Athwaas supported and facilitated by Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace
(WISCOMP) has time and again sought to bring together women and men writers of different
genres and styles to use the ‘word’ as a dialogic tool for reconciliation and peacebuilding in
Jammu & Kashmir. To this effect a Samanbal (meeting place) called Qalamkaar Samith was
group of people with a common love for literature, who enjoy sharing each other’s adventures
create awareness about multiple identities and the social, cultural and literary traditions of
workforce, wherein each individual has been chosen on the basis of his/her commitment and
talent. In order to involve students in this endeavor the Qalamkaar Samith organizes seminars
and workshops in various educational institutions. The Samith also tries to raise awareness
this Samanbal and provides a platform for showcasing the works of writers from Jammu and
-M. H. Zafar, Translated by Neerja Mattoo
THE TALE OF TWO HANDS -H. K. Bharati
THE CURSE -M. H. Zafar
-M. H. Zafar
Translated by Neerja Mattoo
Oh! It was only the other day,
These were my people, I belonged to them,
The language was mine, it belonged to me.
This habitat was mine, these rivers mine,
The breeze so cool, the lakes so wide,
The lotus of my heart bloomed and the deer gamboled around.
The sun would rise from behind that peak,
And sink in a trance into the lake each evening.
Sunbeams bathed in the plentiful waters,
The paths were lovely, wide and broad.
Those wide, broad ways were my habitat—
My dwelling built by those very roads.
The shrines and temples on the river banks—
Those were my prayer halls.
I was part of the celebrations a thousand times,
So many gods I worshipped therein.
History itself I name my witness.
But why are those ways tangled now?
Who is it that has bound up the breeze?
The lotuses all withered, the deer in mourning,
Where is the sun? The waters are frozen?
Why is there a question mark on my faith?
Why is Time, the Lord, so upset with me,
That he punishes me thus, tears me to bits?
Why do my action bear no fruit? What is my sin,
That neither the habitat nor the rivers are mine,
The shrines and temples no longer mine, my dwelling gone,
The festivals no more, that language no more?
Purposeless I roam, but the memory of my past, my history remains.
The roads are filled with darkness today,
But I, Zafar, once a dweller of a bright, sparkling town,
Where the roads were lovely, wide and broad,
Am searching for those very paths and ways.
Nursing the dreams of that bright, sparkling town.
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THE TALE OF TWO HANDS
-H. K. Bharati
She was busy giving the mud plastered walls a fresh coat of clay wash, daubing them all over with a
dripping rag in long swinging arches. The patch of the wall above the lintel of the door posed a problem.
It was too high for the farthest reach of her daubing rag. She made several vain attempts to reach it. She
stepped back and looked frustrated at the recalcitrant patch, then turned arms akimbo and surveyed
the freshly washed walls, as if appraising her labour of love. As she surveyed the walls, her eyes came to
rest on me. The preoccupied look vanished and was replaced with that smile that brings brilliance.
I was at that age when I was making nascent steps from walking on all four to two. I was trying to
balance myself – for a few fleeting moments I did then totter, plop and fall. My Zen masters zeal for
perfection was leaving pock marks on the floor, as chunks of clay still wet stuck to my soles.
“May God give you a long life”, sweet heart. She uttered the usual mother’s prayer. But you are messing
the floor with your foot stamps. Her tone sounded far from admonishing. Instead it sounded joyful
and encouraging, happy that I was trying. Seeing that indulgent smile, I worked harder to impress with
my newly found skill. My floundering efforts bought to her eyes a look of benediction – removing all
uncertainty from my mind about the mess I created. I put both the hands on the floor. A thick layer of
wet clay stuck to my palms. I carefully lifted one hand, drew it along my shin, coating it with wet clay
and as my hands slid up – resting them upon my knees.
“Keep going, my mud-smeared tramp”. She shouted in excitement and encouragement and I felt the
room suddenly fill with the fragrance of freshly creaming milk.
