Every year we had these nomads coming in their tribes from the distant mountain ranges, traveling on foot with their flock of sheep, horses and donkeys laden with mattresses and canvas bags full of clothes and utility things. A frontier man with two monstrous shepherd dogs leading the slow moving flocks and women on foot, while little children rode on the horsebacks, large groups of families covered from behind by another men of the tribe with one or more shepherd dogs. The travelers where fully guarded while on the move. Each tribe had 10-12 families that preferred to live together in any space they found. It was in the months of May and June, when the night was abuzz with the brays of donkeys, whistles of the shepherds and the tramping of horse shoes. The silence of the early summer nights was filled with the new guests of the town. These tribes preferred the nights to move avoiding the traffic chaos of day time. They pretty much owned the night road just as they owned the real essence of a traveling life.
When I first saw Kuslum, it was in the fields next to our house in the quiet of the suburbs. Hers was a bright yellow tent pitched right at the corner of the field. Little children playing at the mouth with a beautiful infant rocking in a cloth made swing from a tree. They played with him, making faces and muttering something I could not understand. The baby was laughing, enjoying the attention his siblings were paying to him. It was a warm sight, a family thing that moved my feet towards them. I smiled at them; they shied away from me, looking sheepishly at their mother, who returned my smile with a black face that gave me a little fright. Her glance was like that of a lioness protecting her cubs.
She had a face that remained with you for a long time. An oval wheatish brown face of a strong young woman, deep brown wavy hair plaited in a tight fish plait that somehow enhanced her features of the face. Strong jaws, wide almond shaped brown eyes, clear whites with night black pupils reflecting the strength of her soul. She was not more than 30 years, having lead a nomadic life always on the go, she had learned the ways of life at a very young age. She was a mother of four; two young girls and two young boys. Aged between 8 and 5, her youngest son was just a few months old. A single mother of four children, raising them alone on the move, she came off as a symbol of strength, a strong fierce woman who had an aura of impending fright.
I moved onto the other tents, checking on our new neighbors. Everyone had settled down, having put their tents and made their earthen make shift kitchens. I always loved their tent-homes. They seemed small but somehow were big enough for their families that had more than 8 members. Cozy and warm, just like their hearts. They welcomed you with their generous smiles and offered you their best treats of makai roti’s (corn round bread). Their generosity always poked me with the thought that the poorer people were always the kindest of all. They share the smallest bits of the few things they possess while the richer ones have a tendency of greater miserliness, even when they have more to spare and waste. I took my turn around the circle of colorful tents, exchanging pleasantries around. It was like a small town had moved into the empty field across my house. In a matter of one night, a whole colony of colorful tents had found their way into the forsaken field. I loved having them there, filling the quiet air with a happy hustle bustle of life.
As I turned to go back having spent an exciting hour getting to know everyone, I once more passed by the yellow tent. She was there, putting some clothes on the nearby stone to dry. She looked up sensing someone close and looked straight in my eyes. Reading through me, as if! I walked smiling awkwardly, our first encounter still fresh in me. She called out to me, Didi (sister) do you live nearby? Surprised at this sudden gesture, I nodded quietly. Intrigued to know more about her, I pointed to the house across the road. That is my house. You are welcome, if you need water. That’s what they mostly came for. Huge gray aluminum pots to take some water which they carried on their heads. Up went one pot, two pots and sometimes three, walking while balancing them on their heads like experts.
