Four kilometers away from the hustle and bustle of the main city, in an area where uneven roads lead, is a place called Wadwun. As we drove towards our destination, the route offered us nature at its best. Large farms where heaps of grain stood unwatched in groups, small water bodies holding fresh clean waters, trees standing in regular lines as if welcoming us into where we were heading, and a heart melting view of children waving at us from all sides showcasing the love which anyone in the paradise valley receives.
After merely three picturesque bends of the road, we reach the destination, and a small gate opens to a surprisingly large field where on one side fresh vegetables grew in a kitchen garden and on the other side which is a somewhat broader area amongst the two, cow sheds and an unattended waste land lay side by side. Now we know how this place manages its everyday affairs even after being so far from the main market.
At the entrance of this single storeyed modest house is a verandah, where an old man is busy embroidering a malenage of motifs over his favourite piece, a Kashmiri Pashmina shawl, half done, who looked at us with a smile, more or less forced, greeted us and let us to a room where our artisans worked. Amongst a group of some five people, it wasn’t difficult to identify those who we had traveled as much as 10 kilometers for. Assertive Smiles on their faces and an anticipative hope in their eyes, three brothers sat in a line working on three different pieces, happy to see us yet never letting go of their day’s work for a single second. The day had taken shape now, yet this area was as silent as early mornings. Within some minutes, the others in the room moved away and let us interact with them.
“We know who you are '', said Tariq Ahmed, the first one of the three who seemed to be more vocal amongest the three. And why wouldn’t he be. Tariq Ahmed has a master’s degree in Urdu and has successfully qualified the National Eligibility Test (NET) exams in the same subject. We were so relaxed that we didn’t need an introduction and we went straight to asking them questions about their special hands.
“My name is Tariq Ahmed and I have lived with my family in this village from my childhood. It is me who started this group “Special Hands” and a group of artisans work in it. My group is called special hands for two reason. The primary reason is that we are specially abled, and we aren’t normal”! Their way Tariq Ahmed escalated directly towards them being specially abled made us realise how deep this dejection was etched into his heart. The atmosphere at once turned gloomy. And without us asking him to elaborate we went on by ourselves.
“We were kids of some 7-8 years of age when we first realised that we couldn’t walk, run or do other activities like our friends would do at school. As far as studying is concerned we were sharp at understanding, memorising and grasping things. But when it came to physical efforts, we always lagged behind. Later we discovered that the three of us suffered from Muscular Dystrophy (MD) - a peculiar medical condition which causes the degeneration of muscles”. As this disease progressed, it affected their mobility and confined the Mir brothers to this one hardly lit room of their house. But Tariq had never left his studies. He was and still is an ardent lover of Urdu poetry and literature and that is what he successfully passed all exams in, until a very unfortunate incident took place in his life.
“We had always heard that specially abled people are discriminated against. Until one day the same happened to us. There was a high ranking officer who discriminated against me in my student days”. Tariq didn’t open up about the incident and neither did we ask.
This miserable combination of discrimination and disability of these brothers could have landed them in depression had not their father lent them the skill of embroidery, the expertise for which his work was well known for its quality, finesse and deftness.
“We can’t thank our Lord enough because even after being challenged we had a skill that could survive us then, till now. From our childhood days, we knew hand embroidery in bits and pieces and it didn’t even take us days to imbibe this skill, which is now our bread and butter”. Tariq said
At this point, Tariq’s sister entered the room and interrupted our discussion. “Godde cheyiw chai” (Have tea first). Pouring tea into beautifully hand painted cups, the father of these specially abled sons went into raptures about its preparation. “This tea has been prepared with pure milk, not the adulterated one you get in the city”, he proudly said. Fully conscious of the condition of his three sons, Mohammed Sultan Mir had purchased three cows whose milk they consumed and perhaps sold too to run expenses everyday. Meanwhile , what was more impressive than the tea was the hospitality of this helpless old man, who seemed to be waiting for his turn to express his long lived grief. But since we had planned to cover the next set of special hands first, we went straight to this shy person sitting by the centre of splintered wooden window sills.