Carefully and steadily, I drew up my other hand and rested it on the other knee. Pushing down on my
other hand I straightened. And, hurray! I was standing upright on my feet. She watched this miracle with
bright and dewy eyes - and I saw in them the joyous spring tripping back into my life.
Learning the balancing skill is really very difficult. I knew that, I was still a novice in this particular art.
Nevertheless stretching out my plump and tender arms I clumsily tried to maintain my balance. For a
few seconds I succeeded. At this she loudly clapped her wet dripping hands to applaud my feat, shooting
tiny drops of wash in all directions. Some of them sprayed the sooty ceiling like a cluster of white stars.
Reflexively, I shut my eyes to escape the flying droplets. And lo! I lost my balance and plopped down the
floor. She giggled at my discomfiture and called me again a mud-smeared tramp.
“You can’t even survive the blinking of your own eyes, my little tramp” she chided and returned back to
her unfinished chore. I returned to my clumsy efforts to learn how to balance myself on my two feet.
It was an exhausting task. I would either fall hard on my hunches with a thump or stagger and be thrown
sideways, but the elation I felt when I succeeded in standing upright, even for a few moments, was
so heady that I was overwhelmed with feelings of defeat and tiredness brought about by a series of
previous attempts or failures whatever might have been the case. A strange thrill rose from my feet,
spreading to every tissue of my body. I felt big and strong like a trunk of a Chinar tree. When I stood up
on my feet – the ground seemed to have receded away and the sky lowered just at about to a grabbing
height. I felt I could reach up with my hands and collect the sky and all the sunlight in my arms and hug
them close to me. Every time I gave in to the visions, I would lose my balance, tumble and roll over. I
would then try again and then again…..
As there was nothing that she could use to raise her up to the level of the irksome patch of the wall,
she tried to tackle it the risky way. She grabbed the upper part of the door jamb with her left hand, put
her feet on the raised threshold pulled herself up and swung the daubing rag up and across the wall
once , then a second time. She had hardly managed to do it the third time when something gave way,
I think her grip on the jamb slipped. To rescue her from falling she shot her wet hand to catch at some
support to break her fall. The daubing rag fell away and her clay smeared hand slapped against the sooty
cross beam of the ceiling, planting an imprint of her hand. It glowed white against the dark ceiling like a
petrified stamp of her being.
Shaken she gingerly stepped down from the raised threshold and eased herself down to the floor. Her
face looked ashen, drained of colour and an uncontrollable trembling took over. But for me she could
have broken into a wall.
She sat stunned and speechless staring motionless at the impression of her hand on the cross-beam for
so long, that I was afraid that she would never come out of it. I had to do something. I had to somehow
get to my feet reach up and wipe out the image on the ceiling that she was staring at. Swaying and
tottering when I got up on my feet and stretched out, I found out the ceiling was too far away. Not to
speak of hugging the sun and the sky. I couldn’t even reach the cross beam and I learnt my first lesson – I learnt that sky was too high and my arms too short. Since that day I carry the image of that hand on
the ceiling etched in some remote corner of my consciousness as one would an indelible welt left on
ones back by the lash of a scourge. I didn’t have the heart to give her even an inkling of what was going
through my mind. How would she be able to cope up with my splintered dreams?
The world outside was strangely unaffected by the earth shaking event that took place in the room. How
it hadn’t brought a universal groan, I couldn’t understand.
The acacia tree stood where it had been standing all the time, sunlight sifted obliquely through the
tangle of branches and leaves as it always did and as always the ageing mongrel catnapped near the
foot of the tree with his snout in his curled up body . Beyond the compound walls the swallows as usual
skimmed over the river Vyeth, collecting beak full of food for their nesting.
That night we went to bed supper less. Neither of us got any sleep. Eyes closed, we merely pretended
to be sleep. In fact both of us were lost in our own separate weave of web. When I opened my eyes,
weary from the lack of sleep, it was broad daylight. She seemed to be waiting for me to wake-up. Picking
me up in her arms she hurriedly moved out of the room. I saw with her leaving the room, life seemed
to abandon the room. It looked deserted and forlorn like the overnight sojourn after the pilgrims have
stuck camp. Countless spiders began to crawl out and announced their lordship and the web weaving
began all over. Only the imprint of the hand on the ceiling continued to blaze brightly.
