The day is gay; wind is kind; and the green fields are dancing in the halcyon breeze. The glacier fed streams are gurgling along as I dip my feet into the cold water and lay upon the grass to rest. I am not dead but I am in paradise, or very close to it. My horizon is decked with white crested peaks upon peak, woolly clouds etch their trail across the sparkling blue sky and birds sing their joyful melody while butterflies and honeybees buzz around sucking nectar from the million yellow and violet flowers that the valley is awash with.
Happy and simple people are passing by, pushing or pulling their donkeys or wheelbarrows, sickle or shovel on their backs, pretty women decked in startling variety of colourful dresses are scattered across the meadows minding their cows and goats. And little children are just about everywhere. They are swinging from the trees, they are jumping into puddles, they are chasing the dogs, they are climbing to the roofs, they are bothering their mothers for food and sweets and they are following me everywhere.
I am the pied piper of Kheret (not Hamlyn) with at least 20 kids on my trail, following and miming my each move. I carry no pipe, but my Nikon SLR and that perhaps is the only difference I feel from my famous predecessor. In a country where I must stand out like an alien from Mars, the children find me amusing. I sing to them, dance to their tunes, climb trees and ride their donkeys; some pull me into their house for an impromptu tea while some want to try out my hat, camera or scarf while some offer me fresh apricots and even few try to sell me embroidered hats or bead strings. It has now been like this for over two hours and in between I have had glimpses of a lonely looking little girl with twisted pony tail who stood apart from the crowd at a distance eyeing me surreptitiously through her dark limpid eyes. Whenever our eyes met, since I wished to get her into the crowd, I would flash her my best smile to which she would only return a look of complete indifference. But she followed us nevertheless; confirming that she may not like me or my smile but she certainly found me a curiosity.
What made this little girl stand apart from all other kids in the village was her black dress and the haunting look in her eyes that spoke of things far beyond her age. She had absolutely evocative eyes, dark, penetrating and foreboding. Even the most tattered clothed kid wore bright colours and shades of every possible hue and this girl was dressed entirely in a long black cloak that covered her from neck to her toes and nothing else, she wore no colour at all. Her elbows were torn and so were around the right shoulder. She was barefoot. At a place that is perhaps the poorest in the world, she and her family must be at the lowest rung. Every kid smiled and laughed, ran and jumped but not this little girl whom I guessed would be around 8 yr old. But her face and eyes told me a haunting tale. And I decided to befriend her by any means I could.
I realized that for some reason none of the other kids tried to get her into the crowd and she stood apart as a silent figure, perhaps she is shy or not liked by other kids, so I concocted some device to get rid of my raucous followers. It took a while but I finally was able to shake them off my back. So I retraced my path through the fields to the place where I had seen the little girl last. And there she was, cupping her tiny palms into a stream, and sipping little bits of water. As I approached her she looked up in alarm and stood upright and moved to a shadow of a tree.
I did not get close to her, but finding a sizeable boulder, sat upon it pretending that I was tired and started fiddling with my camera. I eyed her surreptitiously to discover that she too was eyeing me with some signs of curiosity. Now that I was alone, I hoped she would finally approach me. So I sat patiently, taking shots of the mountains and the fields. This went on for a while and the girl started staring at me openly from the same distance. I raised my head and smiled squarely at her, to which she just nodded but didn’t smile. Then I beckoned her and she took her first hesitant steps towards me. Eventually she stood within touching distance. She still did not smile and had the same fixed suspicious look in her eyes. I greeted her in Wakhi without any response and then I patted the boulder next to me asking her to sit by my side, which she did hesitantly much to my delight.
I watched her closely as she stared back into my eyes. What was she thinking I wondered what she must want to say, I pondered. The child was absolutely gorgeous and haunting. She was as dirty as a mangy dog, her hair perhaps had never been washed neither her dress that hung like a large balloon around her slight frame. She had deep furrows on her forehead and she emanated the wild scent of her land. Her henna dyed palms were small but the skins were callous due to hard manual labour. She had two rings in her left hand that had strange symbols etched. I asked her, through gestures, to spread her fingers and took a picture. I showed it to her and as she seemed to break into a grin, I clicked her picture and then one where we both posed. I gave her the camera, slinging it around her neck and showed her which button to press and then asked her to click. She did and jumped when the flash went off and the camera clicked with a noise. I showed her the pictures and finally got the first hint of a smile that completely transformed her into a happy angle. Needless to say that by that time I had completely fallen in love with her.