With Tariq having narrated the entire story of their lives, there was barely something left to say. But Farooq Ahmed had his own bitterness towards the dying of Kashmiri crafts. “This work fetches us pennies”, he said in a more complaining tone. “A labourer works day and night which earns him a few hundred rupees, but we can't even do that, because this physical disability has caught us bad. This work just keeps our mind busy, but lets us physically rest. And as far as earning is concerned, we realize that even after working meticulously for as long as we can per day, the demand for our pieces is very less which sells for almost nothing, if it at all does” he said.
“This disability has confined us to our home. Other artisans move physically to the city and showcase their work, but we need someone who gets us work from the city and when we complete it, take it back and pay us what we deserve”. With a pain in his eyes and a long sigh he continued.
“Everyone has an ambition. I also wanted to do many things in life. Being poor never stops you from achieving what you want, but being physically challenged will. But we can’t fight God. We can’t fight destiny. No one can”.
The brothers haven't lost their fight. Even if they never wanted to sit at one place and keep embroidering shawls, they haven’t given up on the hard work and quality of their work. “You will nowhere find finesse in embroidery like this. If one rose motif that we embroider has five petals, every rose motif on the shawl will have the same five petals, none will have four or six. Once a foreigner saw our shawls, and then she traveled many places to several artisans, looking for the same embroidered shawls. After a few weeks she came back to us and said, “indeed your hands are special”, the brothers proudly said. This was the second reason why the group was named as special hands.
All this honesty in our work, all this effort we put to produce the best quality pieces and the hardships we fight to carry on with this work, if we do not find the perfect market to sell these, isn’t that injustice to us, Farooq Ahmed, the last one of the three interrupted without us asking him to as if to let his emotions flow through words.
Till now, we had already perceived that it was the father, Mohammed Sultan Mir who had been the perpetrator of all physical efforts all these years, like travelling to the market in the main city to buy groceries, attend to the farms and cattle, board local buses to carry the craft pieces to vendors or retailers. And after a three hour discussion with the sons, we finally got a chance to speak to the one who had borne this hardship from start to end, the father.
“What can I say”, the father said in a voice resigning word by word. “What can an illiterate person talk about? As of now I would just like to say that whatever happened in our family, does not keep me from being a proud father. My sons were handicapped, but they didn’t beg, they did not become dependent in any way, or did they lose hope. They held on to continue my legacy. My eyes have lost the eyesight that hand embroidery demands, yet my sons never let this heirloom art meet its death” he said as he anyway embroidered a shawl because of the ardent patron he was of this skill.
A shrill cry from the outside broke the silence of the room that had engulfed us completely. It was little Mudasir, the naughtiest member of the instant neighborhood of the Mir family who was peeping through the window, waiting for us to come out and click some pictures with him. This made the environment of the room better and now the Mir brothers insisted on showing us the pieces they were working on. One pashmina shawl, one cushion cover and an ethereal silk sari all were prepping under the master strokes of their special hands. The father got up in a surprising excitement, after he had courageously put himself together, dragged a rusted trunk, and took out one piece after the other, finished and unfinished and fascinated by his knowledge of fabrics, embroidery motifs and the history of this craft.
It was almost 3:30 in the day and we decided to leave, although never wanting to. As if the pure soil of Wadwun had clinched our feet with its warm and kind ambience.
“We have a gift to give you”, Farooq Ahmed - who seemed to be the most introvert amongst the trio said, and presented us a beautiful pink shawl fully embroidered with their flawless embroidery designs. “This is for the Kashmir Box and for the purpose it stands”.
Travelling back from any artisan place never left so many memories with us. As we walked down the meadows and the heart warming scenic views again, we kept thinking to ourselves about what had happened in the last four hours. And there was this one thing that lingered in our minds. It was the words of the foreigner that had visited the Mirs.
Indeed your hands are special.