By Aurangzeb Khan
Among the so-called neurotics of our day there are a good many who in other ages would not have been neurotic — that is, divided against themselves. If they had lived in a period and in a milieu in which man was still linked by myth with the world of the ancestors, and thus with nature truly experienced and not merely seen from outside, they would have been spared this division within themselves.
– Carl Jung, Swiss psychoanalyst
When winter arrives, the village folk come down from the mountains to their villages, bringing back cattle fattened on the highland grass. Soon there will be snow, confining them to their homes. They will slaughter an ox or a goat and salt and dry its carcass — as part of Nasalo, their winter festival. This, along with fruit dried and grain harvested in summer months, will sustain them through a long, cold winter.
But before the villagers move into closed indoors, they must exorcise evil spirits that have moved in while they were away.
The spirits are quiet and secretive. From their hiding places, they are expelled through a rite of noise — villagers knocking walls and doors with a pickaxe or a rolling pin. Residents are not allowed to sleep inside their houses during exorcism because if they do, the spirits will possess them to stay on with them. The ritual done, the villagers have a feast of goli – bread rolled in butter – to declare their houses safe for habitation.
In mountain valleys of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan, communities are as disciplined and single-minded as ants. The clockwork of their lives is regulated by nature – through its bounties and scarcities, through the harsh and kind turns of seasons – as they work through summers to save for winters. Their naturalist outlook on life, and a mountain culture conceived and preserved in isolation from the rest of the world, hint at their region’s Shamanic past even when these communities have long embraced Islam. Largely symbolic than being an article of faith today, doman koh, or the rite of exorcism, is a throwback to an age covered in mists of time like the mountain peaks in clouds on a rainy day here.
Of late, though, the mountain folks have returned home to find that evil spirits have hardened themselves to withstand the ritual. Not only do they insist on staying, they demand a sacrifice far bigger than slaughtering a goat or a cockerel.
While the elders were in the mountains beseeching fairies for fecund cattle and bountiful harvest, their children left villages to get education in cities. They returned disabused of myths, divested of faith in fairies their forefathers bow to and seek counsel from in time of adversity. Drawn to the gods of globalisation – Oracle, Nike, Hermes, Mars: brands, not deities from mythology – the children have become split personalities, torn between an ancient world and a new one.
As the culture, festivals and traditions that give the locals a sense of self and sociocultural identity die so do the bonds that hold mountain communities into a cohesive whole. As those bonds die, they leave a curse behind. The locals find themselves amidst a zone where the self stands on shaky ground between the solid world it once inhabited and the virtual one that lacks a core.
The self stands lost. And there is no help from fairies in the face of an onslaught from fiends – the relentless, faceless forces unleashed by modernity, globalisation, sectarianism, radicalisation and state oppression – that snuff all hope for self-realisation.
At the altar of these raging demons, the mountain communities must sacrifice their own lives and those of their children. With a cockerel, a goat, a prayer, they cannot be allayed.
When life blooms in spring, they go to die
You would not know it from the young hopeful faces of children in school uniforms, saddled with colourful bags and holding hands as they walk to school from home through poplar-shaded streets.
You would not know it from the retired soldier, feather-crest in his pakul cap, who stops to buy muntu – dumplings made with onions and mincemeat – from a shop along the road; or from the young man wearing a jeans folded half way up his shins and a red T-shirt, leaning forward on the seat of his motorcycle, who stops along the way so he can text on his phone. You would not know it from the shadows on the tree-lined street leading up to the river, from the wind that suddenly rises in the evening as a dying sunlight lingers over peaks surrounding the valley, or from the blazing, bright afternoon that leaves eyeballs scalded, hot and itching from sunlight.
Neither would you from the child who laughs as he runs across the street, chased by a young father who plants his rosy cheeks with kisses, laughing as he tickles the child’s face with his own.
You would not because Ghizer has valleys redolent with the scent of bairer trees. Its villages resonate with the song of mayun, the golden oriole, that echoes in the small hours before dawn and seems to celebrate nature’s bounty: “the apricots are ripe, the apples are rotten,” is how local residents interpret its fragile notes.
These, as anyone would tell you, are the sights, sounds and scents of eternity. Of life as it always was and always will be — thriving and exuberant.
You only know it from a ping that makes Sharafat Ali, an Ismaili social activist who works with the youth, pick up his phone and announce anxiously: another suicide.
You do not want the news of another suicide, not here in Gahkuch town, the district headquarters of Ghizer. First, because if life and death are mutually exclusive, how can they coexist in the same space with the same intensity? Second, you have come to dread suicide as if it is a madness you might also catch.
The news reinforces observations, speculations and fears you are out to challenge and hopefully lay to rest, hoping against all hope that Ghizer’s reputation for a high rate of suicides is wrong or, at least, blown out of proportion. That the river snaking through the heart of this paradise is no serpent; that there is no worm eating into the vitals of life here; that there is no tragedy lying in wait for the village folk, like the cracks from several earthquakes in the walls of their houses that perhaps would not survive another.
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