By the Chenab, Pakistan's river of lovers
ON YOUR first visit to the northern areas of Pakistan, the north wind will hold you in thrall. Later, it keeps whispering in your ear to come back.
You remember the blue sky of the day, the black cloak of the night embroidered with glittering stars and the breeze dancing over the river in summertime. Its scent can leave you intoxicated.
From mid-February to mid-March, when the rains wash away the dust and smog, the mountain range of Pir Panjal in the Kashmir region looks very clear and so close as if the mountains were located at a distance of only a few kilometres. They can be seen from any place between Pakistan's Gujrat and Narowal.
For the rest of the year, air pollution takes this gratification away from us.
The snow-capped mountains have peaks as high as 6,000m. In summer, the snow melts and the mountains stand bare.
As a denizen of the Pakistani city of Sialkot, a centre of artisans, I enjoy the privilege of stepping out in clear weather to view the Chenab River and behold, to my heart's content, the majesty of snow-capped mountains visible in its backdrop.
The Chenab River flows from Marala, 24km from the city of Sialkot. I'm always drawn towards rivers but the kind of love I feel for Chenab cannot be explained with words alone.
Known as the river of the lovers, Chenab is the setting for many Pakistani folk tales about romance. In one story, a woman called Sohni drowns during her attempt to swim across the river to meet her lover, Mahiwal.
The river begins its journey in the mountains of Jammu as a small rivulet known as Chandrabhaga across the border.
In the Himalayas, the melting snow joins the rivulet, slowly transforming it into a full flowing river. By the time it reaches the plains of Punjab, Chandrabhaga gives its name to Chenab.
At the head, the Jhelum River joins in, and then further downstream Ravi and Sutlej also fall into the Chenab. This huge river is then swallowed by the great Indus River, which leads all these waters towards the Arabian Sea.
Along its 1,000km-long journey, Chenab nourishes several towns and villages.
In mid-February, fertile lands near the river are covered with the blossoming flower of mustard plants. I walk among the yellow flowers, on a pathway between the fields, basking in the warm sun and looking at the snow-capped peaks in the Kashmir region. Their beauty takes me to another world. It is a time of the year when farmers have many tasks to accomplish and men and women can be seen working in the fields.
Sometimes, sunflowers add colour to the scenic landscape and flocks of birds find respite in the Chenab after flying for hours - many of them migrated from Siberia. Among the birds are geese and many subspecies of cranes.
I have spent countless days and nights on the riverbanks of Chenab. Sometimes the river would play its melodious tunes to me, at other times I would shed my tears into its waters.
I like watching the boats row under the setting sun. I often return to Chenab, the river of lovers, but the fog of winter mornings wraps everything in its haze, making the river lose its colour and appear stagnant.
If you go to Marala from Sialkot, a road runs along a canal, branching out from Chenab. The thick mango trees lining the canal cool this road in summer. There are yellow, blue and purple wild flowers everywhere. You can see swarms of butterflies circling around the wild flowers.
The stretch of land from the outskirts of Sialkot to Marala is a sight to behold. If the weather permits, one could put a chair in the fields, sit and drink several cups of coffee just to enjoy the scenic views.
Once, some nomads set up their tents to stay in this area. One of those tents captured my attention because it was set up a few yards away from the rest, as if its occupants had been cast out by the community.
One early morning, on the way to Marala, I stopped my motorcycle near that particular tent to have a look. It was 8am in the morning but the day was not as bright as usual, due to thick fog. One corner of the tent had been rolled up, the other drawn down, as if a widow was attempting to veil her face.
From the rolled-up corner it was possible to look inside, where two cots could be seen. A water container lay nearby; outside the tent a couple and their three children sat in a circle.
The woman was making flatbread on one of two earthen stoves. A pan had been put over the other, perhaps, to brew tea. At brief intervals, the woman would blow air from her mouth to reignite the flame. The smoke would lift with the steam from the teapot.
In April, when spring came, I found the place that once housed that tent empty. The earthen stove had been dismantled. The tent settlement nearby was also gone, and so were the people who lived there. I found out that the government had evicted the nomads.
They were forced to migrate. The entire surroundings, the road and the sky seemed to have grown barren.
On that particular day, too, a strong wind blew over the river. Whether you journey to the northern areas or to the outskirts, a breeze always accompanies you.
At Marala, the combined mesmerising force of Chenab and the breeze makes your heart shudder like a helpless leaf, until it eventually breaks.
DAWN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK