Under the hanging bridge, the dense greyish-green waters of Neelum River vigorously flowed. Naassirr stepped closer to let me hear him. His shrill nasal voice made a feeble attempt to pierce through the river’s roar. He was a lean fair-skinned boy, hardly twelve, with protruding teeth and a tiny flat nose.
“You have your ID na , bhai ?” he asked in Hindko, looking at the check-post ahead, his voice barely reaching me. As I pulled my identity card out of my wallet, a coin shoved deep in it popped out. Following a few wobbles, it rolled off the rickety bridge towards the berserk river. I picked up a tiny stone, raised it beyond the rope railing, and released it.
Ever since I had left Dowarian, Neelum’s burble by my side started to captivate me. While crossing the bridge leading to Sharda, I saw its raging waves through the interstices between the wooden planks that the bridge comprised. I had been overcome by a fierce desire to plunge into the river, to imbibe its torrential verve, to surrender my inert existence to its vibrant waves.
The stone disappeared.
I asked Naassirr if the locals ever swam in Neelum.
“Naa , bhai! The water is extremely cold!” he replied, persisting with Hindko as I had requested him to. He had changed my opinion that Hindko was just Punjabi spoken with a Pashto intonation.
“I have a wetsuit.”
“Hehe! The current is too strong at this time [of the year]…and what about these buttay ?”
I saw a series of waves pounding a large boulder, reducing to white foamy splashes. The sage-green water purled as it rolled around the monster.
“Do these rocks ever flow away with the river?” I asked Naassirr.
“Ainwaeen ?! They’re far too strong!”
I wondered how glorious it was to thwart something indefinitely: to survive with a constant burden of being, to be so deeply solitary in a surface rebellion. Despite being of the same kin, my stone would simply flow past that boulder— to rest in Neelum for eternity.
Crossing the check-post, I showed my ID and the kid simply pointed to the Pakistan flag printed on his shirt. We turned rightwards on to a track of gravelly soil, marking the start of our trek to Arang Kel. The track was bordered on one side by a mammoth hill draped by lush greenery and studded with giant poplars standing tall,– deodars with splayed arms. On the other side was a steep escarpment— interspersed by shrubs and trees, some extending well above the track. Through the apertures between the trees, I saw gorgeous vistas of verdure spread till the horizon, striped by the ridges of smaller hills.
My phone buzzed; it was Sarah. “Dnt forget… there’s so much positi—” I locked and pocketed the phone.
Across the river, the springs that had periodically come to quench my thirst now seemed like tiny white lines piercing through the shroud of the dense fir forest. The dhaba where I had had tea appeared to be a conical brown spot, tiny specks bustling about it.
While my gaze wandered in all dimensions, my hearing perceived but one sound: the velvety rumble of Neelum, punctuated by sporadic surges in the current that felt every bit as alluring as they were menacing.
“Watch out, bhai!” Naassirr exclaimed, holding my arm.
“You almost fell over, what else! Keep to the left, bhai.”
“How long will the hike be?” I asked instead.
“Aehh… Around two hours for you.”
“Heh, and for yourself?”
“If [there’s] no urgency, quarter of an hour.”
Even though we were now at a distance from Neelum, its roar was unaffected. It did not seem as enigmatic now that our ancestors used to worship rivers.
Naassirr said something in Hindko as I took a water break.
“Don’t drink so much, bhai,” he repeated in Urdu.
Plodding a bit further, we reached a glade where the grass was just long enough to sway gently with the breeze but not hamper one’s feet. In front, there were dark green shrubs of medium height, so dense as to relinquish their individuality and melt into one another’s greenness. On my left was a broad strip of woodland, comprising clumps of tall poplars that seemed as ancient as the earth they were rooted in.
I lay down on a tussock, the back of my head immersing in a cushion of the soft grass as its blades caressed the openings of my ears. Dappled streaks of cirrus clouds stretched across the azure sky— the shade of blue I had never seen in the heavens before. The afternoon sun, concealed by Hari Parbat, shone mildly.
Naassirr sat motionless, blinking sparingly, facing the mountain across the river.
“People here sit and stare a lot, no?” I asked in my broken Hindko.
“Haha! What else do we [ought to] do? There is no mobile [phone] or TV.”
I could not discern whether he meant it wistfully or sarcastically.
“Fewer things to worry about!” I switched to Punjabi again.
We heard faint bleating of sheep from behind, which was deadened by a long booming female cry: “Haaaaah!”