I am sorry if I scared you before; she took my hand and kissed it. That was their way of accepting you, welcoming you in their life. Come sit down, taking out a round woolen rug of a colorful floral pattern, I recognized as a namda (handmade felt rug), hand dusting it and putting it down on the barren soil. There was something about her, inexplicable but strong, commanding yet giving. I sat down on the soft rug she put at the mouth of her tent, while she sat near the make shift cooking stove she had made. She put on a pan and roasted a round chapatti on it. Her kids came and circled around me. This is Banuka, my eldest pointing to a young beautiful girl in two brown plaits. After her is my boy, Haider, the blue eyed chubby 7 year old smiling radiantly at me. I just loved him, he was so adorable. Standing over there is Kubra with my youngest, Murad. He is 10 months old. I played a little with the kids. Haider, the wittiest of the three was already my favorite. The little blue eyed boy. Kulsum offered me the chapatti she had just cooked, which I happily took. It was corn chapatti and the tastiest I had ever had. I asked her about her life, where they had come from, how long they had travelled and she happily filled me in with the details, amused at my keenness to know. However, her smile surpassed as I happened to mention her husband. He is no more. I expressed my apologies. Her mood had changed. She was now upset, obviously. I handed over the plate, prepared to leave, not wanting to cause her more distress. I am fine, she said, sensing me. Don’t go if you have some more time to stay. I obliged to her request, having nothing important to do. I could spend my entire day listening to her. She was not an ordinary gypsy woman. She had a captivating essence; the strength of her soul strangely bound you to her.
He died last year. In a tribal feud. Over a few flock of sheep that went grazing into the pastures of another tribe. A few patches of grass cost me my dear husband. Revenge is a strong drive that can push any man over his evil side just to come to a false sense of peace. He was a good man, my Hamad, a hard working man who loved to humor his family and friends. It is ironic how he always drove away the animosity of the fellow tribes, trying to unite all tribes together in good faith only to die trying at it, which deepened the feelings of hatred. His parents drove me away from their home, putting the blame on me and our marriage. Our marriage was out of love. We were considered outlaws not having married in our own tribes. His family whatsoever accepted me in their tribe but mine; mine cast me away, having nothing to do with me after the marriage. There was already a rivalry between our tribes and the marriage instead of uniting the two divided the rift further. It was one of my distant cousins who got into the feud with Hamad. The heated words turned into blows in no time and gathered a large crowd. Before anyone could tear them apart, that Dawar pushed him hard, kicking him off the mountain edge. I screamed my lungs out. My heart stopped and his loss sank deep in me, even before I knew he had died. I was faint and lost consciousness. His body had hit the rocks, before it fell off in the strong currents of water that took him away from me, across the border. Week after weeks, our tribesmen searched for his body, diving in and out of the cold water, mornings and evenings but to no vain. I was deprived even of one last goodbye to the face that was as brilliant as the moon, and equally comforting to the heart as the moonshine, that’s how my dear Hamad was.
The day he died was the day we both knew Murad was to come into our world. My unlucky Murad who would never see his father, never feel his love nor go out in the woods with him. I had to suffer a lot during the months I carried him. Hamad’s parents left me alone. Now that their son was not in this world anymore, they felt no obligation towards me or my kids. My cousin had killed their son, they would never forgive me. Even if that cousin had taken my life with him too, they put the blame on me. As if I suffered nothing. They left me to God’s mercy. I had no one to hang onto, no shoulder to cry on, and no time to grieve my loss. I was forlorn with my kids and the new life that was beginning inside of me. I slept outside, under the blue sky, for nights together having no shelter. Then the Mukhdim, the leader of our tribe, a godly man took pity on me. He gave me the basic shelter and utensils to strive and a room for a home. Hamad had always been his favorite. He saw a potential leader in him, and had told him so many a times before. He had been shocked having heard of his death, while he was away. Had he been there, he would have successfully intervened, saving my Hamad’s life. He commanded great respect among all the tribes of the mountain. But it is as God wills.
I put my hand on her shoulder and for the first time, a strong sense of companionship reflected in her eyes. She had craved a hearing ear; that would not accuse her, not curse her, that would just listen to her as she let out her pain.She patted my hand and smiled amidst tears in her eyes. I am a strong woman, didi, I am my Hamad’s woman. I am a woman of the mountains. We are stronger than the city women in more than one ways. She was teasing me. But it was the truth, they were stronger, but equals in the matters of heart. By God’s help I can live alone in grace and honor. And even if we never imagined, that I will have to raise my kids alone, I will raise them as strong as their Baba was.
People are not good, didi. We live in times, where revenge is sought for petty things. What has the world come to? I have to protect my daughters from the strange glares of the people all the time. They are beautiful souls that come off twice than is their age. We live in a difficult world where people will cut throats for a few bucks and kill for a patch of grass. Life has become too cheap. In our part of the world. In ours too, I mumbled out.