To escape the heat of Peshawar, father sent us to a small village in the mountains of Mansehra to spend the summer holidays with relatives there. The village, Poj-Darra — the name corrupted from Fauj-Darra meaning the army’s pass — was so named because, according to the local folklore, Syed Ahmad Brelvi’s army or lashkar had passed through here on their way to Balakot to fight the Sikhs, in 1831.
The village was part of the Amb state, an autonomous state ruled by a heredity nawab, which later acceded to Pakistan in the 1950s, and merged into the present-day Mansehra district.
Poj-Darra was a small village, built on the sunny side of pine-covered hills, consisting of hundred-odd mud-and-stone houses with no electricity or running water.
The womenfolk fetched drinking water from a nearby spring where water flowed from under a rock and was channeled through a long wooden spout or narra (ناڑا ) in the local language. It was the community tap where women gathered not just to collect water but also to share news, stories, and gossip.
Carrying clay pitchers or gharras, young women trod a path along the hillside daily to the narra and back.
Close to the narra ran a mountain stream, which served all other water needs of the village. Its sparkling water, cascading over white and grey rocks, formed shallow pools at some places where children swam and tried to catch fish by groping under the rocks with bare hands. They rarely succeeded, though, because the fish was too agile and slippery. But just trying to catch it was a lot of fun and excitement.
I, too, wished to swim in the stream and catch fish like other children, but my mother thought differently. She held the belief that a good kid must be either in school or at home — doing homework. And, to her delight, and my disappointment, a primary school of sorts did exist in the village, which remained open during summers. She had me enrolled. It didn’t matter to her that I was on holiday.
The school had no building, just a large floor raised with a dry-stone wall, five or six steps high, along the slope of a hillside. The floor was carpeted with a layer of dry pine needles. A couple of old, sprawling, trees provided the roof cover. We sat on the “carpet” cross-legged or in whatever way we could make ourselves comfortable.
There were about 20 students, boys, and girls — mostly boys — ranging in age from 5 to 10. There was only one teacher and no blackboard. We wrote on a takhtee (a wooden tablet, about 18" x 12" in size). To make the surface of the takhtee writeable, we coated it with a special clay, gaachi, which, when dry, would produce a grayish smooth surface. We would then draw four or five straight, horizontal lines with a pencil on both sides of the takhtee; the teacher wrote the lesson of the day on the topmost line, and we would copy it on the lines below.
Washing off the schoolwork and coating the takhtee with a fresh layer of clay was a chore that we had to perform every day after school.
For pens, we used reeds about 5–6 inches long, with one end sliced and shaped into a nib.
We carried the ink in a tiny, open-mouthed, clay ink-pot. To prevent spillage, we placed a piece of cotton cloth in the ink-pot, which would absorb the ink and become a saturated sponge. We dipped the pen into the sponge and wrote with it. When the sponge became dry, we refreshed it by pouring a few drops of water on it.
We did our sums on a wooden framed slate, writing with a soapstone pencil or slaitee.
Come to think of it, preparing and maintaining a takhtee and an ink-pot in usable condition was a lot of work for a 9–10-year-old. Of course, mothers helped but it was the child who was ultimately answerable to the teacher. And the teacher was not a big-hearted man. He carried a thin flexible stick all the time. Qayyum was his name. Everyone called Master Ji.
Master Qayyum was a wiry man, blind in one eye. Calculating backward, I guess, he couldn’t have been older than 30 but looked very old to us then. He always carried a white cotton shawl, chaddar, on his shoulder, a common article of men’s attire in the rural north. A chaddar could be put to different uses, from wrapping it around the body for warmth, using it as a “shopping bag” or, like Master Qayyun did, crumpling it into a cushion for his armless wooden chair. His chair was the only piece of furniture in the school.
As I mentioned earlier, Master Qayyum always carried a stick, a green, flexible twig, freshly cut from a shrub. It was more of a lash. He used it to discipline an errant student whenever the need arose. And the need arose frequently. When struck, the lash would send a sharp, stinging sensation throughout the body of the victim. The sensation was more intense on colder days. We knew this from experience.
Another implement Master Qayyum carried on him was a pocketknife. It was for a benevolent purpose though. To mend and shape our reed pens. But he also used the pocketknife to shape his stick — his weapon of instruction — to the desired thickness. He was often seen working on the stick, lovingly, like a sculptor chiseling away at his work.
