could not understand me. They would call my parents and complain every time I took one of my robots to school.”

Najeeb’s interest in electronics eventually led him to an India Skills competition last year, where he met Faizan for the first time. Both of them had gone there to compete as individuals but ended up as a team, which turned out to be a great decision as they won regional runner-up at the event.

“We participated in the competition as a wildcard team,” says Faizan. “I was self-trained in software and I was interested in robotics as well,” he says, explaining why he wanted to work with Najeeb.

The competition basically involved participants racing robots to see which one could pick up and dump balls inside a net the fastest. Najeeb and Faizan’s invention outperformed most, surprising the audience and judges.

Although he’s just 16, Faizan is not new to these competitions. Just a couple years ago, he won a bronze medal as a ninth grader competing against college students at IIT Delhi’s annual competition.

Most recently, Faizan was occupied with making a jetpack but had to abandon it mid-way when costs exceeded Rs 40 lakhs. After doing all he could, including collecting trash to fashion parts out of, Faizan approached the government for financial assistance but was denied.

He remains optimistic though, saying, “I still hope to get it done someday.”

After abandoning the jetpack project, Faizan ended up directing his limited resources to making a drone, which he did complete and that he now counts as his biggest achievement.

This self-taught duo is all set to compete in India Skills this year, hoping they get a chance to represent the country internationally and make the Valley proud.

Sheikh Saqib is an 18-year-old writer based in Srinagar, Kashmir. 

All images: Sheikh Saqib