Asoka's edicts

Eid in Oghi


ALR Volume 26: Winter 2014


Last Friday in Ramazan

A mountain-blue, hot September day. I reached Abbotabad from Lahore two days ago. Today I am embarking on a journey from Abbotabad to Oghi. I say embarking because it feels like I’m going on a pilgrimage. The village I am going to is close to the Taliban belt, in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, renamed as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2010. I refer to the region by its former colonial name because that’s what it was called when I visited it; and because the old name has an alienating foreignness to it, which resonates with the continued presence of imperialistic foreign forces in the area. Oghi isn’t more than 50 km away from Abbotabad but it’s going to take me almost three hours to get there: first to Mansehra, then to Oghi, and from Oghi to the village where my friend Laila lives. She has invited me to her house for Eid. I met Laila a couple of years ago in an art therapy workshop for earthquake-affected women. Her village, like most other villages in Mansehra district, was devastated by the 2005 earthquake, for which the cumulative death toll stands at 70,000. The number of homeless and internally displaced stretches to hundreds of thousands of families scattered across eastern NWFP and parts of Azad – or Occupied Kashmir, depending on which side of the Indo-Pak border you’re speaking from. Laila and I have been in constant touch on our mobiles during the last couple of days. ‘Is it safe for a woman to travel to Oghi?’ I asked her. She went quiet. ‘Why do you ask, baji?’

‘Because my foolhardiness is no match for the Taliban’s madness.’

The Taliban had entered and established their rule in the neighbouring district of Buner six months back. My paranoia was justified: Oghi borders the dreaded tribal region of Kala Dhaka, where many of the Taliban have gone into hiding after the Pakistan government conducted a military operation to root them out from Swat and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), regions of NWFP adjacent to Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

‘There are no Taliban in our village!’ Laila said confidently.

Thinking her too young and naïve, I asked to speak to her father. According to my socially conditioned South Asian reflexes, a man’s knowledge about the Taliban is likely to be more accurate than a twenty-year old village girl’s.

‘What Taliban?’ Her father sounded offended, as though I had attacked his Pashtun honour. ‘Just come. You don’t have to worry about any Taliban.’

Reassured, I purchased a black headscarf and a grey chadar from a shop called the Insaaf ( Justice) Cloth Depot. The shopkeeper tried to figure out the purpose of my purchases. It was early in the morning, around ten. I was the first customer at Insaaf, at an hour when women would be busy with housework. A woman not wearing a chadar but wanting to buy one, and speaking mohajir Urdu, gave me away.

‘From Karachi?’ he asked.

I nodded.

‘Work for an NGO?’

I nodded again, letting him make what he would of my geographical origin and professional affiliations.

I walked back to my host’s apartment. She gave me a quick lesson in chadar-wearing. She’s an old Karachi acquaintance who moved to Abbotabad for work. The headscarf and grey chadar were to make me look stolid, respectable and inconspicuous, but my image in the mirror wasn’t convincing. I was staring at myself in the mirror. The black headscarf and the chadar concealed my hair and body admirably but when I stretched the chadar over my nose and mouth, it kept sliding down.

‘How can I keep this thing in place?’ I asked, frustrated.

‘You need lots of safety pins,’ my host advised.

‘Safety pins?’ I doubted safety pins could keep the chadar in place. ‘Safety pins won’t keep it fixed over my nose!’ I recalled the women in the streets. ‘I’ve been watching the women here. They never need to adjust their chadars. And they don’t use safety pins.’

‘How long have you been wearing a chadar?’ she retorted.

‘Yes, I get your point. But there’s got to be an easier way of chadar management. I’m not using safety pins,’ I said grumpily. From my observations of chadar-clad women in the past two days, I thought I had figured out the perfect way to keep chadars in place: they stay in place

if you walk with your nose slightly up in the air

if you combine upward nose tilt with a slow, gliding walk

if you make no sudden turns of the head

if you don’t walk or talk too fast or try to run; and

if you’re very patient.


Next morning, it’s time for my departure to Oghi and my host calls an elderly taxi driver she trusts. She feels I’ll be safe with him, travelling alone. The narrow two-lane, tree-lined highway leading out of Abbotabad towards the smaller town of Mansehra is crowded with bride-like trucks decorated with dazzling truck-art: horses, peacocks, lions, flowers and lines of verse in calligraphy. Suzuki vans and cars and impressive SUVs owned by international aid organizations zip by. Falling away below the highway are the neatly terraced fields of young wheat, corn cobs drying on rooftops, and clumps of dark pines casting their shadows on grassy slopes; an occasional donkey with sacks trudging up the hilly shoulder of the road and, crowning it all, the poetry of the splendid sapphire sky. Light-haired boys gaze passively from the shoulders of the road, hoping that tourists will pull up. They’re selling roasted corn, Made-in-China toys, tents and colourful umbrellas; but, in this season of violence, vacationers aren’t venturing out into the breath-stopping beauty of these valleys. There are war cries everywhere but not on these mute mountains, not in the sun-reddened faces of the boys selling toys – in their languid reclining postures is reflected only the perfection of nature. As I lean against the window, I know I’m glimpsing another reality, one not visible in the insensitivity of the global media’s war coverage. We pass little towns and dull streets with shuttered shop fronts squinting quietly in the vivid light off the sharp-rimmed mountains. It’s the last Friday of the holiest month, and most of rural NWFP has shut down. We pass the town of Qalanadarabad and the taxi driver tells me you get the best chaplikababs here. We don’t stop because no roadside kabab stall is open for business. It’s Ramazan, whispers the tranquil air of the shabby bazaars. And yet, it’s a tranquillity fraught with duplicity: a proud people have become dislocated and disowned refugees in their own land, and the world looks at them in self-righteous indignation. They have no right to dislodge the world from its comfortable, unthinking routine, or to shake us awake from our stupor, our daily intake of apathy. Those villagers sheltering the Taliban and other terrorists-in-the-making must be rooted out, and dropping bombs from drones on them is the safest way to restore the world to peace!

I read the anti-American slogans chalked on the walls as we pass: Go America Go, Stop Colluding with America, Drone Attacks are a blow to Pakistan’s sovereignty, Death to American Culture –splashed in bold, black Urdu letters in town after town –and signed Jamat-e-Islami, the country’s largest religious political party. I wished to see counter-slogans, slogans of hope and change, from civil liberty groups. But human rights organizations do not take the risk of public self-expression. What would they say, anyway? You’re either with the Americans, or against them in the post 9/11 world. Any middle ground, any sane alternative to this either-or option has been wiped out.

At the time of writing this chapter, in 2010, I happen to glance at the Pakistani edition of the International Herald Tribune. Imtiaz Gul, a senior Pakistani journalist and think tank director, an expert on NWFP, is about to release his new book on NWFP, titled the The Most Dangerous Place: Pakistan’s Lawless Frontier. In his newspaper article he comments on the growing militancy in NWFP, referring to the tribal regions of the province as the ‘nursery of global jihad’ and blames the Pakistani government for allowing all kinds of national and international jihadist, terrorist groups to take up residence in NWFP. Surprisingly, he doesn’t mention anything in his article about the American government’s role in spawning the Taliban phenomenon in the first place.

At the Mansehra lari adda, in the dusty disorder of buses and vans, I find a ladies’ seat in the front row of one of the Hiace vans leaving for Oghi. Mansehra is named after Man Singh, its seventeenth century Sikh governor. All the back seats are filled with men returning to their villages for Eid. My eyes scan the bus depot, hungry for the sight of women to make me feel that I belong to this space, but except for my lady co-traveller and two burqa-clad women who are hurrying behind their male guardian with hushed, diffident steps in the throng of vehicles outside, I see none. I stare at the rows of once-white towels hanging outside a hot hammam. What if I’m returning from a grimy trip and need a shower? The hammams are for men only. My left hand is clutching the end of my chadar, stretching it taut across nose and mouth and my right is holding my voice recorder, under the chadar. My bulging tote bag with my clothes, notebooks and a water bottle, is perched on my lap.

She and I are squeezed into the ladies’ seat, which is designed for one. She is covered from head to toe in a heavily sequined, shiny, black burqa. And not once does she seem flustered, or have to raise her hand to adjust the gauzy naqaab over her face. Her delicately hennaed hands rest in her lap and dozens of gold and red bangles sparkle on her wrists. Her richly painted toenails leap out at me from her dainty sandals. I hadn’t expected to see such riotous femininity in this grey, mostly male chaos.

The conductor lures a couple more passengers to fill the van to capacity. The driver dumps a big bag of spinach and onions next to our feet. Finally we get going. I know I can’t last much longer on the winding mountain roads without medication. I swallow a pill with a sip from my water bottle, defying established custom. You don’t eat or drink in public during Ramzan.

The driver addresses me. ‘Keep your shoes away from the vegetables.’ I don’t miss the disdain in his remark. I stare dispiritedly at my sneakers. Is it because I am travelling without a male, or because I drank from the bottle? Or is it my unfeminine footwear, or the inescapable fetidness of big cities that I carry in my unchaperoned presence? Why had he addressed me, and not my companion seated between us?

‘How far are you going, baji?’ She speaks Urdu! There is a strange intimacy in her voice.

‘To Oghi. And you?’

‘To Oghi.’ She smiles through her translucent naqaab.

She seems relieved that we are both travelling to Oghi, and I am travelling alone like her. I want to ask her more about herself but I’m not willing to disclose too much, and I stay silent.

An hour later, when she gets out in Oghi, she has more surprises in store for me. The driver and conductor get out in a hurry and run after her. They start arguing and I am worried because she looks too frail to win arguments.

‘What happened?’ I ask when they return, two large men, shaking their heads and waving their fists. She, my fairy-like van-mate, in the meantime, has vanished down one of the side lanes.

‘She didn’t pay her fare! She told me she was coming to Oghi to get her son,’ the driver blurts out, reverting to Pashto-tinted Urdu. ‘I trusted her. She said she’d pay when we got to Oghi. And now she says she has no money! I lost fifty rupees!’ He grunts and shifts gears and the Hiace lurches towards Oghi’s main bazaar where Laila had instructed me to get off and ask for her uncle, Janbaz Khan.

‘Here’s her fare,’ I say, taking a fifty-rupee note from my purse. ‘Maybe she had some majboori,’ I declare, almost chuckling at her brazenness.

Inwardly, I applaud her audacity. Going by her timid, tantalizing appearance, the driver and conductor might have hoped to receive payment of another kind from her. But she had duped them both and hitched a ride in a place where women barely ventured out of their homes. I regret now remaining distant when she had tried to engage me in conversation.

Oghi is a small market town in Mansehra district. The highway into town turns into its main street and is lined with small businesses – clothing and shoe stores, bakeries, poultry, vegetable, fruit and milk stalls. Milk and vegetable shops also sell mobile phone cards and painted signs advertise the cards of various companies. Afghan refugees who moved here after the Russian invasion in 1979 own many of the shops. The absence of women in the street is hard to get used to. I don’t even see women in shops that sell women’s clothing.

Janbaz Khan, Laila’s uncle, runs a taxi service from Oghi to the surrounding villages. His fleet consists of a few small, battered pickups, called carry in local dialect. He is standing in the crowded market with his mobile sandwiched between ear and shoulder, taking instructions from Laila, I suppose, because as soon as he sees me, he runs across the street and waves down our van. It turns out the Hiace driver knows Janbaz Khan well: everybody in the local transport business knows everybody else. It is time for the Friday prayers, and fearsome sermons over loudspeakers waft out in the bazaar. Maulvis in mosques all over the country at that hour are exhorting errant Muslims to mend their ways, give up the life of sin and revert to the path of prayer and fasting. Surprisingly, all the khutbas are in Urdu, not Pashto or Hindko, the two dominant languages of this region. Would the maulvis ever speak about the environment and climate change in their sermons, or the rights of women in Islam? Could one suggest more urgent khutba topics than lapses in a five-times-a-day prayer regimen to them?

Janbaz Khan’s nephew drives me in his carry to the village, a twenty-minute ride on a winding, dusty, dirt road that splits the pine-covered hillside. Chickens cluck and goats hastily trot out of our way as we speed past, raising dust storms behind us. An impassive old man sits on a boulder holding up a placard asking for donations for rebuilding a village madrassah. A colourful plastic canopy is stretched across the top of the carry, making it a sun-proof, waterproof, and male-proof enclosure. When the two benches inside are filled with passengers, men clamber outside, hanging onto the side rails for support.

How many kilometres to the village? I ask the lad.

Out of shyness or bewilderment, he stares stiffly at the blue air beyond the windshield.

I repeat my question.

‘Four,’ he replies tautly.

‘Shouldn’t take us too long then.’ My attempts to be friendly are met with silence for the rest of the ride.

‘Why do you have such a thick chadar on?’ Laila’s mother exclaims in Pashto as soon as I enter the courtyard. All the women of the large family gather in the courtyard to hug and kiss me. You are kissed on both cheeks and the back of your hand and then you do the same in return. The distance from the edge of the village to Laila’s house is a ten-minute walk down a narrow path. Mud houses whose walls seem to have been sewn to each other flank the winding path. Janbaz Khan’s nephew trots ahead with my bag while I try to disregard my dizzy head and match his pace. Women lean over their walls and children peep from doorjambs. By the time I reach Laila’s house, I am dropping with exhaustion and half the village knows about my arrival.

‘This? I address Laila’s mother, unwrapping the chadar. ‘You don’t like it? I bought it especially for this trip.’ I speak to her in Urdu, which she understands, thanks to the Urdu and Hindi films and plays on TV.

‘Take it off! Take it off! It’s too hot.’ She yells instructions to one of her daughters. She adds, ‘You don’t need to wear it inside the house.’ I gather her meaning from her Urdu words: chadar, ghar, garmi. One of her daughters brings me a light cotton dupatta and hangs up my chadar and headscarf on the wall. And there they will remain till the day I leave.

‘Laila’s saying her prayers. Aren’t you going to pray?’ Her mother asks in Pashto-Urdu.

‘I have my periods,’ I lie. Ritual prayer is more than I can contemplate after the torturous ride through the mountains. I am feeling woozy and more tired than after the twelve-hour bus trip across the border from Delhi to Lahore.

I slump on the charpai and remove my sneakers. Laila’s little sister brings me a pair of chappals and deposits my unsightly sneakers in the storeroom.

When Laila finishes praying, she rushes out, her white dupatta still wrapped round her head. ‘I never believed you’d come. I thought you’d change your mind. Only when you SMS-ed me after sitting in the Hiace, I believed you!’ She kisses me on my cheeks, clasping my hands in hers, and turns my face to the wall. ‘Look! We’ve been painting the house! That’s all we’ve done since sehri and we’ve just finished.’

The women had been painting the patio and courtyard since before dawn. The pale green, lime-washed walls look creamy and inviting in the late afternoon light. How did they manage to stand and work in the sun while fasting? In the coming days, I witness how exalted their endurance is, how they can scrub and cook, soothe and reassure, wait and serve, squat at the stove with faces set, backs sore.

‘Didn’t any of your brothers help?’

‘No, they slept after sehri.’ When she laughs, Laila’s brown eyes light up. ‘They got up late and went into town with Abbu.’

Two years ago, her Abbu returned from Saudi Arabia. He lost his job there as a driver with a transport company and used his savings to set up a children’s clothing shop in Oghi.

‘Business is slow,’ Laila’s mother says. ‘Times are bad. Who has money to spend on clothes?’

But sales had picked up a little in the last few days before Eid, she says. She is a graceful woman with flushed cheeks, proud stature, and a smile that advertises contented motherhood. She has raised seven children. Her husband left, as do many men from the villages, to look for work in Karachi. And from Karachi he had found his way to Saudi Arabia. He used to come home once in two years and leave her pregnant after each visit. In fourteen years, she gave birth to seven children. Now, he was done with Saudi Arabia and was trying to make a go of the shop in Oghi.

I wash from the bucket in the courtyard and, tired and drowsy from the anti-nausea pill I’d taken, fall asleep on the floor. There is no electricity that afternoon and the tin roof transmits the sun’s heat magnified several times; but at sunset, the ceiling lets loose its hoarded heat and the air mellows. The way a cruel day in the valley transforms itself into a velveteen evening never ceases to surprise me throughout my visit.

I am awakened close to iftaar time by the warm homey smells drifting in from the kitchen. Across the courtyard, Laila is busy in the kitchen, preparing iftaar, the meal eaten at sunset, to break the fast. Curls of thick smoke swirl skywards into the gathering dusk from chimneys dotting the village. I feel that I have stumbled onto a page in a charmed picture book, so small and perfect seems the scale of things. Laila is the gentle, strong princess of this fairy tale and I the wayfarer. She has cooked chicken biryani and is now mixing the batter for pakoras. I squat on the floor beside her to peel and chop potatoes and onions. I watch her as she pokes the fire and adjusts the logs. The flames surge with a crackle and bring back memories of fires in my childhood. She adds potatoes and onions to the pakora batter and drops spoonsful of the batter into sizzling oil. Ethnicity, age, language and education are the differences between us. She will never know the land of rice paddies, rivers and cyclones where I was born, and would perhaps feel alienated by the idea of separate bedrooms I had grown up with in my nuclear family. And yet, a miracle lies in our quiet communion. We are sitting, like two travellers who’ve been brought together on a kitchen floor by a series of chance happenings, and found unity in a vision that we share but cannot articulate clearly.

In the next few days, I learn to light the mud stove. It is easy once you get the hang of it. Every unneeded bit of paper – as well as plastic, unfortunately – is tossed in as kindling. Very little of anything is wasted. Dishwater is used to water the plants, rainwater is stored in a drum, and kitchen refuse feeds the goats. The kitchen is a lovely space of infectious warmth, a warmth that emanates from something deeper than the mud walls or the stove. A curious quality of caring, an inexpressible sense of the sacred, hovers here in the early mornings, when Laila’s mother milks the buffalo and bends down to light the stove and make tea and paratha for me because I am not fasting. All her movements, which I watch entranced, are elegant and calm. The filling of water in buckets, the babble of birds and bleating of goats, and the crowing roosters, are all part of an unhurried grace. These endearing sounds mingle and pour into the kitchen with the light from the high-up square window. Beyond the window, the sun kisses the tops of the walnut trees and they sway softly. The family’s three goats are tethered to their trunks.

At sunset, the whole family gathers in the kitchen. As soon as azaan is heard from the mosque, we may eat. Iftaar on my first day is dates, fruit chaat, pakoras, and biryani. Laila’s father and her brothers eat from one plate, and we women eat from another. Family members usually eat from the same plate. When Laila asks if I would like to eat from their plate, I nod, and smile to myself.

Every day, Laila’s cousin, Zeenat, would come in just before iftaar with a bowl of curry or walnut chutney. Laila’s two uncles, her father’s younger brothers, and their families live on the same ancestral property. The original house has been divided into three parts. Each uncle has constructed a set of rooms, a kitchen and a toilet for his family. Laila’s family is prosperous enough to have toilets. Most of the villagers are not. Women rise early and go out into the fields. The three houses are connected through their courtyards. Each uncle has many children. Though their wives are harried women, they seem proud of their large families.

The evenings are dark and lovely. The crickets chirp loudly. And the stars – I have never seen so many in any city – millions of them pinned to a dark dome, flicker benignly. Something fragrant from the courtyard infuses its faint scent into the night. Laila is a proud gardener and her ardour is apparent in the profusion of red, white and pink blossoms. I sit in the veranda in the early mornings, drinking in this delightfulness, then grieving as the cool softness changes to the harshness of a new day.

The delicacy of those dawns leaves you unprepared for the hot days. The reality of a civil war raging in a place so peaceful leaves you even more nonplussed. The same issue of the Herald Tribune where Imtiaz Gul denounces Pakistan as the nursery of global jihad, reports fresh bombs dropped by the US in the tribal areas, to root out ‘suspected militants.’ How can pilotless, unmanned, bomb-dropping machines target militants with unfailing accuracy? There have been thirty-three Predator drone attacks since January 2010 in this region, and drone attacks have killed 900 people since 2008, the same newspaper reports.

Is it so difficult to connect the dots between growing resentment towards American interference in the region and the locals who support the Taliban for being the only group daring to oppose American military presence here? Bombs are supposedly dropped on high value targets. A high value target (HVT) is defined by as a ‘target the enemy commander requires for the successful completion of the mission. The loss of high-value targets would be expected to seriously degrade important enemy functions throughout the friendly commander’s area of interest’. The Herald Tribune also reports: ‘it is not known if any high value target was present in the area at the time of attack.’ Not known if any HVTs were present? Why drop bombs if chances of hitting a HVT was not high to begin with? Bombs on villages that have no hospitals or even a rudimentary first aid unit for the wounded? I imagine the drone operator, a young man sitting in front of a computer terminal at some military facility in Arkansas or Nevada, who tries to ascertain if his remote-controlled drone will hit an HVT in some village in NWFP which appears on his screen as a grid filled with dots that represent houses. What kind of a village is his imagination capable of conjuring? Can he not imagine homes, families, gardens in those villages? If the US military has the technology to tell a village militant hideout from a non-militant home, all the way from Arkansas or wherever their drone operators sit, they deserve my deepest respect. But since they aren’t sure if they’re hitting HVTs, the ire and bewilderment of an impoverished but dignified people, when bombs drop from the skies, seems just.

Laila, Zeenat and I are sitting on the charpais in the veranda. The conversation turns to marriage and love. Both Laila and Zeenat have recently become engaged.

‘Have you ever seen or spoken to your fiancé?’ I ask Zeenat.


‘But he’s your cousin! And he’s from the next village. Hasn’t he tried to call you or see you since your engagement?’

‘No, he works in Karachi.’

‘Why? Doesn’t he have a mobile? Don’t you want to know what he looks like, what he sounds like?’ I am astounded by her impassivity.

‘No,’ she shrugs. Then she smiles. ‘I’ve seen his photo. That’s enough. They showed it to me just before they said yes to his family.’

‘Bas? What if you don’t like him after marriage?’

The last time I met her in the art therapy workshop with Laila, Zeenat had wanted to study archaeology because this land of hers is the home of the ancient Gandhara Buddhist civilization. But she was made to leave college recently because it was decided that she was to get married.

‘What if you don’t like him? ’ I persist.

‘Compromise,’ Zeenat pronounces the English word. She’s only nineteen and knows what compromise is all about. What the inevitable is all about.

‘I told his sister when they came for the engagement to give me her brother’s number,’ Laila blurts. ‘So Zeenat could talk to him. But she didn’t. She’s a mean one.’

Zeenat glances shyly at the bold Laila, but there’s something calm and maternal in her stooped shoulders and her slender frame, and her tentative smile is all about the advantages of submission to pre-determined fates. She seems grown-up against Laila’s youthful feistiness.

‘My friend says if things are good on the wedding night, then the future will be good. But if things don’t go right on the first night…but I say it’s all kismat,’ Laila laughs.

Laila is engaged to a distant cousin. He fell in love with her when she was fifteen. In a culture where girls are betrothed at birth, and often to first cousins, she’s considered a rebel, too modern, for having waged a three-year jihad with her father, uncles and grandfather to become engaged to a distant relative who fell in love with her. He works in a factory by day and sends her SMS love poems by night. Recently, he was laid off, and is now back in the village; but they are forbidden to meet. Later that night, as Laila and I are talking, huddled under the quilt in a little room next to her grandmother’s, his SMS messages start beeping in. Laila types her responses. She hardly sleeps. She keeps checking her mobile and fires rapid replies. Then there’s a missed call. She climbs out of bed and goes into the next room to call him back.

‘I don’t want to get married. At least not for a couple of years,’ Laila says after she returns and climbs back into bed. ‘I want to work and earn some money.’

She has just finished a three-month training course in community health and will soon start making visits as the first Lady Health Visitor of her village. Her job will take her to village women to tell them about health and nutrition, and she’ll slip in advice on contraception. Her community health textbook has a chapter on family planning, and explains how contraception is not against Islam. That the State promotes the idea of smaller families, despite the maulvis who consider all attempts to curb procreation unnatural and un-Islamic, seems like quiet good news.

‘It doesn’t pay much but once they make me permanent, it’s a secure job,’ Laila says. ‘You don’t want to marry him but you’re in love with him?’ I ask Laila. ‘With my fiancé? I am and I’m not,’ she says, quite honestly. ‘My mother says I’ve cut off my feet by getting engaged to him. He doesn’t even have a house for me and now he’s lost his job. And his family is so huge. You’ll see how they live. Their house is messy and full of children. I don’t know how I’ll live with them.’

I’ve heard her whisper I love yous to him on the phone. How do you say it in Pashto? I ask. ‘Nobody says it in Pashto anymore.’ ‘Nobody says, “I love you” in Pashto anymore?’

I’m saddened by the cultural losses incurred by the mobile phone era. Children speak Pashto at home but learn only Urdu at school, so none of them can read or write in their mother tongue. None of them is likely to read their iconic poets like Rehman Baba or Khushal Khan Khatak in the original.

I’m tempted to quote a Rehman Baba poem because this most-loved and revered mystical poet of Pakhtun culture is so little known outside the Pakhtun world:

Whether it involves kindness, love or enmity,

I have trusted the friendship of my friend.

Though in separate bodies my friend and I are really one.

Thousands of houses make the city of Baghdad.

There can be no separation between my lover and me;

All events have their own appointed time.

It is not dependent on the beloved’s beauty at all;

The lover’s heart is content with his own love.

I ask God for passionate sighs;

Whether the lover’s heart is of wax or steel.

For those who are not dispersed like the beloved’s braids,

The communion of their hearts is a heinous crime.

Those who have no strength to complain or sigh,

Each silence of the powerless is a sigh and a complaint.

Ishq has a hundred more names -like

The names of Majnun and Farhad.

It sits and stands wherever it likes,

Love is the true son-in-law of intellect and cleverness.

In love kings become Malangs,

Who remembers the likes of you and me?

If excellence is in proportion to humility,

Then the position of the student is above the teacher.

The Poetry of Rahman Baba: Poet of the Pakhtuns. Translated by Robert Sampson and Momin Khan.

(Peshawar: University Book Agency, 2005)


‘Can’t you break off the engagement?’ If Laila has run a three-year campaign to get engaged, she’s surely empowered enough to run another campaign for an exit strategy.

‘No, yaara!’ Laila gasps. ‘I can’t do that! I can’t break off this engagement! I was the one who fought for this engagement. If I break it off now, I’ll dishonour my family. People will say I’ve become too modern. Nobody’s going to marry my sisters if I do something like that. I made my choice. Now I must live with it.’

‘You don’t know if your family chose a husband they would’ve made a better choice.’

‘I told you: it’s all kismat. My kismat. But I feel a little safer because my fiancé says I can work after marriage and I told him I wouldn’t have children for five years. I’ve told Zeenat she should do the same. I’ll give her the contraceptive so she won’t get pregnant right after marriage,’ she says pragmatically.

‘Are you really going to do that without her husband’s knowledge? You thug! Lady Health Worker!’

‘You know what I think the difference between love and marriage is?’ Laila stares into the dark, after shooting off another SMS to her fiancé. ‘Life is like a glass of soapy water. And love is the foam on top. When the foam fizzles out, what’s left behind is marriage.’

We chuckle under the razai. But behind her facetiousness, Laila, like her cousin, seems a melancholy, aged spirit to me. At twenty, of slight build, with a captivating, vivacious face, pensive and passionate brown eyes, and doubts and desires that I had barely begun to articulate at her age, she seems much older than I was at twenty. She has attended the village school only up to class eight. The wisdom she whispers in the gloom of the night can’t come only from what they taught her in school.

‘Well, since you have to marry somebody, if you marry your fiancé, at least you’ll have tasted some love bubbles!’ I console her.

‘But I don’t know why I feel sad inside about my future. And why I get mad at him.’ Laila struggles to understand her own conflicting emotions. ‘Then afterwards, I apologize. I SMS him. I say I’m sorry. I love him more when he’s quiet. But my mother thinks I made a mistake to choose him. It’s his family. You know I love my garden. If anybody messes with my plants, I yell at them. I can’t do that in their house. I’ll have to come to my mother’s house and take care of my garden here,’ she says with resigned certitude.

‘But if things really don’t work out, I can go my way, and he can go his.’

‘So you’d better retain your garden in your mother’s house!’

It takes me several days to understand the survival value of her pragmatic fatalism and her dance back and forth across thresholds of autonomy. Her feigned docility is a wisdom she has absorbed from the tradition-encrusted chadar of her culture. It takes creativity to challenge the kind of unchanging social façade she is trapped in. But with each bold belief, even if she cannot always act on it, she is rending the fabric of ancient customs.

Eid Shopping in Oghi

The day after my arrival, Laila plans a secret shopping trip to Oghi. She says we’ll go into town under the pretext of visiting the hospital where she’s been training as Lady Health Worker. The bazaars are crowded just before Eid and her father wouldn’t approve of us going into town. But her mother tells me calmly to wait till her husband leaves. Laila takes off for the hospital with her father early and tells me to come later with her sisters and Zeenat, who also has to wait till her father leaves for work. Laila’s aunt from next door joins the party. Laila’s two brothers, aged fourteen and sixteen, accompany us. Women from respectable families don’t travel without male companions, even if the accompanying male happens to be the youngest child of the family.

Autonomous women are an anomaly, and not just in villages. I recall the separate immigration counter reserved for unaccompanied women at Karachi airport. The sign above it says tanhakhwateen – which translates as lonely women, women unaccompanied by males, women in need of special protection.

We wait at the side of the road, our faces covered with chadars, our backs turned to the male gazers in the passing carrys. It’s hot and though I’m thirsty from the walk up the hill, it wouldn’t have been right to carry water when others are fasting.

Finally a carry stops: it has room for three but can squeeze in five. We pile in and the two boys hop on to the roof. I’m holding Laila’s little sister on my lap, and my knee is four inches away from the genitals of the man opposite. I wince at the thought of accidental contact if there’s a bump in the road. I shut my eyes and pray. When the man and his women get down, I open my eyes and take my first deep breath.

The Pathans are a poetic people, and poetry is everywhere – on the backs of vans and trucks, and engraved on gravestones. The Urdu couplet inside the carry reads:

Hazaron baar phul khile, hazaron baar bahar aai

Duniya ki wahi raunaq, dil ki wahi tanhai

A thousand blossoms bloomed, a thousand springs came.

Amid the bustle of the world, the heart’s loneliness remained.

The metaphor sinks softly into me – a thousand springs have come and gone, symbolizing hopelessness, poverty, and soul-enriching beauty. When will a spring beyond the thousandth spring come to announce the end of poverty and hopelessness? Will it take a thousand more years for the uncaring and bustling world to open its eye of compassion? A thousand years of war before peace comes to this land?

We get off in Oghi bazaar and walk down a side lane to reach the hospital. It’s the last day of classes before Eid holidays, and Laila’s teachers haven’t showed up, assuming that none of the students would either. I meet Laila’s classmates. They’re an animated group of young women from neighbouring villages and they aren’t shy of talking about contraception and sexual practices. They know about the X and Y chromosome and know women aren’t responsible for the sex of the child.

‘But it’s common for a man to bring a second wife if the first can’t give him a son,’ one woman says. ‘Men want sons because lineage continues through sons.’ She’s pregnant with her fourth child in the hope of a son. She’s better educated than the rest of her teammates but her anxieties about her worth as a woman are clearly expressed by her inability to produce male heirs.

She laughs when I say, ‘Tell your husband there can be no lineage without daughters.’

Laila introduces me excitedly to her teammates as the baji who’s writing a book ‘about us women and our problems.’ We leave the classroom and walk back to the market, through narrow lanes and dark alleys that make up the entrails of the main market. Tiny shop fronts are bulging with women’s clothing, bangles, cosmetics, and lingerie. Women who were missing from the main street are to be found here. But men outnumber them here too.

‘What business do men have here?’ Laila mutters loudly under her naqaab.

‘Of course men have business here,’ replies a young fellow in passing.

‘Did you hear him? His business is to harass us,’ Laila says. ‘It’s like the son who told his mother to not go to the bazaar. And when his mother went out, all covered up in a burqa, he was the one caught teasing her!’

There’s a palpable sexual energy in the dark, covered pathways of the bazaar as men brush past us and the chadar-clad women try to avoid their touch. The girls want to buy sandals. We hurry into the first shoe shop we see. The Pathan behind the counter is tall and good-looking and extremely adept at selling shoes. He manages to find something for everybody, including Laila’s sister who attends college in Mansehra and is no longer a country girl who can be easily pleased.

‘These are all last year’s fashions,’ she whispers.

‘Last year’s?’ The salesman overhears her. ‘Who says? These are the latest designs. If you don’t like it, bring it back after Eid,’ he says thrusting a shiny silver sandal into her hand.

‘Bring them back after wearing them?’ jokes Laila. I’m scared by the casualness of the exchange taking place through the naqaab in this claustrophobic space.

The good-looking Pathan laughs. He’s enjoying the banter too, though he appears impatient.

I buy Laila a pair of walking shoes as a gift for becoming the first Lady Health Visitor. ‘You should give us a good discount,’ I say to the shopkeeper. ‘We’ve bought so many pairs from you. And I’m a guest from Karachi.’

‘Karachi?’ He shrugs, unimpressed. ‘I get customers from America.’

We scurry down the dim, men-packed lane to another shop to buy bangles. Bras are hanging in glass display cases. I recall a politically incorrect joke, about a Pathan who goes to buy a bra for his wife:

Shopkeeper: What’s her size?

Man, handing him his topi: I don’t know her size, but she made

two caps for me from her old one.

‘Do women ask the man in the shop to show them bras?’ I’m incredulous. Yet another stereotype about life in the hinterland has to go. ‘You can’t do that even in Karachi!’

‘Anything goes in this place,’ is Laila’s casual reply.

The girls buy bangles and mehndi cones, eye-liner and nail polish. Laila calls her brother. He’s waiting for us at the entrance to the bazaar, in a graveyard where many faceless, veiled women are hugging shopping bags as they wait for their men to come and get them.

The Day Before Eid

We are watching the news on TV that evening to find out if the Eid moon has been sighted. The local Moonsighting Committee in the capital, Peshawar, announces it’s Eid the next day, according to the moon’s sighting in Saudi Arabia.

‘So it’s Eid tomorrow?’ I seek confirmation from Laila’s father.

‘No, it’s not,’ he says contemptuously.

‘But they just announced it on TV!’

‘For us it’s Eid the day after tomorrow, with the rest of the country,’ he says. ‘Those maulvis in Peshawar are not real Muslims. They want to prove they’re more devout than everybody else, so they follow Saudi Arabia.’

I’m impressed by his reply and awed by this villager’s audacity, from a tiny village of a hundred families, to declare solidarity with the rest of the nation and defy the status quo of Peshawar maulvis. Laila’s father lights a cigarette and proceeds to do a leisurely socio-cultural and political analysis of the current unrest in NWFP. I listen respectfully for the next half hour or so. This is the only real conversation he has with me. He’s a short, intense-looking man, with soft, kind eyes and gentle manners. It’s his impassioned way of speaking, I think, which Lailahas inherited.

I include a heavily shortened synopsis of his conspiracy theory, which explains the unrest in the country:

‘Mullah Fazlullah and Baitullah Mehsud are American agents. The CIA paid Baitullah to kill Benazir Bhutto. The CIA wanted to make Zardari the president because he would let them do as they pleased in this region. The United States wants to break up Pakistan. The United States wants to make NWFP a part of Afghanistan, Baluchistan a part of Iran, and Sind a part of India. Only Punjab will remain as Pakistan. The US will set up military bases in NWFP to keep an eye on China and India. China needs watching as it is going to declare itself a superpower by 2013. Obama is no different from other American presidents. He won’t change American policies. His government will create trouble in any part of the world if it benefits America. The Afghans, especially, the Farsibans (Persian-speakers) can’t be trusted at all. They’re on the side of the Americans.’

I don’t know what to make of his conspiracy theory so I join the girls who have started preparing for Eid even though they’ll celebrate it a day later. Laila brings out the henna cone and starts tracing an intricate pattern of flowers, leaves, and delightful curlicues on my palms. I watch the emerging artwork and think how far I’ve had to travel to find such unguarded warmth – all the more overwhelming because of its virtual absence in the urban spaces where I grew up, where we are very careful not to puncture one another’s privacy. Privacy is an alien concept here, and so is solitude. Laila’s cousin who arrived from a neighbouring village calls her Gautama Buddha because she goes quiet and likes to be by herself; but a similar request from me is seen as a lapse in their duties as hosts. Girls sit up half the night stitching shiny, dangling things on their dupattas. Laila’s chachi slides glass bangles onto our wrists. She’s an expert at doing this without breaking them. A neighbour drops in to ask Laila if she will wax her arms and pluck her eyebrows.

‘Come tomorrow. I’m busy right now,’ Laila tells her. ‘I haven’t done my own eyebrows yet. How do you expect me to do yours?’

‘You village girls are so fashionable!’ I say.

‘Only city women can be fashionable?’ Laila’s shakes her head.

The next day is thankfully the last day of fasting. The lie about my periods as an excuse for not fasting or praying has to be stretched no further. It’s Eid in Peshawar, a couple of hours away, but not in Oghi. In the evening, we get the house ready for guests. We spread new sheets on the charpais. Laila sweeps the yard and smears a layer of fresh mud on the blackened walls around the stove. I pound rice in the mortar for kheer. Her younger sister sits down to iron the entire family’s new clothes before the electricity goes. Everybody has new outfits. A new shalwar-kurta has been stitched for me too, miraculously, in one day. Toes are blackened with toe henna. Laila’s youngest brother dunks his four pet chicks into a bowl of food colour. The chicks shiver and huddle near the stove, turning into fuzzy balls of pink as they dry out. One of them fails to withstand this drastic makeover and dies in the night.

Eid Day

The household is up while it’s still dark and cold. Laila’s mother has been in several times, tugging at her toes to wake her up. I stay in bed curled up under the quilt’s warmth, trying to gauge from their hushed whispers what’s wrong. The rooster crows. The Eid khutba can be heard from the village mosque. It’s in Pashto so I don’t follow a word. Finally, I get out of bed. The stars are still out at six-thirty. I get my toothbrush and walk across the courtyard. I have to wait for my turn to use the bathroom. The water’s freezing, but after the first few tumblers, I stop shivering. I put on my shiny new silk outfit and am surprised that it fits quite well. Today, there’s no getting out of praying so I go into the room and join the women. Peace, peace, peace. Please, God, please restore peace, I entreat as I prostrate myself on the prayer mat.

The whole family assembles in the kitchen for tea. I wish Laila’s father and uncles Eid Mubarak. Laila laughs and tells me what she and her mother had been discussing earlier – the loss of four kilos of meat. The cat devoured it during the night.

‘The cat had her Eid while we slept. No biryani today,’ Laila says, unruffled. The meat must have cost several hundred rupees. The good humour, the generous acceptance of loss and the lack of blame surprise me.

Laila asks her aunt to give her a chicken. Instead of biryani, lunch is chicken curry. The men take off for Eid prayers and the women start to get ready. Hair is oiled and braided. Earrings and rings slipped on. Lipstick and kajal applied. The new sandals are taken out of their boxes. Laila slides three golden rings onto my fingers and makes me put on two dozen more bangles and lipstick. I keep staring at my unfamiliar fingers with the three large, shiny rings. By the time the eyelash curler is produced, I resign myself to my fate. Laila curls eyelashes by squeezing them between the blades of the curler.

The men come back, eat, and take off to visit relatives in neighbouring villages, and we visit neighbouring women. We are force-fed biryani and halwa everywhere, and I have to answer the same set of four questions: Are you married? Do you have kids? How many? No sons? Then the shocked look, followed by genuine sympathy for my sonlessness.

Laila gives family planning advice to someone who’s just had her fifth child.

‘What should I do?’ the woman smiles. ‘Block the entrance between my legs?’

‘Get the injections,’ Laila scolds her. She translates what the woman just said in Pashto. ‘You need just one injection every three months. Can you help them if they don’t want to help themselves? These village women!’

‘Can’t their husbands use condoms?’ I ask Laila as we clamber up the narrow path to another relative’s house. If women can talk about sex in such a jaded way, as if it’s no more exciting than housework, can’t they also talk about condoms?

‘The women are the ones who have to stay home and take care of all these children. They should insist their men use condoms.’ Laila seems exasperated by women’s passivity. ‘But they don’t. My uncles’ wives are the same. They just keep having babies.’

The last stop is Laila’s fiancé’s house. Laila waits at her aunt’s house and we climb up another hill to her in-laws’ house. She’s not allowed to meet her fiancé before the wedding but he does come over to see her when her father is out. Her mother knows about his visits and doesn’t object. Laila was right about the disorder in her fiancé’s house. Clothes and dirty dishes are lying on the floor. There are no traces of festivity, none of the loveliness of Laila’s courtyard garden. One of her future sisters-in-law, a woman with dough-streaked hands and wisps of hair escaping from under her crumpled dupatta, greets us.

‘How are you? You look tired.’ I ask her.

Kaisi hun? wahi haal, wahi chamri, wahi khaal,’ she smiles. To translate what she said is to kill the poetry but I’ll try: why ask about me? I’m in the same state, same old skin, same old hide. She used to live in Karachi. And I can see her Urdu is accentless and her language carries that city’s tart humour. ‘You know, we women are qurbani ki bakriyan (sacrificial goats) – there are twenty-three people in this house,’ and she names each of the household’s children and adults. ‘We have to make breakfast for them, get hot water ready so the men can bathe, polish their shoes. Where’s the time to put on Eid clothes?’ she says. I look at her, amused and sad. She’s a thin woman, with sallow, anaemic skin, a mother of five. Her husband left her in the village and went to Dubai three years ago. She awaits his return as millions of women do in villages all over the country, raising his children in his absence, longing for love and companionship.

The Day After Eid

The day after Eid is the busiest for the women of the household. They are kept occupied cooking and serving guests who keep arriving throughout the day.

Laila is irritable. She kneads dough and as we’re approaching the tandoor in the back yard to bake the naans, she blurts out: ‘I want to pile all these men into the tandoor and set them on fire!’ She wants us to go to an engagement party but we can’t because the guests have to be served.

When her father comes in, Laila snaps. ‘We’re tired of working. We can’t go anywhere. We have to keep feeding your guests. Is this how we’re to celebrate Eid?’

Her father is taken aback at her anger, especially in my presence. ‘I’ll see to it that you can go,’ he says gently. ‘Go and get ready.’

Laila smiles triumphantly after he leaves. ‘I’m his favourite daughter. He can’t bear to see me unhappy. Come, let’s go and get ready!’

Once more we go through the elaborate routine of putting on our Eid outfits and the jewellery. The rings and bangles, lipstick and eyeliner are spread on the bed in Laila’s mother’s room. The engagement party is an all-women affair in the next village. Laila wears her flat sandals and packs her stilettos in her purse to put on once she arrives at the party. Darkness falls on our way back, and the carry drops us quite a long way from the village. Laila laughs as I snap a picture of her removing her stilettos and putting on her flats for the long walk back home.

Are we safe in the dark on this lonely road? I ask.

‘Don’t worry,’ Laila reassures me. ‘We’re very safe. Nobody would dare do anything. We are known here.’ They’ve told me how safe the village and its surrounds are. Women walk all over the village, gathering firewood and fetching water, going out to the fields. Nobody would dare harass the women of their own village. It’s only in the anonymity of bazaars that the ancient code of conduct, the Pakhtunwali, is broken.

Laila’s absence from the house has been missed. Her grandfather is distraught and asks her to do dumm for his toothache. I’ve hardly spoken to him since my arrival. He spends his days watching TV, feeding the dogs and goats, and yelling at his grandsons for climbing the walnut trees and for getting into fights. The day I am to leave, he produces a dozen walnuts from his shalwar pocket, and says: ‘Take them with you. They’re from our trees.’

‘He scolds the kids all day long,’ Laila whispers, as she sits down next to him. ‘No wonder his jaw hurts.’ She recites a prayer and blows on his hurting jaw. The dumm is done. And the old man leaves, leaning on his walking stick, looking dazed but comforted.

The men of the family seem lonely and in need of being ministered to, even though they remain distant and inscrutable. Are they aloof because they need to conceal their inner frailty? They seek the services of women, but they say very little to them at mealtimes or at any time. Roles are well-defined and a good life means performing those roles. I have the feeling that everybody is playing a part in a silent movie. It’s the men’s job to command women’s submission and devotion; and, in return, to provide for them. Laila’s father sits smoking silently on the charpai in the evenings with a restless, far-away look. His wife sits near him, but they hardly talk. He too wants Laila to do dumm because his stomach hurts from eating half-cooked sweet rice at the maulvi’s house. I’ve seen him sit beside his mother, also in silence. He comes in when Laila is feeding her milk and cornbread. He sits for a few minutes, kisses her on both cheeks, and leaves.

I want to ask the silent men what became of the passionate lovers and poets in them? Do those fumbling, embarrassing, half-clothed, smothered encounters with their wives that pass for sexual intimacy, those precursors to necessary, frequent pregnancies that continue the genealogy, stone them into such silence? Homoerotic relationships among Pathan men have probably evolved to fill the lacunae of emotional intimacy between men and women. Keeping boys instead of mistresses for sexual pleasure is an accepted practice among heterosexual men of means, and is not taken as an indication of homosexuality or bisexuality. I have no way of finding out whether women also resort to relationships with other women for emotional and sexual fulfilment. I feel such relationships may not be unusual in heavily gender-segregated spaces. Village women may not advertise themselves as sexual beings, but what they resort to for sexual bliss is another matter. Laila tells me of a classmate who’s been SMS-ing her, begging her for ‘lip-kisses’!

Out in the Fields

By the fifth day, I’m restless for contact with the outside world. In the real world I shirk newspapers, especially front-page news. But here my isolation from the outer world as well as my inability to access my inner world is making me restless. This is evident to Laila and she keeps an even closer watch to make sure I am not alone, and this makes me more irritable. There are no newspapers, no Internet, no e-mail. I didn’t even bring my laptop. I can’t go out for solitary walks since it’s improper for a woman guest to go wandering on her own. I can’t sit by myself without somebody from the family enquiring, Are you all right? Are you bored? Do you need something? My mobile is my lifeline but its connectivity is erratic. What’s going on in the world? There’s a TV – but it’s hardly ever tuned to the news except when the men are watching it. When the girls are watching, they switch over to the saas-bahu, popular TV serials on Indian channels, also watched in Pakistan, centred on conflicts between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law.

‘Baji, you’re getting bored, aren’t you?’ Laila wants to know.

‘No, not bored. Just need to know what’s going on in the world.’

‘Why? Why can’t you forget what’s going on in the world? We don’t make you happy? Why do you want to bring the world’s worries here?’ Laila asks, genuinely puzzled. ‘You told me you felt sad about all the bad things happening in the world. What’s there to know, when all the news is bad news?’

‘Maybe I’m addicted to bad news,’ I say, and I wonder at my addiction. Why do I really need to hear or read more bad news?

‘Tomorrow I’m going to show you a really beautiful place. You’ll never forget this village then. Then you’ll say to your friends in the city what a zabardast time you had in the village. They’ll be envious.’

The next morning after everybody has had tea and parathas for breakfast, the courtyard swept, Laila’s plants watered, and the various buckets and drums filled with water, we go out in a large group, just the women, with all of Laila’s sisters and cousins, including the youngest, who is only four. The weather changes from its early morning frostiness to mid-morning piercing sun. We walk on narrow, twisting paths through the trampled undergrowth, the girls chattering gleefully, showing me places in the woods where they used to stop on the way back from school and the fig trees they climbed.

In the village, there is no need for chadars. It is enough to cover our heads with dupattas, which keep sliding down in the up-and-down walk on brambly paths. But nobody seems to care. ‘No chadars as long as you stay within the village limits,’ Laila tells me.

‘When did you stop climbing trees?’ I ask Zeenat.

‘Two years ago,’ she says.

‘Can’t you climb one now? How can I believe you ever climbed one?’

‘No! The villagers will think I’ve gone mad!’ She shakes her head vigorously, as if embarrassed to even contemplate it.

‘Come on, nobody’s watching,’ I urge her.

‘No! No!’ She was getting married in two month’s time, and she couldn’t risk village gossip. No girl who’s about to get married climbs trees.

Recollecting that walk is a journey to a feeling that defies definition

– the laughter of the girls, the prattling steps of the little ones in their too-small slippers, the timid gurgling streams, the birds, the mottled shadows that dot the forest floor and mingle with scant light from the unbroken canopy of pine trees – and Laila’s and Zeenat’s restless, breathless talking. Their recalling of childhood anecdotes – of the churail – a witch, an ugly woman, or the ghost of a woman who died during pregnancy. Their grandmother had seen one sitting on a rock when she used to come to the woods to gather grass, when the woods were denser and the streams fuller, and the churail with her wild hair and fiery eyes had made her grandmother drop her scythe and run back to the house in fear. And how grandmother sat and meditated and prayed for forty days, how she learned the special dumm to crack evil spells cast by churails. And how she returned, emboldened with her new knowledge and overpowered the churail, who never dared ever to return to these woods.

‘Dadi has taught me how to do the same dumm,’ Laila says. ‘That’s why everybody in the family asks me to do dumm if they’re ill.’ She holds her slippers in one hand and jumps across a ditch. I hesitate at the mouth of the ditch. Laila stretches out her hand to me. ‘Hold my hand,’ she says, extending her arm towards me and pulling me across. I land on the other side, awed and unsteady. She is laughing. ‘Why are you laughing at me? I didn’t grow up in the village,’ I say, embarrassed. Laila can’t stop giggling at my clumsiness and my fears, and the others join her. This is their chance to show off their nimble-footedness before a city lady. Even her little four year-old cousin jumps the ditch unassisted.

Is Laila a child or an elder? She hops across ditches like a schoolgirl and she’s a healer of pain. Laila – the brave woman, healer and rebel, ready to leap across ditches without a moment’s thought, but unable to break out of a relationship she feels tied down to. I watch this amazing woman’s forays into independence, and her retreats from independence. Terrified by her own intrepid ways, how long will she hold herself back, how long will she continue to remodel herself to fit into her family’s cocoon?

A couple of days after Eid, amid great protests from Laila’s family, I hug and kiss all the women of the family, and walk uphill to the highway. Laila’s two brothers accompany me. I take a picture of the message painted on their school wall:

Talib-e-ilm mein sharm munasib nahi kyunke sharm jihalat se badtar hai.

Observe no modesty in your quest for knowledge for such modesty is worse than ignorance.

The Hiace lets me off at Asoka Park café in Mansehra. I offer the driver a fifty-rupee tip for dropping me at a point beyond the designated stop but he refuses to accept. I’ve asked my friend from Abbotabad to meet me for lunch at the café and then we plan to visit the Asokan edicts next to the café.

The menu at Asoka Park café boasts a little bit of everything. It’s Pakistani and Continental. The waiter is so polite that he makes me wonder why I seldom come across such well-mannered men in big cities. He doesn’t meet our eye and starts each sentence with ‘Excuse me.’ It takes him a very long time to produce the two hamburgers and fries we ordered. The burgers surpass McDonald’s burgers in slimness. The buns are sweet and cold. The cook has left, and the substitute cook is not good, the waiter confesses, when we complain about the sweet, cold buns. Serves us right for ordering burgers in a place where they spell it as Bargars on the menu.

Our amiable waiter accompanies us to Asoka Park after lunch, carrying my bag. The park gate is locked. It’s a little after 4p.m. – closing time.

Ab kya hoga?’ I’m alarmed. I forget, momentarily, that in South Asia all regulations are merely suggestions, not constraints.

‘Medem, come with me,’ the waiter says confidently. He ambles up the hillside, along the park fence and points to a ledge.

And while he looks the other way, my friend and I haul ourselves up as gracefully as we can, and lower ourselves over the fence into the park.

We are happy to have the officially closed park to ourselves. The Asokan edicts are not quite what I expected. They’re overwhelmingly large, grey rocks, mammoth granite boulders, resting in a lovely landscape of trees and stone, overlooking the busy Karakoram Highway, the Silk Road that Asoka’s monks travelled to take Buddhism all the way to China.

I’m ending my pilgrimage at this peaceful oasis in the midst of a land at war, where the great Buddhist king inscribed his message of peace, tolerance, and love in the third century BCE. Asoka came to this wisdom only after the horrors of a war in which hundreds of thousands were killed, but the fact that such wisdom is possible to come to, that a war-mongering king can become a devout follower of non-violence and devote his life to spreading peace and prosperity among his people, makes me hopeful.

This is where I’m saying my fateha, I tell my friend, hugging the cool face of the granite boulder. I close my eyes and kiss its weathered surface, placing my lips upon the Kharoshti script that has faded into mere nicks and scratches on the rock-face after two millennia of exposure to wind, dust, rain, and snow. My prayers are similar to Asoka’s for the future of humankind:


I have had this Dhamma edict written so that my sons and great-

grandsons may not consider making new conquests, or that if

military conquests are made, that they be done with forbearance

and light punishment, or better still, that they consider making

conquest by Dhamma only, for that bears fruit in this world and

the next. May all their intense devotion be given to this which has

a result in this world and the next.


I’ve left the village but Laila keeps texting me. I’m on a bus to Peshawar a few days later, when my mobile beeps. Her poetry mirrors her feelings for me. She doesn’t mask them, and her candour is more poignant than merely sophisticated word-wizardry:


Safar dosti ka chalta rahe

Suraj chahe har sham dhalta rahe

Kabhi na dhalegi apni dosti ki subha

Chahe har rishta ham se jalta rahe

Let friendship’s journey never cease.

The sun may set every day,

but never let it mar our friendship’s dawn.

Let all others in the world envy us.

This is an extract from Alternative Realities: Love in the Lives of Muslim Women (Traquebar Press, India, 2013)


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