Searching for one’s roots is an impulse that hits many people at some stage in their lives. I got the urge, not too long ago, to embark on a journey to this remote village, Chamherri (چمھیڑی), up in the mountains of Mansehra, in Khyber Pakhtunkhawa province. My father had come from this place but never went back. I had never seen it.
I informed my cousin, Alamzeb, who still lives there and owns a bit of land, about my proposed trip. He was delighted and said he looked forward to it. I asked him about the road conditions. There was a ‘jeep-able’ road, he said, and a jeep service runs between Darband, the nearest major town, and his village. He had one request though. “Please don’t come wearing Western trousers. Come in regular shalwar-qameez”. Not a problem, I told him. I could understand his concern because it’s a highly conservative area, isolated in its own customs and traditions.
This was in 2006 when General Musharraf was preaching “enlightened moderation” in Islamabad, but Mutahaidda Majlis e Amal (MMA), a coalition of religious parties, was ruling the Khyber Pakhtunkhawa Province, and running ‘vice and virtue’ squads in an effort to further purify the province of “sinful practices”.
Leaving early in the morning, I, along with my sister, Mubarika, and her husband, Mumtaz Ali Shah, drove from Mansehra to Oghi, an hour’s journey, and then another hour and a half to Darband. Actually, it’s called New Darband since the old town had drowned in the lake formed when the Tarbela dam was built on the Indus River, in the 1960s. New Darband came up in its place, not too far from the lake. We could still see the minarets of the old town’s mosques protruding from the surface of the lake.
From Oghi to Darband, it was a picturesque drive, winding through pine-forested mountains, a new vista of mountains and valleys unfolding at every turn. However, from Darband onwards — or rather upwards — it was a different story.
The ‘jeep-able’ road Alamzeb had mentioned was only a rough dirt track that zigzagged up a barren mountainside. It was actually a foot track, recently widened to accommodate the four wheels of a jeep. And the ‘jeep service’ consisted of one old van plying up and down the track once a day. It was only about a 20-kilometer journey, we were told, that took nearly two hours because of the steep and winding climb.
We got into the “jeep”, a bare-bone contraption, with the driver’s cabin separated from the passengers’ at the back. It was an old Willy’s Jeep converted into a passenger van, with no top, no grab handles, and no seats for the passengers. They had to stand. The only seat, other than that of the driver’s, was the one next to him. The driver was kind enough to allow my sister and me to squeeze ourselves onto it. Mumtaz stood in the back, and we exchanged places between us now and then.
It was June 6, a very hot and sunny day.
The passengers at the back included, other than Mumtaz, two men, two chador-clad women who apparently “belonged” to the two men; two more men, and a goat that belonged to one of them. They all stood in the open jeep under the blazing June sun.
Of the two female passengers, you could make out from the contours of their chadors that one was slightly built and the other was on the heavier side. It was tough enough for anyone to stand in the June sun for two hours on a bumpy ride; it must have been doubly so for those women, fully covered as they were in chadors, with only their eyes showing.
On one side of the track was the mountain, with scattered mud houses dotting the slope and a few goats grazing at the thorny bushes. On the other side, down a sheer drop, hundreds of feet below flowed the Indus River.
There were numerous sharp turns. It was like climbing up steep and winding stairs, the vehicle lurching from one step to the next. At some places, the turns were so sharp that the driver had to back up the vehicle a bit, pushing the back wheels to the edge of the precipice, and then move forward. At every turn, the passengers tumbled and clutched at whatever they could lay their hands on — mostly each other, or the goat — and mumbled a prayer.
At one particularly sharp bend, as the jeep jolted and rocked, one of the two women, the heavier one, lost her balance and fell forward — into the arms of Mumtaz, standing opposite her. She quickly withdrew herself from the embrace, recovered her balance, adjusted her chador, and stood as invisibly as before. One could not tell how she must have felt inside. Mumtaz, on the other side though, looked amused, having absorbed the impact gallantly into his arms. The goat, unmoved, just flapped her ears. Everyone else kept a straight face as if nothing had happened. Obviously, they were all used to the rocky journey.
Halfway up the track, I noticed a large signboard, which looked like a traffic sign. From the distance, I couldn’t read it but guessed that it must be a warning of another sharp turn ahead or some safety advice for the drivers. I wondered at the thoughtfulness of whoever had taken the pains to put up a traffic sign on such a desolate track with hardly any traffic on it. MMA’s administration was not that bad after all, I grudgingly conceded to myself.
When we came closer, however, and were able to read the sign, it said:
! یہاں گانا بجانا منع ہے
بحکم اسسٹنٹ کمشنر اوگی
“Playing music is prohibited here! By the order of Assistant Commissioner Oghi”
And there were two more similar signs on the way up.
My cousin’s advice that I should come wearing shalwar-qameez rather than western trousers began to make sense now.
When our jeep reached the village, there were women and children standing on rooftops to watch the visitors from “Down Below”, a term used locally for any city in the plains. It was clear that the news of our visit had reached the village much before we did.
Alamzeb was there to receive us, as were the kids from the village who gathered around the jeep to watch us alight and then followed us, out of sheer curiosity, all the way to Alamzeb’s doorstep.
Our anxiety from the ride up the tortuous track had left us very hungry. Stress does that.
True to the spirit of rural hospitality, Alamzeb’s wife immediately set to work in the kitchen and made parathas, eggs, and tea for us. We gobbled up the parathas as fast as they came. Parathas had never tasted so good. We ate so many — the three of us — that the poor woman in the kitchen ran out of dough and had to knead a fresh batch to make some more.
Having gorged up on parathas, we spent a couple of hours going around the village, shaking hands with several people who came out to greet us. Alamzeb proudly showed us his rain-fed land, mostly inherited. His newly planted corn crop seemed to be struggling a bit for lack of water. The rains were still a few weeks away.
The view from the mountaintop was panoramic. The scattered hamlets and pine groves dotted the mountain slopes, the Indus meandered its way silently through the narrow valley a couple of thousand feet below. We could see the occasional surf raised by its racing waters but not hear its roar.
All this time, while we enjoyed the sights, the dread of driving down the same track on which we had come up kept haunting me. Finally, when we did leave, the drive back didn’t feel as hazardous. Probably, driving up the track had taken some fear out of us. Familiarity, even if it doesn’t breed contempt, does make things look less fearsome.
After a day or two, I rang up Alamzeb from Islamabad to thank him for his hospitality and tell him that we had enjoyed the trip. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, he had an interesting bit to share with me. Soon after we had left, he said, a few village elders came to see him and expressed their suspicion over the purpose of our visit. “Your cousins”, they told him, “had not come all the way from ‘Down Under’ just to see you but, most likely, to claim a share of your land.” (Not an uncommon practice in the area, and cause of disputes between cousins.)
We both laughed at it, and I assured him that I wouldn’t claim a share of his land unless I could hitch a free helicopter ride to visit the place now and then. And, in any case, I would not be interested in a place where playing music was banned.