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I often dream about long journeys that may bring my dreams to life; dreams of far-flung lakes, of colours, of people, of scenic beauty and starry-nights, which appear only at the end of a tiresome trail. These dreams have also often taken me on quests to seek answers.
I like to view my life as multiple voyages: the first is a physical one that requires me to walk the earth, the second is a journey from known to unknown. There is another journey that leaves one emotionally fatigued, and it is a need to form and nurture relationships.
For me, the thought of new voyages is very refreshing. The North Wind holds you in thrall at your first visit (to the northern areas of Pakistan); subsequently, it keeps whispering in your ear to come back. You remember the blue sky of the day, the black cloak of the night embroidered with glittering stars, and the breeze dancing over the river in summertime; its scent can leave you intoxicated.
From the end of October to the beginning of April, gales carry away the leaves; this is the windy season in the North. These fragrant winds have an effect of their own, but it is the North Wind that enthralls you and does unto you what it does unto trees: sometimes it leaves you blossoming with the colour and vitality of spring; and at other times it brings to you the ashen sadness of autumn.
In cities, at workplaces and houses, during meetings with relatives or friends, and in bazaars, we are always occupied saying something or hearing something, without allowing any real communication to take place.
A humdrum routine begins from dawn, and chases us throughout the day, exhausting all our energies.
We want to escape the pressures — the need to find resolutions, the need for dialogue, and to find solitude in Mother Nature, which would rejuvenate us to cope up with friends, relations, and the stress of city life once again.
If one is constrained by the need to earn a living, one would not have the freedom to travel anywhere at any given time. But with the change of seasons, a scene unfolds near my city which draws upon the beauty of the Northern Areas and consoles me.
From mid-February to mid-March, when the rains wash away the dust and smog, the mountain range of Pir Panjal looks very clear and so close as if the mountains were located at a distance of only a few kilometers. They can be seen from any place between Gujrat and Narowal.
For the rest of the year, air pollution takes this gratification away from us. When seasonal rains improve visibility, the dark snow-capped mountains would appear as if God had pegged nails deep into the earth.
They have peaks as high as 6,000 meters. In summer, the snow melts and they stand bare.
Sialkot, a city standing near the banks of River Chenab, is also known as the centre of artisans. Perhaps, not only the soils straddling this river, but also the people living near its banks owe their fertility to Chenab. Iqbal, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Shev Kumar Batalvi, and many other fertile minds have their roots here.
The River Chenab flows from Marala, 24 kilometres from the city of Sialkot. I’m always drawn towards rivers but the kind of love I feel for Chenab cannot be explained with words alone. As a denizen of Sialkot, I enjoy the privilege of stepping out in clear weather to speak to the River Chenab and behold, to my heart’s content, the majesty of snow-capped mountains visible in its backdrop; thus, reliving the experience of the North in my own city.
The river of the lovers, Chenab, still carries the clay that once formed Sohni’s gharha (earthenware pot). The river begins its journey in the mountains of Jammu as a small rivulet known as Chandrabhaga across the border.
In the Himalayas, the melting snow joins the rivulet, slowly transforming it into a full flowing river. By the time it reaches the plains of Punjab, Chandrabhaga gives its name to Chenab.
At the head, the River Jhelum joins in, and then further downstream Ravi and Sutlej also fall into the Chenab. This huge river is then swallowed by the great River Indus, which leads all these waters towards the Arabian Sea.
Along its 1,000 kilometre long journey, Chenab nourishes several towns and villages. It carries silt from Kashmir and clay from Sohni’s earthenware pot, its banks bear witness to many tales of love, including Ranjha’s, who once oared his boat in Chenab. Sohni drowned during the attempt to swim across the river to meet her lover, Mahiwal but she lives on in folklores. The flow of Chenab reminds me of a couplet by Mustafa Zaidi:
Kachay garhay ne jeet li naddi charhi hui mazboot kashtion ko kinara nahe mila
The earthenware pot triumphed over the stormy river Where strongly-built boats failed to find a landing
In mid-February, fertile lands near the river are covered with the blossoming flower of mustard plants. I walk among the yellow flowers, on a pathway between the fields, basking under the warm sun and looking at the snow-capped peaks in Kashmir. Their beauty takes me to another world. It is a time of the year when farmers have many tasks to accomplish and men and women can be seen working in the fields.
Sometimes, sunflowers add colour to the scenic landscape and flocks of birds find respite in the Chenab after flying for hours. They have migrated all the way from Siberia to this warmer part of the world. Among them are many subspecies of koonjs (cranes). Then, there are the geese with their long legs; standing on just one, hiding the other underneath their feathers, tilting their heads in silence as if meditating. I feel myself becoming a part of this vast, beautiful painting.
I have spent countless days and nights on the riverbanks of Chenab. Sometimes the river would play its melodious tunes to me, at other times I would shed my tears into its waters.
I like watching the boats row under the setting sun. Folklores have developed a strange taxonomy for these rivers: Chenab is the river of lovers, Ravi is the river of connoisseurs, and Indus is the river of the faithful. I often return to the river of lovers, but the fog of winter mornings would wrap everything in its haze, making the river lose its colour, appearing stagnant.
There is a boatman, Waris, who earns his living by rowing a boat on Chenab. The sun was setting, when I first met him. Waris, the boatman, has deeper ravines of anguish than the depths of Chenab, a middle-aged man with black hair and a grey beard. He is losing his eyesight, and his face is wrinkled.
