Mother Tongue — A Short Story by Muzaffar Karim
August 22, 2021
Muzaffar Karim presents a short story driven by language, the Kashmiri language, and with a protagonist about to embark on a journey. While waiting, Sultan Saeb voyages through his thoughts into the terrain of memory and into an inner world full of song, verse, and literature—all the while structuring a speech in his head to be delivered at the point of his destination, a Kashmiri language conference. Karim’s story is set in an airport, a transitory space ideal for ruminating and reminiscing, especially for a scholar of the Kashmiri language stuck waiting for a flight that has been “delayed due to bad weather.” The multiplicity found in this subtle piece of fiction complements the many complexities of a Kashmiri language that propels its plot, thematic undertones and narrative style.

Mother Tongue — A Short Story by Muzaffar Karim

“There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity.”

—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

Yeran chai kuni sonras te kharas, won dui ath karas[1]

The Goldsmith and the Blacksmith kept smithing separately in his head. He was absolutely clear about what he had to say until he reached Sheikh ul Alam International Airport. The alienated lingual ambience of the airport wreathed around him and the digitally recorded announcements from unseen speakers swarmed his soul. He shivered and this produced a low humming in his ears that amplified into a pitched tone as if from a shunk.[2] With another shiver, he dismissed this sacrilegious sensation. But the music intensified itself into a shrill noise that pierced his soul. He felt himself personified into Rahim Saeb Sopori’s metaphor Tanni gaemai rabaab, ragan gayam taarei.[3] Within moments, his entire being reverberated with this song in some singer’s voice, in a tone that he could not recall. The crescendo of Zeer o bam thovtam cheero lo[4] was broken by the Urdu pronounced by the Lady who offered Sultan Kashmiri his boarding pass. At times, when someone talked to him in Urdu, Sultan would pretend as if he had not understood anything. He loved Kashmiri as much as he hated Urdu. He smiled in panic and took the boarding pass. As he passed through the inevitable third round of frisking and checking, a normal routine at the only airport in Kashmir, he did not feel the hands of the Kashmir policeman as creepy as they had felt when the CRPF jawan had frisked him a few moments ago. Maybe because he was a Kashmiri or maybe his entire being was cursing him for smiling and understanding Urdu.

The Goldsmith and the Blacksmith are swapping places.

Frustrated, he looked up and saw an iron-railed ceiling high above him. The ceiling made him look puny while the brown-colored Haer[5] easily flew over to another place. The magnanimity of the architecture compressed his being. “Don’t stand here,” a policeman ordered in Urdu. “You can wait for your flight over there.” He pointed towards the rows of fixed steel chairs where some people were already waiting to board. The Kashmiritoned Urdu writhed his soul and he wanted to puke, but the new instruction from the policeman directed that feeling back to his stomach. “Did you check your baggage?” the policeman asked humbly in Urdu, but Sultan felt he was hissing like a shahmaar.[6]

Baggage checking was an extra security feature at Sheikh ul Alam Airport which was comparatively easy. You just had to identify your bag from hundreds of others and Sultan had just done it. Disgusted by all the formalities, he asked the policeman in pure honey-dewed Kashmiri, if that was all. Feeling intimidated, the policeman smilingly said that it was all. Taking his seat in the row of chairs where no one was sitting, Sultan began to wonder about this space that was carved right out of his motherland, yet made him feel alienated. He recalled all the checking and frisking that he had undergone. The Urdu smile of the boarding-pass-lady ended the chain. He wanted to relate to this space which was carved out as a tear falling from the earth into the sky. Was the place inverted?” he pondered. Was it the reason for his nausea? He shifted his attention to the external architecture. It was designed like a shrine without the minaret or a dome. The honeycomb designed externals adorned it with a sacredness of Sufi shrines. But all the iron webbing within, profaned that idea. No Sufi saint is buried here, Sultan thought. This place can never be sacred. Was it then a modern shrine for all the living people ready to leave their motherland from within its confines? Was he dead then? The English announcement from unknown speakers drilled his ears and he courageously shielded them with a verse from Ahad Zargar to contemplate upon his own death and life. The roaring voice of Rashid Hafiz hummed softly with Zind kar mordas seeth sohbath, rind chaali baegrus loal mohbat Gindnai madd narr wasluk zaar.[7]

The Smiths are taking back their places.

People were moving easily around him. He felt like the only living thing dead-arrested to one place. The place was still alien. The only thing he could relate to was the name Sheikh ul Alam. He imagined Sheikh ul Alam, wearing a Kashmiri turban and a long pheran while entering the airport. Could he understand the place or would he be as baffled as him?”, Sultan asked himself. Could this place also compress the Sheikh of the whole Alam, reducing him to a dot? Was this thought sacrilegious? Was he going mad? He had to remove the image of Sheikh ul Alam disappearing in his own airport. He sighed and his sigh made him recall one of the Shrukhs of Noor ud Din. Yath waav haali tchong kus zaali, til’ kan zaales ilm tai deen.[8] Was this that place?

He would have settled with the apocalyptic interpretation of the place had not a gentleman carrying an Urdu book sat down two three rows away from him.

Sultan Kashmiri, a reputed scholar of the Kashmiri language and the only living interpreter of Kashmiri Sufi poetry, was travelling to America for the first time to attend an International Conference on the Kashmiri Language. The conference was his own brainchild and it took him three and a half years to materialize it. He wanted all the scholars in different universities across the globe working on the Kashmiri language to gather on one platform and discuss the future of the language. The only condition was that everyone there should speak in Kashmiri. It took time to get people on board but keeping in view the lifelong contribution of Sultan Saeb, everyone agreed. He had charted a manifesto for the conference that opened with a couplet that he was trying to remember.

When the person-with-the-Urdu-book closed the book over a bookmark, Sultan Saeb could see the portrait of Manto gazing at him through those round glasses. A casual hunh[9] broke the gaze and he imagined all the naked prostitutes wearing Urdu sentences that hardly covered their bodies. He went back to the speech that he had prepared in his mind.

Yeran chai kuni sonras te kharas
Won dui ath kaaras

The Blacksmith and the Goldsmith share the same anvil, but what they produce is completely different. Pay attention to this skill and you will get all the answers. Obviously the poet is offering a spiritual lesson here, but I want to bring to all of you the unique feature of Kashmiri poetry and language . . . Most of our poets are Sufis and most of them belong to the lower working-class families . . . Nowhere will you find . . .

Was Kabir not also from a family of weavers?”, Manto’s phonemic Urdu prostitute whispered in his ear.

Sultan Saeb had singlehandedly managed to radicalize and popularize the Kashmiri language among the youth. Among many of his books, publications, and interpretations, the most famous was his Kashmiri magazine Shruk, through which he was able to untangle many dimensions of the Kashmiri language. The uniqueness of this magazine lay in the fact that it was a rapporteur magazine based on the literary meetings that were held every 11th of the Kashmiri calendar. The talks and discussions were minutely recorded and elaborated in detail under his supervision, all of which was then published in the form of a magazine.

Nowhere will you find poets embracing their working-class title or caste as a penname Wahab Khar Sochh Kral

Should we dismiss Rumi as elite?”, whispered a whore with Alif Daal Bae[10] written seductively over her rising bosom. Yunus Emre passes as a hobo through the streets of Sultan Saeb’s mind.[11]

Sultan Saeb’s name was synonymous with the Kashmiri language. His contributions were enormous, so were the anecdotes. A famous one was that he had never uttered a word from the Urdu language in his life. English was out of the question. Some took it as his weakness while others affirmed that he had read every book of every language but remained a Kashmiri all along. Some people even claimed that his Kashmiri surname was just a ploy to hide his low caste.

And they demystify the mysteries of the spiritual world through working-class metaphorsthe one that I just recitednowhere will you find

Chalti chakki dekh kay, diya Kabira roye[12], a whorish laugh hummed.

The tears of Kabir seemed sweet to Sultan Saeb and this terrified him. He opened his eyes, gazed at Manto and pushed him back into the cover of the book. He checked his watch. It was almost boarding time. He looked around but no one seemed to be in a hurry. The Urdu-speaking gentleman in a dashing suit-pant sat comfortably, reopened the book and started reading. Sultan Saeb went up to the policeman to enquire about his flight and came to know that the flight had been delayed due to bad weather. Sultan Saeb walked the long corridor to have a look at the sky. It was dark and cloudy.

