At nearly 55, there have been many such moments when life came full circle, or when the dreams dreamt in empty rooms painted themselves across the walls of a sky luminescent with possibility.
Returning to Gilgit Baltistan 11 years after the passing of a woman who had given me birth, nurtured me, prepared me to face life alone, taught me to listen to voices unheard, showed me compassion and kindness in her slightest actions, was like coming full circle.
I was now my own mother, reaching out to those whose stories are little known, whose lives were of little consequence to this and that planning department, and whose deaths remained unsung, unacknowledged. It did not matter this time that I carved out my own path in a country where women are not entitled to travel this journey of life alone. Without realising it, the ties that bind us as human beings on similar journeys proved strong enough to bridge the many chasms that mark our way on an often treacherous passage. Certainly, for a woman to travel alone into valleys where men move in packs would have been near impossible had support not been gratefully received from the learned and gracious home secretary and debonair and efficient deputy commissioner of Gilgit.
There comes a time in life when all things seem to converge in a space carved out especially for reflection and wonderment
Encouraged by their enthusiasm for the work I was about to begin, I had put away my concerns and taken the journey into the unknown with a sense that there were, indeed, those who stood by me even when those closest in blood had abandoned me long ago. It was like finding small beacons of light on a dark night, leading me onto a path I had seen in a dream but which dissipated in waking hours. Surely, I must have done some kindness in my life to deserve the friendship of these gentlemen and their families; surely one is never totally alone.
The valleys of District Ghizer had always called to me, unexplored yet, and beckoning with their many legends about fairies and giants and dashing Englishmen who dared to traverse these paths long before they were paved over with tarmac. Imagine my surprise then, that at my first stop in the district headquarter of Gahkuch, I am received by a group of about 20 women led by Syed Noor Hussein, a resident of the village where I am to conduct my research. The women garland me, present me with bouquets of fragrant roses picked from their own gardens, and then talk to me about the issues I have wanted to understand ever since the DC of Ghizer had called me several years ago to report the unusually high incidence of female suicide in the area. It is a welcome committee, embracing me and accepting me, inviting me into their homes and lives.
The issue of suicide is clearly a sensitive one — to take one’s own life requires courage and desperation. It also suggests the deep sense of isolation a person feels when unable to reach out to others who may be able to help in resolving the issue or at least mitigating the sense of solitude. Why is it that so many young women in Ghizer and Hunza felt compelled to take their own lives when they were ready to step over the threshold and enter the world as educated adults? Could it be that education itself had provided the window through which they could see the world, but that tradition had not provided the door through which they could step out into that world? These were the questions I had wanted to ask. The answers were stunning, not necessarily unexpected, but troubling indeed, for each response spoke of the conflict between tradition and modernity, the struggle between desire, duty and denial, the huge chasm between yesterday and today. Young girls wanted to make decisions for themselves, to receive further education in cities of the south, to marry men of their own choice, to live life on terms which had been taught to them through opportunities that parents had struggled to provide.
Very little of that was possible in a society still ridden with patriarchal notions and steeped in traditional beliefs. In my first meeting with these women I was shown a research paper by my host in Gahkuch, a dynamic activist who spoke on behalf of the underprivileged and who provided a safe place for young girls to stay while receiving an education away from their homes. Moosa Madad’s research focused on the traditional beliefs associated with a huge “door” which seemed to have been carved out of the mountainside in a town further north called Gupis. This “door”, over 100 feet high, is known as the Char-toi darwaza, and supposedly leads to the fortress of the fairies who live inside the mountain. Women must never walk near this door, especially if they are wearing red or green. A young bride must stroke a chicken’s back before it is slaughtered to propitiate the fairies who would wreak havoc if this sacrifice is not made, possessing the bride but sparing the groom. A woman who chooses to eat the flesh of a sacrificed chicken shall never be able to bear a male child, and shall suffer greatly for that. Always, it was women whom the fairies would visit, making life a veritable hell for those who transgressed traditional belief. Men were largely spared the wrath of the fairies, perhaps because it may have been men who came up with the legends in the first place.
My research shall now take on other dimensions, compelling me to give up the many other things that bridge my life between waking and sleeping. I shall be returning to the valleys again, this time in autumn, when the leaves on the poplar trees have turned to gold and the air from the peaks is glacial. I shall climb to the doorway of Char-toi and wear red and green, and I shall eat the flesh of a chicken slaughtered on a rock below in the village of Hamar Das, blood congealed on the stone to mark it forever. I shall do all this to show the women of Ghizer that it is, indeed, possible to walk alone, holding one’s head up high, looking life squarely in the eyes and staring death in its face. I shall do it for the young girls whose lives were cut short only because they were women in a world where heaven apparently lies at our feet but where the space to live our lives to the fullest has been shut behind doors carved into massive mountainsides, shutting out the sunlight and possibility forever.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, July 27th, 2014