She went out of the room, descended the stairs and came out into the compound. She walked briskly
out from the compound into the lane. Traversing the lane she arrived at the main road and stopped
there for a few moments as if to decide what to do next. She looked up the street and then looking at
me pressed me snugly to her chest, resting my head on her shoulder. She covered my head with the end
of her sari and started crossing the road. She walked for a long time in a twisting maze of lanes and by
lanes. She walked on and on in that jungle without arriving anywhere. I thought we were lost. In fact
we did and were foot-lose and directionless. Then I learned to stand on my feet and walk on my own.
Although I knew I had learned to walk without her support, she wasn’t so sure that I could – especially in
the eerie jungle of strangers and even stranger creatures.
Inevitably, one day a scorpion stung me. Oh! The searing pain, the agony! My whole side turned blue as
the poison spread. It was my first experience of being stung. The torment was unbearable. What hurt
more was a knowing smile on her face.
“How could you laugh when I am dying with pain?” I always had a panacea for drama as I claimed in
“Oh no! Love of my life, I am not laughing”
“Yes you are”. I argued stubbornly.
“No dear, but it has just dawned on me that you have grown out of your childhood”. She said placating.
“O really, is it just now that you have realized it”
“Yes dear. It’s the sting of the scorpion. When the scorpion notices you and thinks you fit for his sting, it
means you have come of age”. She said chuckling and put her mouth on the sting to suck out the poison.
From the next day she did not offer to give her hand. The leading hand was withdrawn. I felt free and
like a puppy off the leash scurried ahead leaving her far behind. I would have to stop and wait for her to
catch up. Waiting made me impatient. One day when I told her so, she sat down to collect her breath
and said in a most artless way, “walking makes me breathless now, my child. I cannot keep up with you.”
Her words woke me up. I looked at her face with a twinge of guilt. I realized that I had not seen her for
a long long time, perhaps not since the day I learnt to stand on my own feet. A closer look revealed to
me a new person. She seemed to have grown smaller in size, the wrinkles of her brow had deepened
and multiplied. Dark rings encircled her eyes with dark freckles spotting her cheek bones. Her gums too
had receded and her lips had turned thin and crusty. Was she growing old? I wasn’t sure whether I was
asking or telling myself.
Our wanderings brought us among a strange crop of people. They looked so much alike that one could
hardly find any individual differences among them. They moved in herds and so docile – cattle’s I
thought couldn’t be more domesticated. But unlike them they were neither free of fear not free of care.
Their one over-riding obsession was how to make every moment of time count. They were consumers of
time, knowing little that it was the other way round.
My mother had this renewed urge to teach me everything that she knew. She seemed in a hurry.
She taught me how glass can shatter in a flick of a hand and it’s not the breaking that hurts but the
lacerations caused by the broken shards that give pain. I learned how wax melts and flows when bought
into contact with heat. She also taught me that lightless nooks were ideal places for spiders to prosper.
Finally, I guess she realized and was relieved that she taught me everything that she knew. She had
bequeathed me with all the riches she possessed and that seemed to relax her grip on life. She seemed
even to have emptied the marrow of her bones. That must be the reason why she was easily inflicted
by cold now. By instinct I knew this was the time to get her all the warmth and all the sunshine she ever
needed or desired.
I had by now been cured of the childish idea that I only needed to stand up on my toes, extend my hand
and grasp the sky and the sunshine into my arms. Nevertheless, I did bring her a dollop of sunshine and
a slice of sky in my cupped hands. We lavished ourselves with it and were very happy.