Shortly, the deadener appeared: a fairly tall girl with a slender and lithe frame but broad shoulders. Her cheeks were dappled in the centre by pink flecks that seemed to make a floral pattern on the waxen canvas of her face. She had large limpid eyes of amber hue that gazed at everything with the serene certainty of a deity. The fringe of her lashes fluttered and seemed to peck on the curve of her cheeks as she looked around the glade, counting the animals. Stray wisps of her dark hair slipped out of her kasabah that was adorned with diamond-shaped motifs of various colours: white, celadon green, pink, silver, and so forth. From the back of the kasabah, fell a sort of cape that barely covered her long graceful neck, the hollows of which deepened and filled as she breathed. She looked just under seventeen, almost in bloom, but the dew of adolescence still lingered on her petals.
She wore a stark black phiran with numerous intermingling rows of tiny celadon green beads sewn on it. On its bodice was embroidered a U-shaped pattern studded with red plastic beads in a zigzag manner. The placket of the shirt, covered with the same diamond motifs, was surrounded by the embroidered U from three sides.
Below the loose-fitting phiran, she wore a baggy suthan that was threaded with meandering lines of red.
“Haaaaah!” the shepherdess repeated as she flailed a straying goat with her two-pronged cane. It is incorrect to call her a shepherdess, since most of her animals were goats— the mountainous goats of Kashmir with long furry hair, afraid less of the escarpment and more of the herder’s cane.
“Jaatukeyaa !” she shouted, still approaching us, looking at Naassirr.
“Tareemtay !” the boy replied.
Followed her a similarly dressed woman in her late forties, with a singed complexion and interwoven wrinkles around her eyes. She was the floret’s aunt. The three exchanged greetings— perhaps in the Gujari dialect, for I could not understand a thing.
“Do you know her?” I asked.
“Aehh… they are shepherd,” Naassirr said in English, “not local. Here in season for grass.”
The young herder’s sparkling eyes paid me a cursory glance as she ambled across the glade, letting her animals graze.
“Salaam! Are you from here?” I regurgitated the Hindko phrase I had remembered.
“Uhh…” she began, taking a quick look at her aunt, “we [people] are from… everywhere– and from nowhere.” I found myself slightly more alien to her parlance than to Naassirr’s.
“Heh, [that’s] amazing!”
“You [are] from La-‘aur?” she asked.
“Yes, from Lahore. How can you tell?”
“Uhh… How you talk…” Her Punjabi was much better than my Hindko, so we shifted to my language.
“Have you been there?”
“My bhirraa lives there,” the woman spoke.
“He is the only one in the family who… speaks like… so,” the pert teenager said, mock-gaping. A round of laughter followed.
“Naassirr, do I talk like that?”
“Aehh… you are just a bit… loud, bhai.” He sucked in his lips to hide his protruding teeth.
“Hah, it’s because of the noise of the river! You I could barely hear.”
She said something to Naassirr in dialect and they all chortled.
After a while, as the aunt went to the nearby spring, I asked the girl her name.
A half-bloomed smile curled her lips as she faintly flushed. “Why?”
“To address you.”
“What’s the need; you’re talking still,” she replied, tittering.
When they gathered their herd and resumed ascent, Naassirr and I followed.
Neelum’s roar seemed to be dwindling now.
As we scaled the steep winding incline, the track kept getting thinner and the escarpment appeared steeper. On our left, there was a cleft in the mountain large enough to resemble a cave opening. I hankered to touch its inner depths; how dark and tranquil it seemed in there! No sooner had I begun to crawl towards it than Naassirr exclaimed, “It could be a den of snakes, bhai!”
As I inched forwards, the budding beaut raised her cane towards me and screamed mockingly, “Haah!” The sound of her vibrant yet silvery laugh echoed from the cleft and resonated across the valley.
Her aunt shouted something in dialect, after which my herder suddenly got extinguished and resumed the hike. I followed.
“How much [of the journey] left?” I asked Naassirr.
“Got tired, bhai?” he smiled. “We’re [almost] there. Give this bag to me?”
“No, no. I’m perfectly all right.”
“How long will you stay [at Arang Kel], bhai?”
“One day, I think.”
“[Most] people stay even one week!”
“Wah ! But I have to finish something off before Monday.”
“Uchha , please leave that fissure now, bhai. Look in front!”
My phone buzzed again; I cleared my inbox.
“[We] need to hurry. Have to find a room too,” Naassirr said.
“Oh, I’m just keeping pace with our new friends.”
“As you wish… but we might be a bit late.”
