Polo Ground

Having being staying in Gulmit village of Gojal valley, upper Hunza for more than a week, talks about the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Wakhi spiritual leader had had ears pricked of all of us. With fifty percent discounts painted on ‘Saalgira mubarak’ posters on tailor shops and the echoes of drum beats filling the silent Hunza air during practice sessions at night, we couldn’t help stop ourselves from looking forward to the day either. Our hopes had been thrown higher in the air when word about our group from the ‘down’, as we had been called, also being invited had reached.

When 11th of July finally arrived, we had to list down the CNIC numbers of all of us intending to attend the ceremony and send them to the local Council. Waking up at six in the morning and gobbling down the locally renowned phiti bread with tea in breakfast, we had starting jogging our way to the polo ground. A scout member assigned responsibility at a semi-formal security check post made sure we had been registered. Another one of them started leading the way and I could feel the vibrant excitement amongst Wakhis hit me. Happiness could be felt through outbursts of their never ending conversations and carefully selected clothes. Entering the polo ground, our group had to split as arrangements had been made for men and women to sit on either sides of the ground. Two local hosts were welcoming foreign guests on microphones in their condensed Hunzai accents between a mix of English and Urdu. We were to respect the fact that they weren’t really fond of allowing anyone to take photographs or film videos at the venue. A number of local young boys and girls, though, had cameras hanging round their necks and were the only ones supposed to take the clicks.

The men’s sitting end was like a stadium stand made of sand and brick and the eldest of them were made to sit on the lowest levels giving them the best view of ongoing activity. The women were ushered to the far right where plastic floor mats had been laid down and the place covered with tents to protect from the unusual scorching sunlight at that time of the month. All this was being taken care of by volunteers of both genders who were to wear special uniforms to stand out from the crowd. People were pouring in hundreds from all three villages in Gojal valley, Gulmit, Ghulkin and Husseini. I could recognize a lot of local women around me since I had been there with a visiting school for research purpose and had already had healthy interactions with people like hand weavers, farmers, museum keeper, etc. They were all blooming with joy because the day was just as big a celebration for them as Eid day is for a Muslim. To show respect when greeting someone, the Wakhis would kiss the other person’s hand and would expect the same in return.

Blasting with folk songs, Gulmit village was covered in all sorts of colors that day. Hand embroidered colorful clothes with Laajverd and emerald studded jewelry marked the women’s strong belief in their Hazir Imam, not to forget that literacy rate is a hundred percent in the area because the Imam had wanted so. The men had usually worn white or other colors to lightest shades and traditional hand woven caps with peacock feathers.

A striking thing I had been forced to notice was that due to a large number of tourists and researchers coming in to the area from the Western part of the world, there had been a huge influence on the local people’s attire, specifically that of young people. Young men had their hair grown out and tied in buns with bracelets and necklaces dangling round their bodies and they’d wear leather jackets on pants. Young women, not just a handful but much more had had their hair cut short and had worn pants and shirts more like those of American women than their locally made ones even on the day of Diamond Jubilee. When I asked an old woman, namely Sakina, about her feelings towards her granddaughter’s revolutionary dress up, she had expressed how she was open to new ideas and ready to let them enter the premises of her own house.

At the center of the ground, young schoolgirls dressed in pink and white marched in bringing in a lot of cheers from the crowd. They had not failed to let mouths hanging with their perfectly synchronized Sufi dance performance. A number of speakers were then called onstage to talk about the importance of the day. One of them had moved to Karachi years earlier and had gone back to tell the younger generations following his origins about the strength they need to stick by when dealing with city life. There were speeches about culture, religion and humanity and were so moving, even I could relate to them. Then a band performance from Gulmit scouts, followed by the traditional ‘utang dance’ left us all amazed. The utang’s each step was depicting a story and as per tradition, the first step was performed by the eldest person who was followed sequentially by younger members. If anybody from the audience would feel the need for water or snacks, the volunteers would take money from them and bring them the desired food item. Every now and then, a woman would walk around amongst the audience with a box to collect any sorts of litter that people did not know where to get rid of. The place had so, been left unpolluted by any sorts of food containers or any other sort of garbage. To keep the dust levels low from stamping feet or people walking on the ground, water would be sprinkled on the floor between performances. Concluding the event, secondary school boys acted out a skit in Wakhi which as translated by the woman sitting next to me, was depicting how Chinese and other tourists like us feel alienated in the area.

After this, when people had started scrambling and looking for their family members or friends, our group had started to move towards the exit to leave when two volunteers had been made by authority to rush to us and stop us for lunch. To our utmost surprise and our in midst of us trying to figure out if we were actually being offered lunch with all the large number of people present, we had been herded outside the Jamat Khana. There, floor mats had been laid for us and three huge platters filled with yak biryani had been transported to us. The fat laden food platters were coming out of a small kitchen like room at a corner of the polo ground like waves of sea. Never in my life had I ever witnessed such well-planned and welcoming lunch. Each platter had been brought in with three to four spoons and I could feel the fat layer deposit everywhere in my mouth being contributed by yak meat. The smell of it which had filled my nostrils back then tends to never leave me even after months. While we had been eating, a scout member had been made to sit and help us out if we had needed any more food or water. With full stomachs and hearts, we managed to finally reach the exit where people started thanking us for joining them. While gaping with such hospitality and purity of intention, I managed to notice one last thing for my research which was that only a few people had taken cars back to their homes. The rest, just like our groups had been on their ways back on foot, stopping by to pick up ice cream cones for their children.