The ‘Pearl Valley’ of Pakistan-administered-Kashmir, or generally known as Rawalakot, Poonch, is snow covered in the winters. As per locals, once a ‘Gora sahib’ (Englishman) visited Rawalakot and stayed in a guesthouse at the top of a hill. Next morning, he walked up to his balcony, and saw the Valley; he expressed his vision of the Valley as — glittering pearls lying in the lap of majestic snow-covered mountains. Afterward, Rawalakot has been known as the Pearl Valley.
Though, it only presents one of many such stories; one can find many restaurants, guest houses, shops and other institutions named after this story as Pearl View Hotel, Pearl Academy, Pearl View Newspaper, and many more.
In Rawalakot, the houses majorly have two kitchens — one is ‘modern style’, comprised of electric or gas stoves, and another is old-fashioned mud-made, locally known as ‘rasoi’, with a clay stove or clay-angeethi (Adagethi), with its chimney nosing out from the rooftop. Spotting smoke oozing from all tin roofs is also a common sight. The raw wood burns in hand-made clay stoves. As per ‘ritual’, people shift to the mud kitchens and rasoi in winters. It becomes the cozy place to sit, cook, talk, eat, and at times, sleep as well.
I have heard people saying that winters bring the priceless warmth and closeness among the family members. The entire household activities are pulled in rasoi; people shift their televisions and radios there, children drag their toys and school bags, readers take their books — digest and read, while sitting beside angeethi. Mothers never let the fire extinguish.
All sort of cooking is done on it only, and the food cooked on an open fire has a different delicious taste. Tea or kehva is made and served several times a day; kids are fond of getting their potatoes and corns cooked in the hot ash of the open fire. Sooji ka halwa (Semolina), Gajar ka halwa (Carrot-Halva), Methi aur Gurr wale Chawal (Sweet Brown rice), Mani ( loosely cooked wheat in milk), Yakhni (Soup), Pakora[ye] are among favorites in winters.
As a PhD student, I decided to start my field research work for my dissertation from Rawalakot. I found a local host family and stayed with them for almost a month and a half with them in the housing scheme, a colony of newly constructed houses in Rawalakot, usually, for the upper-middle-class.
What I had—read and learn—about the winters in Rawalakot filled my imaginations with the fascinating possibilities and a twitch of literary romanticism in it. I was quite excited for the firsthand experience of winters in Rawalakot and enjoying the spoken-tales personally. I was given a separate furnished room in Pakka-Makan (concrete house). Post-2005 earthquake, Pakka-Makan was a growing trend in Poonch; people made them alongside their mud houses.
And that’s how they have divided not only their houses in representations of time, history, and civilization, but it also signifies their adoption of dual lifestyles. The pakka (concrete) portion is well furnished with ‘modern style’ plastic or wooden furniture, artificial decorations, carpeting, and electrical appliances. This side is mostly reserved for the guests in all seasons, and for the family members in spring and summer. The family members have their separate bedrooms and a drawing room. Winters force the family to adhere back to their ‘ancestral style’ mud houses with tin roofs, clay stoves, and phurries (rugs). There lies a big room, attached to the kitchen, and they spend their days and nights together in the muddy closets.
It was cold as death, and I brought a small gas heater in my room. There was no other heating system; the concrete walls and roof were as cold as snow. The water in the taps was freezing cold. Here, the financial capabilities were not the barrier, but the limited voltage of electricity was.
And if, only if, the required voltage is supplied, the frequency of electricity load would be so high that it would damage the heavy electric gadgets. I started spending my daytime in mohallas (neighborhood) and institutions, while my evenings in the muddy kitchen with the local family. Soon, I got accustomed to the freezing cold temperature.
On one cold morning of February, soon after waking up, I saw the grayishness outside the window slid of my room. I murmured to myself, “Damn! Another day without the sun.” It is very difficult to work in the winters as people tend to stay indoors and not go out unless forced to. In Rawalakot, I was depending on the local rickshaws for my mobility. Soon, I checked my phone and saw a text message from the Rickshaw-wala (Rickshaw-driver), “Phrofesr Sahiba, enjoy the snow. Aaj roads block hain. Har koi ghar reh k barf enjoy krsi. U are invited at my house for lunch, my mother cook for u. Aap ao asan golay kulsan.”
(Professor Sahiba, enjoy the snow. Today, roads are blocked and everyone will enjoy snow by staying at homes. You are invited to my house; my mother has cooked lunch for you. You can come over, and we will play with the snow.)
The expression, ‘asan golay kulsan’ rejoiced me. Soon, I came out of the room to take a look outside. The lawn and the triangularly shaped tin-roofs were covered in white, and so were the trees in the lawn. It looked so beautiful and serene.
Somehow, I managed to cross to the opposite side of the house and reached the mud-kitchen. I opened the door and ended up in the utter darkness. I could taste the smoke in my nostrils and throat; i felt the itching in my water stained eyes. I coughed terribly, and the mother said instantly, “Are you alright?”
She continued, “Oh! It’s too much smoke here; we are trying to burn the wet woods. They are of no good.” After settling down in the dark, I asked, “Why don’t you put on some light?” She sighed; offered me a seat near the clay stove, and said, “It’s the first snowfall of the season and as usual, the electricity has gone since midnight.” As per her, some fault must have occurred in the main grid station or some wires must have split. Here, the snowfall never comes alone; it brings fall of trees, land, electricity wires, poles, and what not? By now, the rechargeable lights and torches had gone dead, and we were not prepared for an electricity break down.
Soon, it killed my excitement about the snowfall. A young feminine voice interrupted her mother and expressed her frustration of being stuck at home. After enquiring, the younger daughter, as I got to know, told me that on the first snowfall of the season there is an undeclared and unofficial holiday. The roads are blocked, and no public transport is working due to the landslides.
In Rawalakot, snowfall is seasonal and it comes every winter for a long period of time. Rather than being excited, people are more frustrated here.
The batteries ran out, wifi stepped down, woods went wet, and favorite dramas passed by; everyone and everything felt dumb and dead that day.
The discomfort of day-to-day living conditions in such harsh winters ‘put ice’ on my fantastic imaginations, and I understood that here — winters are not wonderland and I’m no Snow White.
Komal Raja is a native of Hajira in Poonch, Pakistan-administered Kashmir. She is a PhD Scholar, studying Social and Cultural Anthropology in LMU, Ludwig Maximilian, University of Munich, Germany.
This is the second part story of series Life Across LoC. You can read first part here.