Looking for Ulfat in Kashmir: The girl who wants to be free
She tried using colours once, but couldn't. The yellow and the orange didn't belong in her canvas. Loss is never colourful.
- Total Shares
On her canvas, the memories are being rearranged. She is painting her life in black and white. Next year, she will go to Beaconhouse University in Lahore on a scholarship. For now, she is painting the story of Ulfat, a little girl in a town that much resembles downtown Islamabad in Kashmir.
"I wrote it for myself. Little things to which girls could relate to, if they'd ever get to read it. I am just one of them, trying to be rather. These sketches are a part of me," she says.
On a Friday evening, we entered Anantnag. Stones blocked our way into the old part where she lives. There were young men in masks running around. They were angry. They hadn't gone home to break their fast.Portraits of a lost little girl.
Khytul Abyad, 23, stood there calmly, her sketchbook in hand. One story. Three versions.
A little girl wakes up to the aroma of the food being cooked, runs to her mother and asks her if she can taste it.
Her mother says it is for the brother, and the girl waits for her brother. When he comes, she asks if he has got her gifts and he asks her to wear the new dress he has got with the new shoes and come out for a walk.
As they go around the old town, her dress gets caught in the barbed wires and tears. She cries and cries and the brother embraces her and says he will get her a new dress again.
In the story, which could be autobiographical, the simplicity of the narrative is stark.Another eery Friday in Anantnag - the day after Ulfat's brother was picked up.
Abyad walked through the back lanes, and at the shrine of Hazrat Baba Syed Reshi in Anantnag, she pointed to a poster of her father. A couple of days later, it would be her father's death anniversary.
Dr Qazi Nisar, the founder of Ummat-e-Islami, was killed in 1994 by unidentified gunmen.
He was the spiritual leader of South Kashmir. They called him the Mirwaiz of South Kashmir.
"He was killed," she says. "I hadn't known what father meant when others spoke of what their fathers had done. I hadn't known what death meant."
She doesn't talk much.
Her art speaks of an absence so defining in her life that she chose to paint to keep anger, sadness and hurt at bay. She is on the fringes, and yet she sees the far from a child's perspective. From a feminine perspective of what it does to the family and the individual.
Everyone is struggling for intimacy here. Everyone is being pulled apart. Everyone is trying to be someone else.
In her case, she wants to be like the other girls. In her earlier sketches, she drew everyday situations like a pair of feet almost touching the heater, or the nameless and faceless people in pherans travelling in a bus, cooking, sitting and staring.
She was hoping that someday she would look at these sketches and witness a change."Or something related to them, or anything that could be, to be drawn there," she says.
Her story is timeless, and preserved in her sketchbook in the name of Ulfat, the little girl with the torn frock.
Redemption is not a milestone. It is the journey. She tried using colours once, but couldn't. The yellow and the orange didn't belong in her canvas. Loss is never colourful.
There is an eternal yearning for her father who she always tried to sketch, but nothing ever matched the magnanimity of her imagination. She tore the sketches, and hid the bits under her bead.
In her room, on the easel, she has painted an aayat from the Quran.
"Aur wohi Allah hai jo sabse bada hai."
Underneath, the portraits she has sketched are scattered. Faces in charcoal. One of them stands out. It's her brother's - the one who was arrested hours ago.
This conflict was the metronome of her context. Her paternity wasn't an absolute blank, and the fact that her mother never told her didn't come in the way of her reconciliation with it. She isn't one to be easily shocked. Years of witnessing crackdowns has done that to her.
Art doesn't heal, she says. But it helped her to be calm.You want to cut the barbed wires and bury them so that no little girl tears her frock ever.
We keep some, we delete some. Our conversations remain part of an experience of two strangers meeting in an unfamiliar place, and the story was told in installments. Not everything is for publishing. She and I speak sometimes.
Sometimes, I go through her sketches. Maybe I know how Ulfat feels.
At the end of it, you want to buy a frock for the little girl, and cut the barbed wires and bury them so that no little girl tears her frock ever. It is as simple, and as sad as that.
This is Khytul on her graphic novel Ulfat, and the little girl in the frock:
In a congested mohalla in the heart of the town, she lived in one of the lanes that intersected at right angles, forming mazes which would easily make a stranger wander off.
Gathering some kids around who were the same as her age, she would play games like hide and seek. Her favourite hiding spot was under a wooden staircase in her neighbour - Salam's lawn.
Salam was a tall, blue-eyed man who almost looked like that ghost in horror films. While playing, she would try her best not to be noticed by the angry man. If, by chance, he saw her, he would scold her and the other kids and direct them to go home, or he would inform their parents.
In the corner of the street lived an old, fat woman - "Aez" with white hair in a small mud and brick house. She lived with her son.
