Month: October 2017

Language Hunting in Pakistan: A Road Trip to Gilgit

It was summer 2010. After several stressful attempts over 3 years, I received a visa for a research trip to Pakistan. A plethora of investigations, letters of invitation, and even a sufarish from people with contacts in the Interior Ministry hadn’t helped. But this time the process got really smooth. I wrote an impassioned letter to the Consulate General of Pakistan in Houston explaining to him my ordeal over the years. I also sought letters from my university. And, I had a US federal grant to support my project which would document an endangered language of Pakistan. The visa arrived within weeks. I was thrilled.  

“Are you crazy?” my husband fumed when I booked my tickets. It was a lengthy tour from Texas-to-Delhi-to-Srinagar-to-Delhi-to-Lahore-to-Islamabad-to-Gilgit. and I was pregnant. But no good advice could stop me. I took my five-year old, deposited him with his grandparents in Srinagar, and returned to Delhi within two days to take the detour flight to Gilgit via Lahore and Islamabad. I would have preferred a road trip from Srinagar but for the plenty of restrictions on modes and points of entry.   

There was a prolonged wait at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. The ticketing lines for the Pakistan International Airlines were long. After waiting for sometime I started getting impatient. Just then I saw a lady dressed in an all gold attire, layers of makeup and a hairstyle that reminded me of the lead character in a Japanese television serial Oshin aired in India over two decades ago. The lady confidently cut into the line, and was cheerfully received by the men at the desk. I tried to console myself with the thought that she might be flying in the Executive class, which wasn’t true after all.

We received our boarding passes and were seated in the aircraft in a quick rush. The flight took off after the recitation of the Dua-e-safar. An airhostess came with a bundle of newspapers. I randomly pulled out Nawaay-e-Waqt. The first article that grabbed my attention on the front page was about the “48 people injured during protests” and the “three Mujahids” who had attained “shahadat” at the hands of Indian (Security) Forces in the “Maqbuza Kashmir”. I was reading the item about Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s “chest pain” on Page 12 when I saw the lady-in-golden-attire again, sitting right next to me. I stole a look at her disembarkation slip as she wrote “52 years”. I figured she too was headed to Islamabad. As we cozied up during our stopover in Lahore, she talked about her secret courtship with an unnamed Indian diplomat. “We stay in Manali whenever I visit.” Ah! “I wish I could stay longer. Going back and forth every other month — it’s hard, you know.” I wish it was that easy for the commonplace to travel across the border.

My travel agent had helped me find a hotel reservation in a “safe area” in Islamabad. After a good night’s sleep, I got ready for my flight to Gilgit next morning. When I reached the airport, I discovered that my flight had been “cancelled on account of bad weather.” Perturbed passengers started protesting about the “step-motherly treatment” to Gilgit. “They must be needing the aircraft to carry a VIP somewhere.” “They always do this to us. The weather is perfectly alright in Gilgit. They are lying.” “They treat us like second-class citizens.” My contacts in Gilgit confirmed on phone that the weather was “sunny and clear”. I was disheartened. “Please join the protest, Ma’am!” Join the protest?  

On popular demand, I did join the protest. But soon the number of people started dwindling while the officers refused to budge. Traveling to Gilgit is not an easy exercise. Besides the special permit needed to the “restricted territory”, only a handful of flights travel. Other means of transportation were limited. I did not want to lose a single day waiting in Islamabad. So, I pleaded to the officer that my visit to Gilgit was extremely important, that I could not wait for an unknown number of days. I wished I could also tell him how hard it had been to get a visa. The arrogant officer couldn’t care less.

And then I saw Sultan, my taxi-driver, with a group of European hikers, standing nearby. They were also headed to Gilgit, on a hiking expedition. Sultan suggested the group take a road trip. They offered me to join but I politely declined, considering I was five months pregnant and the journey was pretty strenuous. Sultan handed me his card “just in case”, after which the group said a “good-bye”. I went to search for my options.