When he returned he found his chair occupied by a lady with a tilla-clad pheran.[13] He smilingly accepted the intrusion only to find that the last vacant seat was just beside the man reading the Urdu book. Confused, he again checked his watch, but it was not even namaaz[14] time. Seething with anger, he sat violently and, in the process, jolted the man with his book falling flat on the ground. Sultan Saeb did not want to feel guilty of having caused the prostration of a book written in Urdu. Urdu is a shahmaar, he often said, that is eating the Kashmiri language. He could not help but say sorry. The man picked up his book, smiled and politely replied that it was alright. That smile flashed bright in Sultan Saeb’s eyes. It gnawed his vision. He somehow remembered that sarcastic smile in every detail. It continued to flash before his eyes like the strobing light of an emergency vehicle. He looked at the man’s face submerged in Manto. He knew that face but from where? The thought agitated him beyond his comprehension. He flashed a thousand faces in his mind but the sharpness of a smile like that found no match. The sharpness of the smile slashed all those faces into pieces only to emerge as the singular face of that stranger. Sultan Saeb fell deep into an unknown abyss but Wahab Khar saved him. He remembered a similar experience that Wahab Khar had had. He hummed to himself – Torre seeth kernam biryanae, jan jan gernam samaanai, gatjar choknam vosta karan.[15]

He came back to his speech.

Yeran is the selfthe anvil upon which you will forge your soulWhat will you make out of itRemember the Prophet said, Man arafa nafsahu faqad arafa rabbahuOne who knows Self Knows God

The ring chiming from the Urdu-speaking gentleman’s phone broke the fabric of his thought. He closed the book revealing Manto’s angular face. The sharp flick of hair caressing his forehead pierced Sultan Saeb’s soul. As the man held the phone close to his ear and began to talk, Sultan Saeb could see his face completely. The face terrified him again, making him shiver from within. He looked down in a sweat. Manto gazed back at him. He looked up; the man was smiling his usual smile. Terrified, Sultan Saeb stood up and began to walk. He wanted to come back to his speech but the smiths had left their job. The anvil and the tools lay to waste. There was no one in the workshop. The self was broken, the soul empty.

As he walked, he was confused about what was happening to him. Initially, he thought it was this godforsaken airport but now he had apprehensions that it was this fellow human being. He reasoned himself to remove the apprehension and instead focus on his speech. He tried to recall the speech but his mind wandered through the memories in search of that person who in just a moment’s time had haunted .

The self is all we haveDecorate it or forge weapons out of itNo, no, this is wrong…the self should be the anvil to forge the soulis it not?yesso said the Prophet…is that a hadith or a saying?

Sultan Saeb found himself confused. No Kashmiri verse came to his rescue and he thought it better to search for that man from his memories. Is it memoryor is it the fact that he is reading Urdu?Do I hate Urdu or am I afraid of it?was the face of that man a symptom of that fear?


Urdu is a Shahmaar eating Kashmiri.

Aren’t our slogans of Azaadi in Urdu?”, teased the whore. Urdu is the Shahmaar that will coil itself around the body of the colonizer, breaking its spine.

Rasa Javdani[16] gifts his pheran to Ghalib.[17]

Should we forge weapons?is Blacksmith a better interpretation?What does Goldsmith do?except decorating the self?

Confused with everything, Sultan Saeb found it better to face the fear than to walk away. He moved again in the gentleman’s direction to occupy his seat, which was still empty except that the man had placed his book on it. Manto teased Sultan Saeb with his flick. He courageously moved towards him. When he approached the seat, the man switched off his phone and picked the book up. Ah! That smile, Sultan Saeb felt a sharp quiver.

Is the self to be dismantled or to be forged the main aim of Sufism?Anonymity?Non-identity?was this smithing?or to carve out something?an identity?a greatness?

Both the smiths are heavily hammering the anvil as if in a competition.

Watching the man reading, Sultan Saeb questioned himself while resting comfortably in the chair. When did I start hating Urdu or was I always in love with Kashmiri? Was Urdu the raqeeb[18] in his love? He went back to his childhood, and as far as he went, Kashmiri—his mother-tongue—was with him. He tried to remember but to his utter surprise he could not recall even a single memory of his beloved mother. This was terrifying.

Nothingness or Beingcrushing the gloated self under the anvilor decorating itthe hammering of the blacksmith or the goldsmith

Mother, where are you? Sultan Saeb cried from within the nothingness of his being. He could only hear the echo of his own emptiness.

One whore was singing Khwaja Ghulam Farid’s Meda ishq vi tu, meda jaan vi tu, Meda deen vi tu iman vi tu[19]the Goldsmith’s hammering reverberated loudly when the other whore started with Baba Bulleh Shah’s Bullah ki jana mai koun[20]the hammering of the Blacksmith dissolved the other, reducing it to a lull

There was no trace of someone called Mother. For a moment, Sultan Saeb forgot every single syllable of Kashmiri. The head of the sacrificial lamb from the last Eid, with its tongue protruding out, came to his mind. Was he a thinking being or a feeling being?

Was Sakr related to Fana or Sahw[21]

Sultan Saeb felt the voices in his head driving him mad.

Koran paran dod Mansoor[22]

Was Baqa Sahw or are they entirely different?

Wa ma ramaita iz ramaita[23]

Maei lod Aadam maei dyutus JaanMaei zaav Muhammad maei won KoraanMaei nish non draav malik ul jabbar

Kafar sapdith korum yaqraar[24]

He was shivering and feeling cold. He felt as if he would lose control over his bowels and defecate right there. He was trying to recall a Kashmiri verse or a glimpse of his mother that would save him. He was not able to differentiate between the hammering shots of the Blacksmith and the Goldsmith. Only a loud rhythmic pattern syncing the lub-dub of his heart was lashing inside his head. The sound resembled the ancient ritualistic dance of some tribes before their deity or some god dancing over the mountaintops of the Himalayas, bringing down gigantic avalanches with each swerve and step.

Shav ti shaitaan wuchum ek hi shay[25]

He felt a nerve snapping from its neural comb. He longed for a verse, a glimpse. Far off from somewhere, he felt a sharp Kashmiri phrase hitting him like a bolt and bringing him back to Kashmir, to Sheikh ul Alam airport, to that steel chair, before that Urdu-speaking gentleman who was talking on his phone in Kashmiri. A smile comfortably yawned over his face. The face was no longer terrifying, although he still had that wistful feeling that he knew him. As he was getting comfortable, the Manto-reading-Urdu-knowing-Kashmiri-speaking gentleman pronounced two words that hit Sultan Saeb like the throes of death “Punjaeb” “Bihaer”.[26]

It is a chilling, cold morning in a familiar Downtown Srinagar. Sultan is a child trying to fit in with the rest of the boys from the neighborhood. Their wintry mouths are billowing mist. All the boys huddle in a circle, bring forth their dry wintry hands towards the center and place them one on top of the other. Sultan hurries towards them lest he’s kept out of the game. He cries in Urdu, take me in, I will also play. The moment he places his hand on top of theirs, a boy with an absolute sharp smile pushes him away declaring in Kashmiri, “Punjaeb, BihaerBloody Hindustani!”

The English and Urdu announcements from the unidentifiable speakers call for the passengers. The gentleman is readying himself. Sultan Saeb wants to do something to him, anything at all, but he does not know in which language. Courageously, he stands before him. Both of them greet each other in Arabic and walk away.






[1] Yeran chai kuni sonras te Kharas is a Kashmiri Sufi song by Ahmad Dar (? – 1926) which is explained later in the story. Simply translated it means that the Blacksmith and the Goldsmith share the same anvil but don’t share the same craft or the product. Pay attention to this craft, it has spiritual meanings.

[2] Shunk or Shankha is a type of conch shell that produces a high note sound when blown. It holds a sacred place in various religions, especially Hinduism.

[3] Tanni gaemai rabaab, ragan gayam taarei / Zeer o Bam Thovtam Cheero Lo is from a Kashmiri Sufi song by Abdul Rahim Sopori (1755 – 1870). The lines can be translated as:
My body turned into a Rubab, My veins became strings,

Stretched and taut, you play me high and low.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Haer is the brown-colored Myna.

[6] Shahmaar (The King of Snakes) is a leviathan snake with mythological origins.

[7] Zind kar Mordas Seth Sohbat is a Kashmiri Sufi song by Ahad Zargar (1882 – 1984) full of inverted religious symbols to bring home mystic themes. These lines can be literally translated as:
While living, copulate with the dead, the licentious give love, Female and Male will then gamble the game of conjugal union.

[8] Yath Waav Haali is a shruk by Sheikh Ul Alam Noor ud Din Noorani (1377 – 1440) commonly known as Nundreshi. He is the most revered Sufi saint of Kashmir. His poems (known as Shruks) are considered a translation of Quran in Kashmiri. The Shruk mentioned here can be translated as:
Who will light a candle in this hurricane-town and burn his/her knowledge and religion as the oil?

