"The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still ... " — Maya Angelou.
The road disappears into a haze that shimmers like a mirage, deluding the traveller to believe that the journey is almost at its end. In Chilas, many journeys begin and end in an area of greyness where the only certainty is the desolation which broods over the valley like a broken promise.
In Chilas, where the DiamerBasha Dam is planned, the earth seems to have turned inside out, massive mountains formed of glacial moraine, barren black rock littered all over the slopes as if a massive upheaval had thrown them out from the underbelly of the planet. Interviewing families for research on development induced displacement, I could not invite women to my hotel, for that would bring shame onto the men who reposed their sense of honour in the bodies of these women, men’s bodies perhaps not deemed fit to contain a sense of collective respectability. I would visit them in the shadows of the short evenings made shorter by winter’s lengthening nights, my breath shallow from the cold, my heart timorous and quiet, listening to the stories which would unfold like the river flowing silently below. And I would stay long into the night, unable to leave these women in the cocoons of safety their crowded homes provided for them. Only daylight, breaking over the most magnificent peaks in the world, crimson sun reflecting off the snow-capped surfaces of craggy rock, would reveal the horror of those “safe spaces”, where death lurked behind every wall, waiting, biding its time to claim yet another woman, dying while giving life to a child, sometimes killed to avenge family honour.
For respite from the sadness of these stories, and for the warmth of the District Commissioner’s wife and her bukhari stoked with precious kindling, I would spend evenings at the 19th century colonial bungalow named “Journey’s End” by the last DC of the British Era. We would talk of the child she was expecting, of her marriage to the dashing young officer who had offered his protection to me when the going got rough and the clergy of Chilas pronounced a fatwa against me, protecting the moral order of a Paleolithic existence. We would sip fragrant kahwa and enjoy the crisp chilghoza harvested from the district’s remaining pine trees, and she would tell me more stories, about the death and the despair, about the desolation of this valley. Reluctantly I would head “home” to the sub-zero temperatures of my hotel with no heating, no hot water, no electricity, often no food. I would write down what I had learnt that day from my interview subjects amongst the itinerant Soniwal or gold-panners, the nomadic Gujjar and Dom tribes, pushed into inhospitable spaces by the more powerful Shin and Yashkun. And I would try to sleep, wearing socks on my hands to keep them from freezing and wrapping my head in a muffler, trying to keep the sadness out.
Then came time to go, to bid farewell to this harsh land. I had packed my books and camera and the dried fruit gifted to me and was ready to board the jeep that would drive me back along the Karakoram Highway, past this and that hamlet and half-empty bazaar full of privation to the sprawling privilege of our capital. Just as I left the hotel reception, a young clerk came running after me. He had a small package for me. He said it was from his sister, whom I had visited a few evenings before. I opened the package — it was an exquisite beaded choker, the colours of the glass beads bleeding into each other. She had made it especially for me, the young man said, lowering his gaze in diffidence. I thanked him, telling him I would see her the next season, once the snow had melted and spring had visited the valley. We said our goodbyes and I left, a whisper of unease following me on my journey home.
The next year, when the snows had melted and the valley had sprung back to life, I was prohibited by the district administration from returning as my presence had incensed the clergy and local elite who saw me as an agent of transgression. I called the young clerk at the hotel where I would always stay to cancel my booking. I asked about his sister. He told me she was no more, killed by his elder brother for daring to sing in the small courtyard of their home, welcoming the first summer rain, celebrating the life which had emerged from the belly of this desolate, desperate land. I knew then I was probably never to return to that valley, that for me, like her and countless others, the journey had ended, the road ahead just an illusion, a mirage in the distance, flanked by relentless rock which stood guard over a people condemned by their own to lives of unyielding sorrow.