A few moments ago, the sun had set on Chenab, painting the clouds a deep red. The boatmen were anchoring their boats. I had packed up my camera and was planning to leave after smoking a cigarette, when Waris came to me after he had dropped the anchor. He first inquired after my health and then asked for a cigarette.
I wanted to know more about his profession. Waris began to speak his heart out. Perhaps, he had not spoken for ages. When we got tired, he unfurled his turban and laid it out on the sand — his makeshift seating arrangement for the two of us.
The old man told me that he had rowed a boat in Jhang for 20 years. He had built it himself. But when Jhang descended into sectarian violence, miscreants burnt down his house, killing one of his daughters and his only son, his wife had already died. The old man left Jhang for good, taking his remaining three daughters with him, and arrived in Sialkot.
Now he rows a boat in Chenab and earns 400 to 500 rupees a day to feed his daughters. He talked at length about his sufferings, his concerns about his daughters, his unsteady income, and about the river Chenab for about an hour. During this one hour, his eyes alternately flooded with tears or beamed with joy several times.
I thought it was grief that connected one human being to another. There are millions of people like Waris the boatman, suffering in this heartless world.
If you go to Marala from Sialkot, a road runs along a canal, branching out from Chenab. The thick mango trees, lining the canal cool this road in summer.There are yellow, blue, and purple wild flowers everywhere. You can see swarms of butterflies circling around wild flowers.
The stretch of land from the outskirts of Sialkot to Marala is a sight to behold. If the weather permits, one could put a chair in the fields, sit and drink several cups of coffee just to enjoy the scenic views.
Once, some nomads set up their tents to stay in this area ; one of those tents captured my attention because it was set up a few yards away from the rest, as if its occupants had been cast out by the community.
One early morning, on the way to Marala, I stopped my motorcycle near that particular tent to have a look. It was 8’o clock in the morning but the day was not as bright as usual, due to thick fog. One corner of the tent had been rolled up, the other drawn down, as if a widow was attempting to veil her face. From the rolled up corner it was possible to see inside, where two charpoys (cots) could be seen. A water container lay nearby; outside the tent a couple and their three children sat in a circle.
The woman was making rotis (flatbread) on one of the two earthen stoves; a pan had been put over the other, perhaps, to brew tea. With brief intervals, the woman would blow air from her mouth to reignite the flame; the smoke would lift with the steam from the tea pot.
The man and his three children were sitting on shabby cane stools (moorhas). The children were very young and wore thick caps, which also covered their ears. The man had wrapped himself in a dirty shawl. They were trying to keep their hands warm with the fire from the stoves.
Perhaps, this was just an ordinary day for them. They were oblivious to the passersby, engrossed in their routine. The man would laugh a carefree laugh every few minutes.
From a distance, I could not make out what they were saying but I believed it was just gossip over breakfast. I watched their harmony for a few minutes before revving my motorbike. There was fog above that tent, on the road, in the sky, everywhere.
It rained for three consecutive days. I got tired of sitting at home during the weekend, and decided to roam around on my motorbike. On the way to Marala, I stopped my red Yamaha before the same tent again. The corners of the tent were in the same position as before; one rolled up, the other drawn down.
Both the man and the woman were not present. The tent had been covered with an orange plastic sheet to keep the rain out. On the threshold of the tent, two children stood with gloomy, drawn faces. Outside, the earthen stoves had broken and their clay was being washed away by rain water. I wondered if they had been able to cook food for the past three days under such hostile weather conditions.
Then one day in March, the sun was shining bright and everything was basked in its soft golden hue. Around 7am, I halted my motorbike near the tent. Its opening was covered now. Outside, a makeshift washing line had been erected, and a few colourful dresses hung along the wire.
The earthen stove had been rebuilt; its freshly smoothed clay indicated that the repair was recent. None of the family members could be seen. Perhaps, they were all sleeping inside. Reed grew around the tent, which could be cut and bundled to make brooms to sweep floors. Sparrows were perched on blades of grass, making them swing under their light weight. The gaze of the sun was ubiquitous.
In April, when spring came, I found the place that once housed that tent, empty. The earthen stove had been dismantled. The tent-settlement nearby was also gone, and so were the people who lived there. I found out that the government had evicted the nomads.
They were forced to migrate. The gypsy woman, along with her husband and children, had gone to a new place to build a new earthen stove and reignite its flames with her breath. The entire surrounding, the road, the sky seemed to have grown barren. As I resumed my journey, a tear drop fell from my eye and flew with the breeze.
On that particular day, too, a strong wind blew over the river. Whether you journey to the Northern Areas or to the outskirts of your own city, a breeze always accompanies you.
I feel as if the sound of breeze is the song of death, I believe this breeze is responsible for all separations, tales of love, sadness and defeats. Long live the breeze.
It is this light wind that spreads songs and fragrances all over the world. It is this breeze that carries with it the cries of anguished souls. In the night, when the moon seems to hide behind the clouds, it is the breeze that tugs at the clouds to veil and unveil the face of the moon.
Away from cities, towns, and villages, I watch this play and Nature reveals several closely-guarded secrets to him: neither you, nor I exist; it is only the breeze on an eternal journey.
At Marala, the combined mesmerising force of Chenab and the breeze makes your heart shudder like a helpless leaf, until it eventually breaks. It reminds me of two couplets by Munir Niazi:
Safar main hai jo azal se, ye woh bala hi na ho
Kiwaar khol ke na dekho, kahin hawa hi na ho
Na ja ke is se parey dasht e marg ho shayad
Palatna chahein wahan se, to rasta hi na ho
All photos by author | Translated by Arif Anjum from the original in Urdu here.
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