Then suddenly she started chatting by the dozen. I smiled at her and nodded at what I thought were the correct places I should since I couldn’t understand even a single word of her narrative. It was past noon by then and I was hungry, so I wished her goodbye and stood up to return to our guesthouse. But as I turned away from her and had taken few steps towards the stream, she came running and pulled my trousers from behind. Certain gestures are universal and cannot be confused; she wanted me to follow her. Was I happy! It was my lucky day. She took hold of my left hand with her right and led me away from the trail towards a field decked with yellow mustard.
We were soon within a narrow alleyway and then at the dark door of a house without a roof. The walls were falling apart. She went inside the door and then pulled me in. The roof had few log beams through which the sun shone fiercely throwing spider patterns on the ground. Beyond lay the kitchen with a partly caved roof and a clay oven where a sturdy woman was hunched over the fire. To the right on the floor sat a man and a fellow in twenties and a tiny boy of perhaps 2. They all looked at me through the darkness since the kitchen was lit only by a thin ray of the sun that came through the smoke hole in the roof. The little girl got me into the centre of the kitchen and went to her mother, by whose side lay a tiny infant perhaps only few months old. The little girl picked up her tiny brother and played mother to her by holding him close to her bosom. Suddenly the infant smiled a toothless smile and her face radiated like the sun outside. At that moment I captured her thus in my camera and I feel that is the best shot of my entire Afghan trip. The frame, when I viewed it later, depicted the hopeless past of the land, the hopelessness of the present and the hope that the future must bring in.
The father, blue eyed and sharp featured, got up and pulled out a quilt for me to sit. My hat went around upon everyone’s head; each smiling and giggling, adult and kids alike, the woman by the oven got us tea and naan. She too was typically dressed in bright colourful clothes. The father could speak a bit of Wakhi in a manner that I could comprehend and he welcomed me into his home. He showed me his earthly possessions and they were so meagre that I won’t mention here. The small boy of two was a natural model and was so chubby and adorable that I could visualize him smiling from any child food products anywhere around the globe. He posed for me whenever he saw me pointing my camera at him. Shortly an old man walked in and joined us for tea. Then came in a rotund boy of perhaps 10 – 12 who self appointed himself as my guide. To which the little girl showed some animosity since she snuggled closer to me and grabbed my right hand to show that I certainly had been taken.
I enjoyed the food and the tea, clicked pictures, asked questions that were answered yet remained mystery and then I had to take leave since my climbing partners might think that I had become a snow leopard’s lunch by then. Everyone came out to bid me farewell, the little girl still holding my right hand. I picked her up in my arms and kissed her on the cheek and then deposited her back on the floor. I shook hands with the others and also with the mother and then turned to go. The little girl came running and led me into her fields where she climbed a mulberry tree with the dexterity of a monkey and brought me the tiny succulent fruits to the extent her palms could carry. Then she walked with me all the way back to my guesthouse and when she realized that finally I was going in and not staying out to play with her, she let go of my hand.
She stood looking at me with smiling eyes while I stood looking at her with a lump in my throat. We would be departing early next morning and there was little chance that I would see her again. What could I say to her, what could anyone say to her! Farewells are not sad for me, never has been, yet I was reluctant to let her go, if only I could somehow take her back with me and show her the world outside, a world that she would never know. I gave her a last hug and then went inside. From the window I saw her standing outside for a while and then she lowered her head and walked back and disappeared into the yellow fields.
All the while that I was climbing and trying to get myself killed in various exciting ways, the little girl in black never left my mind. What would she become when she grew up, where would she go, I wanted to know.
On my way back I had only an hour in the village and I went looking for the girl to her house, but she wasn’t there. Then I scoured the tiny streets through the village, into the fields, across the dunes and streams, anywhere and everywhere she could ever be. I found many of my earlier kids and they all smiled and laughed with me but there wasn’t any sign of the little girl I looked for. I asked around the only two people in the village who spoke little Urdu about her but they had no clue. I went back to her house but she wasn’t back from wherever she was. I wanted to leave her something that would always remind her of me so I made a sketch of my picture with her from my camera and left it with the father and I asked him to give it to her; I have no idea if he understood what I meant or if that sketch would ever reach the girl but I hope that it will one day.
As our return journey commenced and her village vanished across the hills, I looked up into the clouds to find her face upon the sky filling up the horizon and looking down at me with smiling eyes. I was happy since now she has learnt to smile and I hoped that she would also learn to dress in bright colourful clothes and be a child that she indeed is.