[9] Hunh is an expression for disgust and repulsion.

[10] Alif Daal Bae is Adab and means Literature in Urdu and Kashmiri.

[11] Rumi and Yunus Emre are famous Persian Sufi saints and mystic poets.

[12] Chalti Chakki dekh key is a couplet (doha) by Indian saint and mystic Kabir Das (1398 – 1518). The line can be translated as:
Upon seeing the hand-mill Kabir cries.

[13] Tilla-clad Pheran: Pheran is long garment usually worn in winters and is a part of traditional Kashmiri dress, made fashionable and attractive by embroidering it with silver or golden threads known locally as tilla.

[14] Namaaz: Prayers performed by Muslims.

[15] Torre seeth kernam biryanae is a famous Kashmiri Sufi song by Wahab Khar (1842 – 1912) meaning:

My lover/Master cut me into pieces, chiselled me into beautiful shapes and sprinkled wisdom over them.

[16] Rasa Javdani (1901 – 1979) is a famous poet from Kashmir who wrote both in Urdu as well as in Kashmiri.

[17] Ghalib: Mirza Assadullah Khan Ghalib (1797 – 1869) is one of the famous Urdu poets of the Indian subcontinent.

[18] Raqeeb means a rival or a competitor in love.

[19] Meda ishq vi tu is a song by Khwaja Ghulam Farid (1845 – 1901) which can be translated as:

You are my love, my life as well/You are my religion, my belief as well.

[20] Bullah ki jana mai kon is a kafi poem by the Punjabi Sufi saint Bulleh Shah (1680 – 1757) which can be translated as:

Bullah, who knows who I am.

[21] Sakr is the mystic state when one is intoxicated by God’s vision and is lost. Sahw is the returning from Sakr to sobriety.

Fana is a mystic stage when one annihilates oneself into the being of God. Baqa is a further stage when one regains the self and attains permanency, achieving the ability to enter Sakr and Sahw with ease.

[22] Koran paran dod Mansoor is a famous shruk by Sheikh ul Alam which can be translated as:

Why didn’t you die reading Quran, why were you not turned to dust, why have you not died, reading Quran burned Mansoor up?

A reference to the great Sufi mystic Mansoor Alhaaj (858 – 922), who said Anl Haq (I am Right). In Arabic, Haq is also a name of God and thus can also be translated as I am God for which he was sentenced to death. Some say that he was hanged, burned alive while others say he was cut to pieces.

[23] Wa Ma Ramaita Iz Ramaita is a verse from Quran (Chapter 8, Verse 17) alluding to the episode when Prophet had to leave Mecca because of the atrocities of those who didn’t believe in him. His house was surrounded. So, God ordered him to go out and sprinkle the dust in air. He did so, and they couldn’t see him. Later, God revealed the verse which means that you didn’t sprinkle the dust over them it was I who did it. This episode is one among many episodes that is used as a reference to explain Sakr and Sahw.

[24] Maei lod Aadam maei dyutus jaan is another line from the aforementioned song by Ahad Zargar which can be translated as:

I gave birth to Adam, I gave birth to Muhammad and myself revealed the Quran, I made known the God Almighty, by turning a Kafir (non-believer), I became the one who believes.

[25] Shav ti Shaitaan wuchum ek hi shay is a famous Vakh by Kashmiri Sufi and mystic poet Lalla Ded or Lalleshwari revered both by Muslims and Hindus of Kashmir. An important influence in the spiritual life of Sheikh ul Alam as they were contemporaries. This vakh can be translated as:

Lalla went to find Shiv (God) and found Shiv and Shaitan (devil) together.

[26] Punjaeb and Bihaer are terms of colloquial slang used to refer to anyone who is a non-Kashmiri. It literally means someone who belongs to Punjab and Bihar respectively.

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About the Contributor

<a href="" target="_self">Muzaffar Karim</a>

Muzaffar Karim

Muzaffar Karim was born in Kashmir and completed his MA from the University of Kashmir. He went on to pursue his Ph.D. from JNU and is currently employed as an Assistant Professor at the University of Kashmir, South Campus. Muzaffar Karim also writes poetry and short stories that have appeared in various newspapers and journals. He is a regular blogger at