The Quaid-e Azam international airport reminded me of the Old Delhi railway station — crowded and mismanaged. Anybody that I asked for help directed me to another person so I ended up moving in circles. I had no hotel reservation for another day. The trekking team for Gilgit had left and I was on my own. I went from counter-to-counter inquiring about the next possible flight to Gilgit. “We don’t know, Ma’am. It could take as long as a week.” A week? I was shocked. Finally, frustrated, I took out Sultan’s card and called his number.  “We are about 30 miles away from the airport, but we can come back and pick you up.”  Yes, yes, please! I was relieved.

The temperature was staggering hot — almost 42 degrees centigrade. We bought water bottles and some snacks in Rawalpindi. I got the best spot in the ten-seat van, right behind the driver, with an empty seat next to me where I put my backpack and my camera bag. I decided not to call home about my changed travel plans until I arrived in Gilgit lest they should panic and make ways to stop me from traveling onwards.

It was a 23-hour long journey from Islamabad to Gilgit and a bumpy road, but our high-spirited guide kept us well entertained. Beautiful songs were playing on the recorder as he showed us important points of interest on our way talking about their history and cultural significance. At around 2:00am, we reached a police checkpoint. As soon as they spotted us, a dozen policemen suddenly seemed to be on a high alert. They advised us to “wait for about three hours” before we could proceed any further. I was tired. Despite great pleading the policemen did not oblige us. “You cannot leave before 4:00 am. That is the order.”  

At 4:00am we were allowed to move forward. In about thirty minutes we reached our hotel in Chilas where we slept for a few hours. After an elaborate breakfast, I pulled a local map from the hotel trivia shop before we checked out and moved ahead.

Munshi_fieldtrip_Karakoram Highway_with European hikers

With European hikers on Karakoram Highway

The muddy waters of the Indus ran along the Karakoram Highway. Our guide, a native speaker of Burushaski, continued to chatter in his accented Urdu and broken English while we took pictures and video clips along the shaky ride. Very few vehicles plied on the road. We stopped to take a few pictures. The view of the Nanga Parbat was exalting. 

After some time, we stopped again to buy refreshments at a makeshift shop in Jaghlot, a small town situated 45 km southeast of Gilgit on the Karakoram Highway. I couldn’t find much except for wrinkled and mushy mangoes; I changed my mind. Some curious children stopped by our van. I tried to take a picture of a little girl in a brown shalwar-qameez but as soon as I put my fingertip on the camera button, she quickly hid behind her companion, a little boy in a bluish-green Khan-dress. With a bottle of water in my hand, I waved a smile and boarded the van.

We were 11 kilometers away from the Gilgit city when a majestic sign board welcomed us in three languages: English, Chinese and Russian. Around 1:00pm we arrived in the city.


Arriving in Gilgit

I met with scores of people in different parts of Gilgit and some nearby villages — speakers of the Burushaski language from Hunza, Nagar and Yasin valleys. Everyone was extremely friendly and hospitable. Socio-economically, it seemed, there was a lot to catch up. Although my interest was language documentation, talk of Kashmir politics was inevitable at times. Being a Kashmiri who introduced herself as “an Indian” seemed some sort of a surprise to some. “But Kashmiris want to be part of Pakistan?” Well… 

While I was out on various documentation expeditions, my movement was constantly screened by officials – the Police, the Special Intelligence Bureau, and the Interior Ministry. Every few minutes, people called my host asking about my whereabouts, about what I was doing, who I met. At one point I was so annoyed that I grabbed his telephone and demanded to “handle it myself.” I volunteered to give every single detail of my visit to the officer at the other end and requested not to disturb me any further. Instead, the officer wanted to “see me in person”. Frustrated, I headed to his office to “get it settled”. After explaining my purpose to travel, the officer said: “So what will we get for letting you do your work here?” You must be kidding? I banged his table with my fist, but he said was serious. I am sorry, but my grant is not budgeted for a bribe! I released a sarcastic laugh. At this the officer shot a series of questions. During the exchange I discovered that he too was a speaker of Burushaski. That IS the language! Suddenly his tone changed. He stood up from his chair, headed to a cabinet, and quietly pulled a thick book.

“My father translated the holy book into Burushaski,” he handed me the volume. I opened the first page and read the translator’s name. That’s your father? I am meeting him tomorrow. “Do you know him?” Of course! We’ve been in touch for a while. The officer, extremely embarrassed, apologized and asked if there was anything he could do to help. Just make sure I don’t get any more phone calls from your office, I winked at him and left.

Language documentation is quite an intrusive exercise. It involves close and prolonged contact with the members of the speech community. Together with my research assistants — speakers of three different dialects, I traveled to several places. We met with scores of people — students, teachers, farmers, housewives, lawyers, army officers, “ex-separatists”, businessmen, doctors, sportsmen, musicians, poets, and artists. We collected a huge corpus of linguistic data from men and women, young and old. We recorded stories and legends, personal narratives, historical accounts, discussions on language, culture and politics, proverbial expressions, food recipes, poetry and songs. 

Hundur_men dancing during traditional music and song performance

Burusho men in Hundur

“Record us later,” a group of  women came to me in Hundur, a remote village in Yasin valley, after we completed recording a musical performance in which men danced to exhaustion while women watched from outside; they too wanted to dance but “separately”.

Roads, streets and alleyways in Gilgit were  rugged with big potholes here and there. On our way back from Hundur, our rental car was damaged. So, we had to leave it behind and ask for a “lift”. But incessant rains had caused considerable destruction. At one point it became impossible to drive. Floodwater was gushing forcefully over a rocky blockade. Everyone got down to assess the situation. It was a daring exercise to cross even on foot. Some locals came forward to help. My companions advised me to sit in the car while a dozen people literally lifted the vehicle in their hands. I was nervous; should they lose grip, the vehicle could land in a deep gorge. In guarded steps, the car was carried to the other side. I was glad we made it across safely.

Munshi_Data collection_Floods_Gilgit

Floods in Gilgit, summer 2010

Summers being hot in the city, the frequent power outages were a menace; the nights, however, were pleasant. Many evenings, my host family sat in front of their television watching Indian cinema. Long drives and extended interactions with the locals were a learning experience. Over a cup of tea with phit̩i (a bread cake) or during a course of s̩apik (‘(staple) food’) served with d̩aud̩o (a soup dish made from noodles and meat), and during scores of recording sessions, various aspects of life in Gilgit unfolded.

Ateeqa Bano: An Unsung Hero of Kashmir – II


Ateeqa Bano, January 2015

A day before my return to the US during my January 2015 visit to Kashmir, I met Ateeqa Ji again, this time at the University of Kashmir. She called me and invited me to a “program on girl child,” organized in part with the Markaz-e-Noor. When I entered after taking off my shoes at the front door, I saw Ateeqa Ji sitting in the front row on the left side which was predominantly occupied by men while a dozen women, some of them in complete face veils, were occupying a space on the right side of the hall. As soon as she saw me, Ateeqa Ji quickly stood up in excitement and offered me her own seat – a spot decorated with cylindrical cushions covered in white gilaf. After a bit of polite haggling and my refusal to take her spot, she sat down and I took the space on her left.

We chatted for a while and kept waiting for the Vice Chancellor, the “chief guest” of the event that was supposed to start at noon, but when the VC was nowhere to be seen even by 1:00 pm, people started getting impatient. Ateeqa Ji turned to me in an embarrassing tone, “Sadaf Ji, do people come to meetings this late in the US as well?” to which I responded in a negative. She appreciated that. In a few minutes, the convener began the program and Ateeqa Ji talked various problems faced by women of Kashmir — problems at home, in public and at the work place. She spoke about “the lack of self-confidence in women” its side-effects which often expresses itself in the objectification of women.

Next, Ateeqa Ji invited me on stage to “speak a few words” on the topic, and I, hesitantly obliged. By then the VC had arrived and taken the special seat in the center of the stage. While I was talking, a bearded man came to me with a little note in his hand that read, “This is not a seminar, please be short.” I quickly finished my point and sat beside a burqa-clad woman next to me. I was sipping kehwa from a beautiful chinaware tea cup and gulping on the last crumb of a shirmaal when I saw the woman writing something on a piece of paper that she pulled from out of a file and passed it to me quietly. The meeting was adjourned after a little bit of commotion over the remarks of the VC who said that “women were responsible for their own woes,” at the conclusion of his views and those of another male faculty who declared that “women’s job was to bear and raise kids while that of men was to earn and support the family.” I retorted in protest and some other women joined in as well. At that uneasy note, people dispersed.

aap se jii bhar ke baat karna chaahti huun (‘I want to talk to you at great length’), the burqa-clad woman had said to me while passing the piece of paper along with her email address. I discovered she was a comrade of Ateeqa Ji in her activism on women’s issues, closely involved in the affairs of the women’s welfare organization Jamiah Falaah-e-Nisvaan set up some years ago. I tried to meet her in the adjacent room but it soon got jam-packed with people and suddenly I found myself ensconced between three men on a sofa – one on my right and two on my left while my new friend squeezed into a corner at the other end of the room hesitant to break the invisible barrier between us. She had promised to “unveil” in private when I told her that I felt uncomfortable talking to a person I could not see. I looked at my watch and realized I was getting late. “I have to leave,” I said. I had to prepare for my return journey and meet another friend who was waiting for me outside. Ateeqa Ji offered me a ride back, but I asked her to excuse me and began to leave. “Wait,” she quickly turned around for something and came back with a package: “This is for you. From Sopore.” The bag full of kulchas that she had brought as a parting gift traveled with me to the United States along with several documents and scores of photographs she had handed over to me earlier; my husband and I relished the kulchas for several weekends over nun chai.

I visited Kashmir again in June that year to gather more information on the collections. Over the following year, I stayed in touch with Ateeqa Ji off and on in connection with my unsuccessful attempts in pursuing funds for digitization and documentation besides training of personnel in the methods in cataloging and preservation. The proposal was submitted and declined twice by the British Library (United Kingdom) in 2015-16. Next year, in summer 2016, I was in Kashmir again for a grant-writing workshop (which sadly was never held due to the situation) and for collecting more information for a re-submission. When I was frantically trying to connect with Ateeqa Ji for a letter that needed her signature, with phones only working intermittently (thanks to the government restrictions), I received a short call from her: Sadaf Ji, main aap se bahut maa’zrat-khwah hoon. Internet band hai, is liye main letter nahi bhej sakti, aur hadtal ki wajah se aap se milne Srinagar bhi nahi aa sakti (‘Sadaf Ji, I am very sorry. Since the Internet is not working, I cannot send you the letter. And because of the hadtal, I am unable to travel to Srinagar to meet you (and deliver the letter by hand)’). After checking into a hotel at Rajbagh for Internet access, I somehow managed to submit the proposal, this time to the National Endowment for Humanities (USA). The proposal was declined a third time earlier this year for insufficient information.

For the first time in many years, I did not visit Kashmir this past summer in 2017. Disappointed at my previous attempts, I did not have the enthusiasm nor the patience to pursue the grant a fourth time during the next funding cycle. I lost touch with Ateeqa Ji in the meantime and the next thing I heard about her was that Ateeqa Ji was no more. Heartbroken and embarrassed, I regretted the loss of the repository of knowledge that departed with her – knowledge that may not be assessed by ordinary people nor retrievable by ordinary means. One can only hope that the treasure she left behind is taken care of with the same dedication and passion that she harbored.

© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.


