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 he 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.

2 responses to “Language Hunting in Pakistan: A Road Trip to Gilgit”

  1. Wonderful writeup Sadaf, keep it up !

    Liked by 1 person

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