It was getting breezier with the ascent. The occasional gust of wind would press her silken phiran against her body, accentuating the tiny hollow of her navel. There was a bug crawling across her shirt, finally finding that pit to rest in— only to be frightened off shortly. Every time the wind blew, she would pull her phiran away from her belly and adjust her headgear. Whenever she slid the cap of her kasabah forwards, the rectangular cape at the back got lifted slightly above the concave neckline of the shirt, revealing an exquisite white crescent of her nape. As the sun sank, that crescent with tiny pink flecks flashed intermittently, brightly, piercing through the stark blackness of her cloak.
“What do you do, other than herding goats?” I asked.
She chuckled and turned towards me, her brows furrowing quizzically. “What else! We are Gujjars; we rear livestock, milk them, sell them.”
“We come here in summer; we live near Muzaffarabad, waissay ,” her aunt replied in half-dialect.
“What do you do… in La-‘aur?” the filly asked, sticking to my mother tongue.
“I work at a bank.”
“Uchha…” There was a pause of a few paces. “Waissay, what happens in these banks?” she asked.
“Well, people keep their money there to keep it safe.”
“From the thieves, robbers, you know.”
“Uhh… and how do you keep safe your cars and – what’s it – furneetcher , and all the monsters you people have?” She giggled, and glanced at Naassirr, who grinned to share her amusement.
“Heh, there are other ways; insurance and all.”
“Maassi , all this employment, thanks to the merciful thieves!”
“That’s why Baa’la can’t sleep at night,” her aunt scoffed.
“Haha, who knows maam’ma might be one of the thieves!”
Finally, the trek came to an end. Arang Kel’s breathtaking scenery came into view as my eyeline rose above the plateau. Vast swathes of forest-green decked with exotic wild flowers ran up to the lofty hills that surrounded the village from three sides. Brightly and distinctly coloured cottages with sloping roofs were strewn all across the area, their eaves extending well beyond the walls. Wisps of steam rose from each chimney, curling and diminishing in the air.
As I was making a panoramic video, I saw a huge tractor loaded with logs.
“How did that get here?” I looked at Naassirr quizzically, as the only way to Arang Kel was barely wide enough to walk on.
“Hehe… people must be wondering the same about you,” she said, chortling.
“They assembled the parts here, bhai,” Naassirr explained.
“What are you filming?” she asked, looking with furrowed brows at where my camera focussed.
“See how the shade of green lightens from the deodars on the ground to the shrubs on the mountain, and then to the plain white snow at the top. Only those pines are an oddity!”
“It is [an oddity to you] because you forcibly see it all as one and haul out patterns. Waissay, they are all distinct and beautiful.”
“In fact, you only see what this shows you,” she said, giggling and pointing to the camera.
The sun was turning crimson red behind Hari Parbat as we sauntered around the plateau. At some distance, there was a ring of tree stumps. Each of us slumped against one and some of the villagers, hospitable as they were, offered us tea.
“Naassirr, isn’t there a graveyard in this village?” I asked.
“Haww , bulda chu’anta dey’saanh mu’hay !” the fiery girl interposed— her lolled head straightening and her clear brown eyes glowering at me.
“What?” I muttered.
“How you [can] think of such a [macabre] thing…” she exclaimed, raising her open palm so that her fingers pointed to the landscape, “in such a place!”
Naassirr said something loudly in dialect, to which she retorted vehemently, the lovely flame of her cheeks erupting. Her soft voice felt even more mellifluous as it grew louder, catching the attention of the men at the camp facility.
The singed woman took her away to the nearby spring where the little firewood of a girl drank water from the furrow of her palm.
The aunt then washed her face as the fey floweret sat contemplating Hari Parbat in the distance; the last remnants of evening light streamed languidly into her eyes, making them assume a soft tint of yellowish gold. She was gulping the fresh air through her pursed lips, moistening them every now and then with her rosy tongue. A light catabatic wind emanated from the mountain at the east end of the plateau and grazed past her earlobes, setting her dangling earrings rocking. The magnificent crescent of her nape was now permanently aglow as she leaned towards her maassi. The occasional glance she cast at me bit into my soul when her eyes turned back to her chaperone.
Naassirr accompanied me as I arranged lodging and put my rucksack in the camp. He was supposed to stay with me but said he needed to run some errands back in Kel. Despite this little breach, I hugged the boy and paid him two thousand rupees. He bade goodbye to the herders before rambling down the track, the blue notes still in his hand.
I strolled towards the nomads.
“Where are you going to stay?”
“There,” she pointed vaguely towards a faraway hamlet.
“You managed?” her aunt interjected, to which I nodded.
“Chalo , good. It isn’t always [that] you get [a vacant room],” she replied, pointing to the camp facility.