She sat inclined with her back resting against the wall and I sat by her side caressing her languished
hands. I had seen her hands many times before. Her left hand was covered with a jumble of figures, the
omkar, a trident, a crescent, a star, a hexagon tattooed on the back of her hand with many dots. I had
seen them many times but never asked her about them. What urged me to ask, I don’t know but I did
ask her now.
“How is it that your left hand is so crowded with tattoos”?
“Why? Don’t they look nice”? She asked tracing the lines of the tattoos with her finger.
“Yes, they do but it strikes me strange that it is only the left hand that has the tattoos and not the right
“Well, in my tattooing days, I was mostly alone. I had all the time to myself. He used to leave for work
early at the crack of the dawn and return late after the evening lamps were lit. When you are alone,
even the walls grind their teeth at you. I would beguile time by tattooing my hands and it seemed to
quicken its stride. I would rub a piece of charcoal on a slab with a drop of oil. Then I would puncture my
skin with a needle. When the punctures bled, I would rub in the charcoal paste. The punctures would
swell but the swelling would go in a few days’ time and the tattoos would emerge sharp and clear. This
kept my mind occupied and hurried the lonely hours. In time the story of loneliness was etched on my
“But why only the left hand?” I asked.She raised her hand to touch my cheek and said, “Then, love of my life, you came along. Then there was
Gently, her eye lids dropped close. She didn’t open them again.
I am alone now, all alone. The loneliness is palpable, gnawing, but my hands are still without a tattoo. I
do have a needle and a piece of charcoal, but the urge that should drive me to pick the needle, puncture
my skin and etch into them the story of my life is still not there.
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-M. H. Zafar
I brought with me the sun’s warm splendour,
And lit a fire in cold winter nights,
In my lap I fostered the light of knowledge
And caught in the tangles of birth and rebirth,
One day I was Gautama, one day Nanak I,
Sometime I was Nunda Rishi and at another Gandhi
Sometime I was Meera, sometime Lalla Arifa…
I burnt myself, giving and wishing light
I never desired chill blasts of mid-winter.
I adore spring, so I wished for spring everywhere.
To the lakes and the seas and the waterfall,
The hills and mountains and the bubbling springs,
The glades and the postures and the greenswards,
I did obeisance and wished them long life.
My nature is immortal but,
My unity is undying however,
I cannot quite understand what,
What vexations have engulfed me!
Chill winds from the icy city have cheated me.
Unfathomable oceans are frozen stiff.
Who has cursed these river streams?
On hills and mountains fog has thickened,
And the dales, valleys and green meadows
And withered as if by autumn struck.
The robin bleeding, is mute on isolation.
The playful, jocund thrush is dumb,
And the springs have stopped giving water.
Have the gods turned their backs on me?
Did I not worship them all with floral offerings?
Am I being enticed by untruth and falsehood?
Verily I am assailed by doubt all over.
It calls for a new quest and self-evaluation.
I am not Gautama, I am not Nanak,
Neither am I Nunda Rishi, nor a Gandhi,
To be Meera or Lalla Arifa, I don’t claim
Baseness has come, fault has crept in.
But that call in my own resounding call-
I must not forget my own nature,
I must not forget my indivisible unity.
The sun I must bow to and beauty worship,
And perpetuate the search for morning.
Now I have to give tongue to the robin and the thrust.
The owl, bird of ill omen, must be uprooted.
To the springs I have to give a new gush and flow.
And lift the curse from the stagnant pool.
The frost on the fathomless seas must be melted away,
Fog from the hills and mountains must be lifted,
To the glades, the pastures and the glass lands,
Verdue must be restored, and spring allotted.
We have to usher in a season that birds may sing,
Cherish harmony and fairy-song in everything.
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A small company of the Border Security Force had arrived in Srinagar only a few days ago, after six
months of border duty. Everybody knows that, in the prevailing circumstances, city duty is no less
hazardous. But such duty does not involve the aridity and loneliness of hilly border areas. There is a
lot of activity here, and you can actually see people going about their work, men and women making
purchases, children playing in the lanes, motor vehicles, scooters and tongas moving on the roads, and
shops with their shutters fully open.