By midday, we’d be finished with reading, writing, and sums, and would start memorizing tables. This was the fun part because it signaled the end of the school day. We would recite tables loudly in a singsong fashion. By that time the teacher would mentally disengage from the class and simply watch us recite tables at our own pace and volume. The rhythm of our chanting would send him dozing, the way a customer sometimes dozes off in a barber’s chair. But he would instantly look up when he discerned a discordant note in our recital.
The school day lasted approximately from morning until midday. I say “approximately” because the teacher didn’t have a watch. We followed the daylight hours, literally. When the sun was up and after we had had our breakfast, we would stream into the school, one by one. After everyone — or almost everyone — was in, the school would start without much ado.
Around midday, when the sun would cast a shadow on a particular rock near our “schoolhouse”, the school would be over. Since the rock was at our back, we turned our heads every now and then to see how close the shadow had crept to it. As the day progressed and we got bored and hungry, we looked back more frequently. When the shadow did finally reach the rock, or we thought it did, we would look up to the teacher and shout in unison, ‘Master ji, chhutti?’ much like cricket players appealing to the umpire.
Master ji would look at the rock, study the shadow carefully to determine if it had actually touched it. If it did he would raise his stick and announce Chutti. Like jubilant cricket players whose dubious appeal has been accepted, we would rush into each other, tumbling down the steps of the “schoolhouse” and run towards our homes, wildly waving our takhtees in the air.
In the rush to get out of the school, one day, I stumbled on the steps, fell, and cut my left shin. It was a routine cut, which, with the application of an antiseptic and a Band-Aid would have healed in a few days, but in the absence of medical aid, the only recourse was to herbal medicine. The wound got a bit infected and took longer to heal, and left a permanent scar, which shows to this day on my shin — and also on my National ID Card as a mark of identification.
Two events from those tedious 6 weeks of my summer school especially stand out in my memory. One was a visit by the nawab who stopped by at our school on his way to someplace. Master Qayyum had gotten wind of the impending visit, and asked us to come to the school that day in clean clothes, and also to bring along a little paper flag each. We made our little flags as best as we could, cutting paper into a triangular or rectangular shape and sticking it to the end of a long, thin reed using leavened dough as glue.
Dressed in our best clothes and armed with our little flags, we lined up near our school to receive the nawab. After waiting for what seemed to be a very long time, we sighted a line of half a dozen horses rise from behind a hilltop and move down the track towards our school. (There were hardly any roads in the state and people mostly traveled on foot or ponies and horses.) The nawab was at the head of his convoy.
When the riders came close to the school, we wildly waved our flags and, as instructed by Master Qayyum, shouted, “nawab Saab zindabad”, long live Nawab Sahib. The Nawab, pleased with the reception, reined in his horse and, without getting off, spoke to Master Qayyum briefly and then to the rider behind him, presumably his “chief of staff”. He didn’t talk to us. The “chief of staff” then got off his horse, talked to the teacher, gave him some money, remounted the horse, and the nawab’s convoy moved on. We went home with our little flags.
The next day, we found out, to our delight, that the money the Nawab had given Master Qayyum was meant for us — most of it. Master Qayyum duly distributed it equally. Twelve annas or 75 paisas each! We were thrilled and started dreaming of the goodies we would buy. This was the good life, we believed. The Nawab was not a bad man after all, even if he didn’t get off his horse and talk to us.
The other event I still remember was when one day, bored and hungry, and waiting for the sun’s shadow to touch the rock, we suddenly heard a chant coming from the direction of the village. It was of women singing. As the sound drew closer, the chant became clearer. A group of young women, carrying their pitchers were marching towards the narra, the community tap, and chanting a prayer for the rain. It had been an unusually dry month.
They filled their pitchers and, instead of taking the water home, poured it over a specific large, grey rock, and walked back to the village, keeping up the chant all this time. This was a ritual that women in villages performed whenever there was a drought. I don’t remember if their prayer was answered or not, but to us then it was like watching a stage show — women singing and performing. Even Master Qayyum seemed pleased and was all smiles. A rare sight.
It has been many years since — far too many — but I still remember a few lines of the prayer the women chanted in Hindko, the local language. Roughly translated, it went something like this:
The sun is hot
Lord o dear Lord!
My feet are burning
Give us rain
Plenty of rain
Lord o dear Lord! …
Note: All photos by the author were taken in December 2015