Lost charms of rural KP

Mohammad Ismail remembers it fondly with a sense of wistfulness tempered with pragmatism

Lost charms of rural KP
Rural life in our part of the world, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, may never have been as eventful, colorful and exciting as it appears in Macondo of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his One Hundred Years of Solitude. However, its present dullness is enough to arouse a sense of nostalgia in those who tasted it in its heyday.

Certainly, this sense of nostalgia is not about the most immediate aspects of prosperity: back then, the fields were not as green and fertile as they may be now. The toil and sweating was much harder, when compared to the present day and the comforts now available in rural life. The muddy houses with rickety rooftops often failed to stop the torrential rains from pouring in from the ceilings. As compared to today’s relative abundance, it could be easily termed as an era of want and deprivation. And yet arguably, keeping aside material prosperity and abundance, we are presently living very much in the ‘deserted village’ of Oliver Goldsmith.

The Hujra was at the heart of community life

The fun-loving creatures of the good old days have gone under the earth – those simple souls who tried to make their hard lives as pleasurable as possible. Would the reader believe me, for instance, if I were to say that gambling used to be a perennial pastime in almost every village? It was said about those amateur gamblers that their wives were always happy with them because regardless of loss or gain by the vagaries of games of chance, there would never once be an evening when they came back home without something good for the night meal. In fact, the winners used to be generous enough to buy a hearty meal for the losers. Law enforcers would, of course, raid the dens after long pauses in activity. Stories of such raids used to be discussed threadbare because the arrival of uniformed enforcers into the village was something that perturbed all the people – not just the players.

Nor must the reader take away the impression that entertainment was only the domain of males. On every Thursday, the girls would come out in droves to pay a visit to a nearby shrine – as much to fulfil religious duty as for the fulfillment of their need for socialisation and outings. These shrines, nurtured over the years by the local populace, were either demolished or desecrated by the puritanical brigades as a first attempt to curb ‘vices’ in society. Once, there would be an annual Urs in the shrine and the people would throng these sites for purification and soul-healing. Now, the traces of these festivities are difficult to find. What remained after the first waves of puritanism was bombed and destroyed in the recently abated spate of religious militancy and extremism.

A local shrine in KP

The game of Kabadi is generally attributed to rural Punjab. However, in many villages of what is today Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, with the arrival of spring the Dangal used to be staged at an appropriate site to test the mettle and muscle of the amateur ‘Kabudmaar’. The villagers used to nurture and nourish the local Pahlawans for the pride and glory of their respective communities. They fought in the muddy field not only for personal aggrandizement but for the collective honour of their village community. Today, we are contented with less physical feats of bravado and honour because the wild spirit to live a fuller life has been tamed by the worries and demands of a prosperous life.

It would be impossible to speak of the charms of village life without the description of the Hujra. It provided some much-needed social space to the villagers for spending quality time together. The Hujra served as an inn for travelers moving miles by foot in the not-so-distant past. Later on, when the decline of the Hujra ensued, that role was assumed by the village mosques. Guests were treated, of course, in the finest possible manner. The Hujra provided a platform for discussing the community’s collective problems. A village without a well-functioning Hujra was, in fact, quite unthinkable. Along with the Hujra, the straw-roofed ‘chopal’ used to further augment the social space in every village. This platform has now completely vanished from the rural landscape. But unlike chopal the demise of the Hujra is not complete because in some villages it still exists as a shadow of its former self. At present, every household has a purpose-built room for the family guests to be entertained. The hard earned material prosperity and ascendancy of conservative interpretations of religion in social life served a severe blow to these centuries-old social institutions.
Now, the traces of these festivities are difficult to find. What remained after the first waves of puritanism was destroyed in the recent spate of religious militancy

The flute and the Rabab would add much-needed melody to the ever blowing midnight breeze. Fun-loving youth would arrange musical performances – ‘Meaful’, in local dialect, to soothe the nerves. In marriage ceremonies, arrangements for musical performances were considered mandatory. The Baraat was not quite as simple an affair as it is today. The Baraatis would be challenged also to show off their marksmanship. Without the targets being hit, they were never allowed to start the return journey. In the absence of vehicles to take the newlyweds away, a well-decorated camel would provide a sweet entry into the new life. This procession with a camel at the front, followed by Baraatis, used to be a spectacle in its own right.

With the rise in literacy and economic uplift came the custom of strict veiling or ‘purdah’ in rural life. No such strict rules of gender segregation were previously in place. Only a few households were blessed with television sets. For watching the weekly telecasted Pashto drama, the whole village would assemble at these lucky houses in the evening. The elders would sit on cots while the children would have to be content with a chance to watch the drama seated on the muddy floor. In the last few decades, things have changed drastically and strict segregation along with purdah is observed with religious zeal and fervour.

A much celebrated site in folk poetry is ‘Gudur’: the place to collect water – be it a well or a spring. This duty of pitching water was the sole responsibility of the women, especially those in their teens. A round earthenware container called ‘Maangi’ in local dialect was used for this purpose. The artwork and decorations on the earthenware corresponded closely with the age and passion of the bearer. Pashto folk poetry was replete with the romantic value attached to this site of rural life. This spot provided an around-the-clock opportunity for conversation (including gossip) – along with the chance to catch a sight of the passionate lover moaning with grief.

The charms were too many, though the comforts were too little. Today we have too many comforts but too little to celebrate about rural life. And of course, none of this is an attempt to justify my own ‘running away’ from the village. The change has happened and we must make do with fond memories of the ‘good old days’.