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Forest women

Zahrah Nasir

Long handled axe on her shoulder, feet clad in pink plastic chappals with black velvet, diamante bows, Zainab heads for the hills accompanied by five female relatives from the same village. It’s just after dawn: breakfast of leftover tandoori nan and weak, sugarless tea as this commodity is locally out of stock and unaffordable anyway, was eaten in a hurry as the women have miles of rugged terrain to cover before they reach their designated firewood collecting area.

The exposed, coldly rugged peaks of the Karakoram mountains tower guardedly over the thickly forested slopes below, as the women nimbly hop across stepping stones over the narrow, sluggish river whose water level is dangerously depleted through inadequate rains. Zainab, assisted by her laughing 16 year old niece Zarbukta, splash through the rocky shallows of a stream inlet where it joins the river, picking bunches of watercress to munch on as they clamber up bracken covered slopes to merge with the dark green, sepulchered hallows offered by mature pines in whose dappled shadows they set to work.

They are allowed, by law, to gather only fallen branches, wood from dead trees and living branches up to a certain height but, the living branches they prefer to avoid if possible as the sap makes them heavy to carry and they burn badly, if at all.

It has taken them a full two hours of steady, rapid walking to reach this place and will take longer, heavily laden like the beasts of burden their menfolk consider them to be, to get home, reaching there, achingly exhausted, just as the sun goes down. For all this, the women, work-worn hands chapped and scarred feet cracked and dirty, faces wind burnt and dry, relish the one day each week that they undertake this labourious task. It is a day out: a day of freedom from housework, field work, and animal chores. A day free of the incessant demands made by grouchy, matriarchal mother-in-laws, a day to chatter, gossip, giggle and laugh about subjects otherwise forbidden yet, as the harsh reality of winter looms closer on their limited horizon, they must cut and carry heavier loads of precious fuel than in the warmer summer months. When the snow comes, if it comes this time, they will be confined to base: their short days spent trying to keep warm in a fireside huddle, the only light that of smouldering flames, the only sound the rumble of empty stomachs when basic supplies run low as they always do. The most nutritious food will be served to the men, what they leave will go to the children next; the women are last in line.
There has been talk, on and off for years, of someone, they are not sure who, putting in a small, private hydro-electricity dam further down the boulder strewn river and providing all the scattered villages, hamlets and farmsteads in this remote valley with the luxury of light but, it hasn’t happened yet so Zainab’s distant dream of a radio which doesn’t need batteries hasn’t come true. The thought of a television, she has seen them on infrequent expeditions to far away Battagram, isn’t one she has yet found the strength to voice, as her mother-in-law, who doesn’t fully understand what such a thing is, would torment her even more unbearably than she already does.

There is also talk, much talk, even excitement, about ready cut firewood for sale in the one apology for a town the valley boasts of and, when the women first heard of this miracle they heaved a collective sigh of relief. Bought in firewood would mean no more gruelling days in the forest, they would miss the freedom of course but they could always volunteer to hunt for edible plants and medicinal herbs instead, a duty they usually combine with wood collection but, open mouthed astonishment at the price hit that luxury firmly on the head. At Rs 340 per maund, each house needing at least 50 maunds, preferably double that to get them through the bitter winter, they would have to resort, when needed and when the snow lay deep on the ground, to illegally felling any tree within easy reach although ‘easy’ had long since disappeared as, over the years, they had already cut and burnt everything in the immediate vicinity, including, short-sightedly as it was, most of their orchards.

When temperatures are way below zero, malnourished bodies so cold that movement is painful, next summers fruit crop doesn’t stand a chance against the salvation of immediate heat. True, they should be planting new trees, their elders should have done so and their elders before them, as the valley is all but denuded and even the forest is shrinking fast. Ten years hence the fire wood gathering expeditions will be even longer, the current 10 kilometres walk each way to the ‘hunting’ grounds will be fondly remembered against the, possibly overnight, in which case requiring the armed protection of men, treks to come.

One of the men, a cousin’s uncle, has heard, on the grapevine, that you can harvest heat and power from the sun. Zainab is back to dreaming!

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Murree.
Source: The Nation