During the office hours, the kids made sure that Aez's son was not home, and knocked at her door screaming, "Old fat woman, open the door".
But before she could open it, they ran as fast as they could, hiding themselves in the streets. She came out with a stick in her hand saying, "Kids, I won't spare you. Let my son come and he'll beat you hard.
Ulfat ran, laughing, and then she suddenly stopped.
"Why did you stop" asked her friend. "My uncle is coming this way. I don't want him to see me; he doesn't like me playing in the streets." From behind Salam's house, she saw her uncle entering their house with some men.
One of the girls, Roomi, who lived next door to Ulfat, offered that she come to her house to play. Ulfat went with her.
Even though Roomi's was the house next to hers, Ulfat had never gone inside before. They lived in a large mud and brick house; she went in, where an old woman was combing her grey hair.
"Who's that little girl with you, Roomi".
"Ulfat", she said, "she is Haji sahib's daughter".
"How are you kid, and how is your mother?" the old woman asked. Ulfat replied, "she's good".
Roomi held her hand and led her through the staircase. They were on the topmost floor of the house. It was an open balcony, from where Ulfat could see her house and all the other houses of the mohalla.
They were looking for something to do and then Ulfat found a stone bowl that is used to grind spices. She was eager to grind something in it. Roomi found some dried red chillies. She handed them over to her. Ulfat started grinding them, and in no time, their eyes began to smart.
With her eyes closed, Ulfat ran home crying and from the main gate started calling out to her mother. Worried, her mother came running, and asked her what had happened. Ulfat narrated the whole incident to her mother. She took her to the sink and washed her eyes with cold water.
With her half-closed eyes, Ulfat saw her uncle coming out of his room.
"What happened, why was she screaming?" he asked Ulfat's mother, his sister. "She was playing with a girl in neighbourhood and I guess they ground chillies, her eyes are burning."
"How many times do I need to tell you, you should not be playing in the streets, or is it that you've got nothing to do? Should I ask your friend's father to get a cow for you, do you want to be a shepherd?"
Ulfat didn't say anything.
The next day, while having breakfast, her mother and her uncle were discussing something. It was perhaps about changing her school.
Ulfat was in kindergarten by then and studying at a family-run school, established by her father.
Her mother and uncle somehow felt that the environment there wasn't good for her. Maybe because it was too lenient for her. So they were sending her to a new school.
This school was too strict for her, unlike the old school in the street next to her home. But with time, she got used to the environment there, and made friends too. She was a quiet kid in school, but studied well, and the teachers loved her. In the school, she heard the word "father" from the other kids.
But she was not bold enough to ask her mother about hers or maybe she knew everything! She didn't have the slightest idea of the moments she had spent with him. People would tell her that her father had always wanted a daughter.
But she hardly had a picture of him. She would always have to hear people saying, "Poor kids, their father died so young!" She didn't even know what death meant.
Ulfat lived with her three elder brothers, her mother and her paternal uncle. The eldest brother studied outside the state. They had two more houses next to their house where her father's brothers and her grandfather's brothers and their families lived.
So she had a bunch of kids to play with and her uncle too wouldn't mind her playing with them. One of the cousins studied in her school, in her class, but she was quite different from her, very active and bold. She was the lead girl in the school.
Ulfat's mother would always compare them. Look at Aaliya, she's your age, but she's the lead girl in the school. She participates in all the events - why don't you try to be like her? Aaliya had always been a competition until she left the school, to study out of the Valley.
One day, a new teacher came to the class. She was supposed to teach them English. She asked the students to introduce themselves. It was Ulfat's turn.
The teacher asked her where her father worked, and Ulfat had no clue of what to say, and for the first time, she cried in class; she realised that Aaliya had been a very good friend and sister, who would always talk on her behalf. She missed her sister.
One Sunday, when she got up, she saw her mother preparing food, and her brothers cleaning the eldest one's room.
She got to know that her brother was coming home for a summer break and so the preparations were on. She was really happy.
He loved her the most and more eagerly, she was waiting for the present that she was sure he would get for her, and yes, he had bought a pair of blue leather shoes for her. She loved them and roamed around the house wearing them, showing them to everyone who passed by.
Her brother took her out with him, he was going to visit the school; their father's school. While walking, she continuously kept looking at her new blue shoes.
They were near the end of the street; "careful!" her brother almost screamed. "Wait, I'll help you with it." She got her dress caught in the barbed wires that surrounded an army bunker.
While they were waiting for the traffic to slow down, Ulfat looked at the bunker closely, where she saw two men standing at the two windows, holding guns. The faces were barely visible.
Only the eyes and guns could be seen. She wondered, how do they manage to stay inside, it's so dark in there!