Life here seemed to flow at a sedate pace, as though nothing had happened. But people know that all
this is only on the surface. That at all times, something or the other, very menacing, very ugly, simmers
underfoot, like molten lava that suddenly flares up and spurts out claiming its victims and then subsides,
goes under. That’s why in this city, bomb explosions, firing, arson, murder and with it all, curfew, have
become so common.
This BSF Company had been in the city hardly eight or ten days when curfew was imposed. BSF and CRPF
jawans were patrolling the entire city – going around or sitting alert in their pickets, enforcing curfew
strictly. Havildar Ram Prasad and two sepoys, Shiv Ram and Kali Yadav, were on duty in a lane in the
They had fashioned a picket of sorts under a tree with some sandbags. While the main
party took its rounds from time to time, these three men followed a plan of their own – while one of
them guarded the picket, fire arms at the ready, the other two took rounds of the lane. The lane was
barely eight to ten feet wide. On both sides of it were storeyed, pucca houses. Some of the houses were
locked from the outside, their residents having long since fled to unknown destinations.
Yes, the curfew was being enforced with great care. There was no question of anyone coming out of the
house: no one so much as peeped out of the windows. All the outer doors and windows were bolted. All
voices, save those of the children, were subdued.
Suddenly, gunshots were heard in the distance. Havildar Ram Prasad and his companions were startled
into alertness. Their hands tightened around their weapons. After a short while, the sounds of firing
stopped. A cloud of smoke rose far away behind them – perhaps there was a fire somewhere. Things
were not all right. The whole city was on edge.
It was one o’clock in the afternoon. A BSF vehicle arrived at the mouth of the lane. It had brought food
and water for the jawans on duty. The three of them walked up to it, one at a time, to bring back their
The sun was hot now. They stood together in the picket under the tree.
“I’ll keep watch while you eat,” said Ram Prasad to the two sepoys and, placing his rifle on the sandbags,
he positioned himself. The two sepoys sat down behind the bags and started eating.
“It looks as though the people in the city are quite used to curfew. There is no commotion anywhere,” said Yadav, as he ate.
“That’s true. The company people whom we relieved said every household here always has provisions
for fifteen, twenty days,” replied Shiv Ram.
Ram Prasad who was standing, turned towards them and said, “As far as curfew is concerned, people
here are more civilized than we are.”
All the three broke into laughter. Havildar Ram Prasad began to counsel the two sepoys: “Look, sepoys should be strict during a curfew. You should not talk to anyone. A little respite can often
prove costly. So, no relaxation under any circumstances, however compelling the appeal. If someone is
seriously ill, send a message on the wireless to the picket at the roundabout. Then wait for them to send
an ambulance to pick up the patient. Understand?”
Shiv Ram and Yadav nodded, and continued with their eating.
It was night. About eight pm. Only three lampposts in the lane were lit – shedding barely enough light
to see by. The lights in the houses were on too: streaks of light were reaching out into the lane through
crevices in the windows and ventilators. Ram Prasad was at the picket and Shiv Ram and Yadav were
going up and down the lane. In the course of their patrol they came to one end of the lane. One of the
lower windows of the corner house was slightly ajar and the sound of a film song filtered out. Shiv Ram
peeped in through the window. The people inside were watching Chitrahaar on television. He nudged
Yadav who tiptoed quietly to the window and began to watch the song on TV. Both of them stood there
for six or seven minutes, lingering before the images flickering on the screen, when they heard Havildar
Ram Prasad call.
“What’s the matter? Aren’t you coming?”
Startled, both the sepoys straightened themselves and walked back to the picket. Three other jawans
had come to take over the night shift.
It was the second day of curfew. Ram Prasad and his two sepoys were on duty in the same lane. It was only eleven in the morning but the sun was quite hot. All three of them stood drinking water in their
picket under the tree. The sounds of firing in the distance alerted them and they took positions with
their rifles. The firing stopped after sometime and there was stillness all around. Ram Prasad began
patrolling the lane, leaving the two sepoys at the picket.