The wrinkled woman said something in dialect, glancing heavenwards, and they both stood up. The aunt began to gather the goats and the nestling finally came away.
“How much did you give to the jaatuk?” she asked with a faint smile, looking downwards.
“It was a job of [worth] two hundred [rupees],” she said softly.
“So? Maybe I felt it was worth more.”
“Not everyone gives hazaaraan , saa’b ji !”
“That’s not my fault na,” I said, smiling at her.
“Aa’ho !” her eyes glinted with excitement, “See… you hiked till here. If a disabled person was brought here by chairlift and left here?”
“You’re equating Naassirr with a cripple?”
“This makes people [cripples], saa’b ji,” she pointed to my wallet.
A few paces away there were strips of exquisite wild flowers, out of which she started picking some of one kind; some obscure pocket of her phiran embraced them.
The bloom had five broad incurved petals ablaze with yellow hue, slightly overlapping each other, their horizontal curves fusing into a fiery bowl. Its saffron-coloured stigma shot up right from the middle and split into an exquisite bunch of numerous strands with maroon heads that formed a bloom of their own.
“Wah, what’s the name of this flower?”
“Pinli,” she said, without looking at me.
“Pinn’lee…? What does it mean?”
“Pinli! It’s a name. What does gulaab mean?”
Her cheeks bloomed into a smile, their insides making a plocking sound as they parted from her gums.
An insect flew towards the flower and slumped into the lap of a petal of its. The little mite’s legs quivered with joy as it lay on its back.
Her hand advanced towards the inhabited flower; my heart throbbed.
“Leave that one na!”
“Hain ? You want it?”
My Adam’s apple jumped slightly.
“Yes, how I’d love to stay with this Pinli!”
Her soft gaze caressed my eyes: touching in one instant and swerving in the next, blinking deferred, her eyebrows slightly lifted and lips faintly pursed– while the springs murmured, the goats whimpered, the sun sank, the horizon reddened.
“Junrheya ,” she said, a faint poignant smile coming over her lips, “it won’t survive in your plains.”
“Maybe I can survive in its hills?”
“There’s a proverb in our language:” she said, the smile widening imperceptibly, “‘First day’s guest— a bloom in the desert; second day’s guest— cause for quarrel; third day’s guest— must head back to where you belong.’”
O’dhron ee mu’rh kay jhu’l … her words echoed in my mind as she plucked the flower, scaring the insect away into obscurity.
A swift foamy spring ran beside us whose murmur had now become noticeable. She snuffled slightly and stooped down to splash some water on her face, pressing her eyelids to squeeze out the remnants from the pits of her cavernous eyes. A few pearled droplets still hung on to her long eyelashes, which she finally shed unsparingly, letting them sparkle amongst the dewdrops on the grass.
Her aunt, having collected the goats and begun moving already, frantically beckoned to her from a distance; she turned.
“Tell me your name na!”
“Zaineb,” she blurted, and hurried away, leaving her nape’s crescent to glitter in the melting twilight.
I plucked the pinli that remained, and headed to my camp.
I spent the rest of the evening sipping peppermint tea with Hummeed – custodian of the camp site – beside the fire, whose flames kept kindled in my soul my sensuous impressions of Pinli; the crackling and sputtering in the fire echoed her giggles into my deprived ears; the dark night studded amply with stars clumsily imitated her beaded phiran; the waned moon – a mere pastiche of that pink-flecked crescent – coldly gave off its wan light.
The fire leapt on to the dry twigs that Hummeed fed to it, consuming the wood with mad rage. Night had fallen. All animals were fenced; people had gone indoors; the flowerets were all engulfed by the dark. As he kneaded my limbs to relieve my sore muscles, I fell asleep. The next morning, I scoured the whole plateau for three hours with a stinging pain in my legs, bearing no flower. Hummeed suggested that I not pursue the search any longer, as the locals – extremely sensitive about their women – were getting agitated.
The following day, with a heavy heart and a plucked pinli in a water bottle, I left the fey village and headed to my urban entanglements. Until Abbottabad, I saw the life evaporate out of my pinli, its colour fading with every milestone. When I reached Lahore – in sixteen hours – the flower had woefully wilted: its petals flaccid and blotched by decay, the filaments of its stigma drooped and dispersed.
Many months later when I had to revisit Sharda, I saw those clear big eyes, the flushed cheeks of exquisite beauty lit by the flame of youth, and the graceful figure dressed in a silken phiran. She was stooped, skilfully filling water into a pot at the bank of the raging river. I took a few paces towards her.
Her eyes remained fixed on the urn as the water gurgled into the container.
The girl turned and her lips blossomed into a vague, winsome smile.