Ateeqa Bano: an unsung hero of Kashmir


Ateeqa Bano, January 2015

Situated in the heart of the pristine Sopore town and away from the clamor of the city life is an incredible treasure trove called Meeras Mahal. An extremely modest building, Meeras Mahal is an abode of numerous artifacts of historical and cultural importance that are yet to be disseminated to the outside world. The materials collected over more than three decades of relentless efforts by a legend, an unsung hero of the time — Ateeqa Bano. Born in 1940 in the same town, Ateeqa Ji spent most of her adult life serving as an educator and collecting and curating cultural artifacts of a myriad kind. Before her retirement from government service, she served as the Director of Libraries and Joint-Director Education (Jammu & Kashmir). 

It was a pleasant morning in January 2015 when I set out for the historic town of Sopore during a ten-day trip to Kashmir to discuss the plans for a proposal to digitize the manuscript collection at Meeras Mehal. The meeting and the transportation was arranged by personnel at INTACH Kashmir, my collaborators on the proposed project. DSC03917Ateeqa Ji’s eyes glimmered with joy when we arrived. I had explained the purpose of my visit earlier on telephone; she was expecting me. She greeted us with great fervor and high expectations. Wearing her usual “burqa coat” over a green pheran while a light cotton dupatta lay loose over her head, it seemed she were all set for the meeting. We started our 3-hour long journey in her little compound around midday — a small office space with very modest furnishing, no heating and no curtains in the room in the cold season. As Ateeqa Ji gave an introduction of the museum over a glass bowl filled with dried fruits —  almond, cashew nuts, pistachio and dates, a little girl with a scarf woven round her head kept sneaking in and looking at us from out the window. The window opened into the walkway leading to a series of similar-sized rooms in a row. An associate pulled a table from one corner and set it beside another one of slightly different dimensions in front of us. Ateeqa Ji opened a roll of plastic sheet with golden patterns and spread it over the tables for tea and more snacks. Thereafter, she took us for a tour of the museum, from one room to the other, walking us through history and revealing to us an enormous treasure of several generations.

DSC03941Ateeqa Bano’s Meeras Mahal is a repository of items illustrating Kashmir’s ongoing cultural history in a visual format – rare manuscripts, ornaments, pottery and terracotta utensils, metal works, wood works, stone crafts, traditional dresses and jewelry, a coin collection, some calligraphic works, and different kinds of tools. Each item in the repository has a name, a story, and Ateeqa Ji knew it all. Words that have fallen out of use in the language, items no longer seen in the Kashmiri households, are some of the various attractions I was impressed with during my few hours of experience at Meeras Mahal.  DSC03964Picking up an item in her hands and demonstrating its importance in an exuberant manner, telling its story to the audiences – Ateeqa Ji had it all, the incredible motivation to explore and the passion to preserve Kashmir’s remarkable past, its rich cultural history. Our next stop was the manuscript collection — my primary interest in the museum. Ateeqa Ji handed me a copy of the inventory and we went through the list — item by item. Manuscripts were maintained in a pretty good condition given the limited resources she had had at her disposal.

As we sat down for a second course of tea and snacks towards the end of the meeting, Ateeqa Ji produced a document, a proposal for the creation of an institution of enormous potential. DSC03927She showed me the map of a proposed little township with many aspects including a proposed site for an “artists in residence” program she wished to set up as part of her efforts. It was a spectacular idea and I was fascinated, but it needed resources which had been consistently denied. Over the many years of her work on collecting and curating the artifacts, Ateeqa Ji had been desperately seeking financial support from the government and other sources for the maintenance and upkeep of the museum, for hiring trained staff, for infrastructure to preserve the artifacts, and for the upgrading of the building structure.

DSC03945“If this kind of work was done by a man, he would be supported and recognized. Our society does not recognize women’s contributions, she said to me in a humble tone as her associates moved their heads in silent admission. I knew she was right. I had nothing to offer before I left except for a promise to be fulfilled.  

Ateeqa Bano was a woman of incredible motivation, an inspiration, an institution of her own. I could not help but fall in love with this woman of enormous potential and zeal.


© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.