Khatukk-tukk-tukk. A sound knocked them all out of their wits. Ram Prasad turned back swiftly and
looked in the direction of the sound. A medium sized plastic ball rolled slowly towards the edge of the
street drain. Simultaneously, the shriek of a small child resounded. Ram Prasad saw that the door of the
lower window of the corner house was open and a boy, about two years old, was straining towards the
ball and crying and a woman was telling him something and dragging him back. But the child wouldn’t
leave the bars of the window. All the three sepoys were from Bihar. Although they didn’t understand the
local language, they understood what the child wanted.
Ram Prasad took a few steps towards the ball and picked it up with one hand. The boy stopped crying
and started looking towards Ram Prasad. The woman, perhaps the boy’s mother, left the boy and shrank
back a bit. A faint smile appeared on Ram Prasad’s face. He went up to the window with the ball in his hand and held it out to the child. The boy put his hand out of the bars quickly and took hold of the ball
and said something to his mother standing behind him. The mother picked him up, placed him on her
hip and closed the window. Ram Prasad turned towards the picket where the sepoys Shiv Ram and
Yadav were standing. There was a smile on his face.
Towards evening, Ram Prasad was standing in front of his picket looking up. Suddenly his eyes fell on an open window on the first floor of the same house and he saw the same two year old boy, standing
behind it with the ball in his hand. Ram Prasad smiled and waved to him. The boy waved back, his hand
still clutching the ball and then in a single throw, he hurled the ball towards Ram Prasad. This time, he
didn’t cry. He wanted to play. Perhaps he was bored with being shut up inside the house. The ball fell in
the lane. Shiv Ram and Yadav also broke into smiles. This time, Ram Prasad took the ball, aimed carefully
and lobbed it inside the window on the first floor. The child burst into peals of laughter.
On the other side of the lane, a door opened and someone walked out. Yadav went up to the middle-
aged man who was holding a pot, exchanged a few words in Hindi, and then moved across to Ram
Prasad. The man wanted to visit the house opposite where a very poor family lived, to give them a pot
of rice. Could he? Ram Prasad thought over the matter and then announced his decision: Curfew had to
be observed with full strictness and no one could step out of his house. Therefore, Yadav would take the
pot from the man and deliver it to the house opposite.
Meanwhile, Shiv Ram on his round had stopped near the window of the house at the corner. There was
a film on television. Accidently, or perhaps by design, the residents of the house had left one of the
windows ajar. Shiv Ram stood at the foot of the window and supporting himself against the wall, peered
inside to watch the film.
On the other side, the child at the window had again hurled the plastic ball at Ram Prasad. And Ram
Prasad was trying to throw it back inside the window. But each time, the ball would hit either the bars of
the window or the wall and fall back into the lane.
As luck would have it, the Company Commander chose that moment to come by on inspection. He
watched, standing at the other end of the lane, unnoticed by the three jawans. They became aware of
his presence only when he shouted, “What is going on here?”
All the three stood glued to where they were – Yadav with the empty rice pot in his hand, Ram Prasad
holding the plastic ball and Shiv Ram at the far end, leaning against the wall. All three had their rifles
hanging on their shoulders and the picket was unmanned.
The officer shouted and screamed at them but was kind when it came to announcing their punishment.
They were to stay on duty during the night shift as well and, “Perform well now,” the Commander
After the officer had left, Ram Prasad looked back at the window where the child had stood with the
ball. The window was now tightly shut. He threw the ball in his hand on to the ground. It rolled along
slowly before falling into the drain.
Yadav dumped the empty rice pot with a bang at the door of its owner and said loudly in Hindi, “No one should try to send things to another across the lane, to any house in front or to a neighbour’s.”
And Shiv Ram vented his anger on the corner house by striking the window with the butt of his rifle and
ordering, “Doors and windows should be completely closed. Radio and television sound should be kept
at a low volume. There should be no interference to our task. It is curfew time …. curfew should not be
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