In last week’s column, I took my readers back to the 1970s, when four footloose young men embarked on a journey to Kafiristan, the land of the Kalash people and how we reached our destination in Bombret Valley, carrying with us the stories of the Nawagai incident and the hair raising crossing of the Gahret Bridge.

Our temporary ‘home’ in Bombret was a stone, mud and wood structure consisting of a square shaped central hall. This room had a large fire pit in the center and a circular hole in the roof to let the smoke out. Wooden bedsteads were spread around the fire, each adorned with grimy pillows and even grimier quilts. The main entrance to this ‘hotel’ was through a porch, one side of which made up the cooking area. This kitchen consisted of a waist high mud and stone platform containing a tandoor, three wood burning ‘stoves’ and a plethora of cooking utensils, still coated with the previous meal.

We spread our sleeping bags on the bedsteads and asked for dinner, only to be told that while the menu consisted of potatoes, we could buy a chicken and slaughter it ourselves to be made into a curry by the ‘hotel’ cook. Buying the nasty looking bird raised no problems, but slaughtering it was another issue as none of us was ready to carry out the deed. We therefore adopted the age old method of ‘inny minny maina moe’ and yours truly was soon found walking out into the wilderness brandishing a knife and tucking a scraggly fowl under one arm. What is generally a simple ritual of ‘zabeeha’ soon turned into a horror comedy as a half slaughtered chicken was seen running around followed by a distraught looking young man brandishing a blood stained knife. Mercifully, the show was quickly terminated, when the cook caught the renegade member of the poultry family and the procedure was successfully completed.

Fatigued, we snuggled into our sleeping bags and instantly fell asleep. I must have slept for an hour when I began to itch. This itch soon became a nightmare as we found our sleeping bags crawling with bedbugs that must have found fresh blood irresistible. Dawn found us up and about, covered with ‘bed bug’ bites and digging into a breakfast of greasy ‘parathas’ and ‘doodh patti’ before heading out to explore this magical place.

We found ourselves walking up a wide valley with a clear mountain stream cascading down the middle. The slopes on either side were heavily wooded with conifers, walnuts and almonds. Peaches, apples, plums, apricots, mulberry and grapes grew in wild profusion on the valley floor and one simply had to stretch out a hand to enjoy the offerings of nature. Coming upon a burial ground, we found that the Kalash did not bury their dead, but left the corpse in a wooden box along with some of the deceased’s worldly assets. Wooden effigies in the graveyard indicated that these were perhaps crude likenesses of the near and dear ones that had passed on. We were told that every day, relatives left a bowl of food and water on the box in the belief that the spirit returned to partake the offering. What surprised us was the absence of any odor that usually accompanies decomposing bodies. I believe that many of these practices have now been overtaken by education and awareness.

The Kalash are a happy lot of people that live in what appeared to be a female dominated society. We found them hospitable, refreshingly uninhibited and forthright. The sound of a fife and drum accompanied by voices and clapping guided us to a cluster of homes, where a group of men and women were dancing. It turned out that we had gate crashed into a family celebration, but were immediately inducted into the proceedings. We were told that the Kalash people loved to dance not only at weddings and births, but also on the passing away of near and dear ones.

It was rather reluctantly that we decided to return for Ayun and our waiting transport. What impelled us was the prospect of negotiating the Gehret Gorge at night, which was a definite ‘no no’. We reached Chitral with stories to tell, eagerly looking forward to the next day, when our journey would take us to Garam Chashma and onwards to Mastuj.

The writer is a historian.