24 February 2021

Gujars

Gujar woman

I have now typed twenty thousand words of my father's wartime tale of an adventure in northern Kashmir. His party has trekked beyond Lidderwat along stony tracks in the shadow of lofty mountains. They reach a high, treeless valley occupied only by Gujar shepherds and their families. This is his account.

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After crossing the stream in the manner described, we found a cluster of Gujar huts. When I write “found” I am choosing my words carefully for it would have been quite easy to pass within close proximity of those huts and not notice them. Each consisted of a thick roof of logs jutting out from the wall of the valley. This was supported by uprights also made from logs of great girth and strength. The roof logs were reinforced with grass, earth and dung so that the thickness of the roof was two or three times bigger. The spaces between the upright logs were interwoven with thick grasses and all apertures were sealed with soil and dung. The huts were built in this manner so that the snow which must fall onto the roof during winter or which might avalanche would not cause the hut to collapse. The resultant disaster to Gujar inhabitants  was therefore avoided. Looking at these huts one could visualise the terrific weight of snow which they would be capable of supporting. The construction  of the walls was such that they would be draught-proof how ever much the demon winds of the valley howled around.

We entered one of these huts but the darkness, the stench and the filth caused us to give the interior only a cursory inspection. The floor was of hard stamped earth – thereby matching the ceiling and the walls. Wherever one walked, the supporting pillars for the roof impeded one’s movement. The nether wall of the hut was simply the sloping side of the valley and against this was piled a large quantity of drying wood ready for use during the ensuing winter. In the centre of the hut was an open circular hearth constructed from blackened stones. There was no outlet for the smoke and because of this there was a lingering smell of old pinewood smoke commingled with various other olfactory ingredients that together created a most powerful odour. The stink of human bodies unwashed for many months, perhaps years, the decaying flesh that clung to the sheepskins hanging over a beam, the droppings of sheep and hens that evidently lived in the hut, the odour of spilt milk long since soured, scraps of food rotting on the floor – all these combined to make the stale  air  in the hut so offensive to our nostrils that we quickly curtailed our curiosity.

The occupants of the hut seemed to be three women , about ten men and  an indeterminate number of children. All were very dirty almost beyond belief. The women wore voluminous blue smocks that covered them from the neck to the ankle. The smock was stained and dirty with the accumulation of years of spillages. Their faces were thin, hatchety and unlovely and at the time I thought of them as much like the reincarnation of my childhood idea of witches. Underneath a dirty cloth coal-scuttle hat, reminiscent of those worn  in England during the Cromwellian period,  was a tangled mass of thin, tightly-plaited hair. This hair was in such profusion that it did not take too long to notice that the women’s natural hair was interwoven with strands of horsehair and it was obvious that once plaited the hair was never unwound. Hanging from their ears were huge earrings of both silver and wood, which pulled their lobes down towards their shoulders. The men were tall in stature and they also wore smocks but of a drab stone colour. Over their shoulders they draped a loosely rolled blanket or shawl. Skull caps fitted over their closely tonsured skulls so that they had a rather monkish appearance. Their faces were a walnut brown, weathered colour with the texture of leather and they were all bearded. Apart from their unwashed state they were quite an attractive and fine set of fellows. The children would be difficult to describe for they were in a motley array of clothes or stark naked. They were thin-faced, unwashed but laughing, vigorous and with a bright, intelligent light shining in their eyes.

50 comments:

  1. That's a fascinating description of the huts and their occupants, the detail is extraordinary.

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    1. I am sure that that kind of scene has now largely been resigned to history.

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  2. Just brilliant and vivid descriptions.

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  3. Riveting! Wow. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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    1. Glad you bothered to read it Jennifer. It reminds us that real life was happening in the decades before we were born.

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  4. Fascinating reading, I’m looking forward to the next chapter. Your father must have been a very interesting man to know.

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    1. Okay Curly Club...soon I will print some more. Thanks for calling by.

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  5. Have you offered the manuscript to any libraries or museums? It's a valuable historical document.
    What fabulous descriptive power, I can see it all

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    1. When it is all typed up I plan to turn it into an e-book. Thanks Kylie.

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  6. Wow! I'm not sure I'll ever forget this description. How differently humans can live and still survive and even, perhaps thrive. Your father caught this one dramatically.

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    1. When I reached this page it sang out to me. Usually, he is writing about the trail and the mountains.

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  7. He saw the bad AND the good, didn't he? In the midst of all of that, he found something praiseworthy.

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    1. In my memory, he was always the kind of man who tried to see the good in things and in his fellow human beings. Thanks Debby.

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  8. What attention to the structure of the homes, interior and exterior. Attention to detail, period!
    Was your father a British official and if so, in any way involved with the dispute over the territory?

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    1. No. He was in The Royal Air Force as a wartime volunteer Joanne. They trained him up to be a meteorologist. This was before the partition of India.

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  9. This is a treasure that your father has written. It must have been a fascinating trip.

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    1. He loved hills and mountains long before World War II so being in India was like a dream come true.

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  10. I really am glad that you have decided to type up your Dad's script and share some of it here with us. It makes for a very good read.
    And having read this makes me glad I live here, and now.

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    1. In photos you always look so clean. I doubt that you would have fitted in with the Gujars in that valley.

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  11. I felt that I could almost smell the interior from the description.

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    1. I hope your residence has a slightly more pleasant aroma Graham.

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  12. I think I visited that free Rock music festival? I want to meet a Guitar woman. An Hoover Free Zone.😊

    Seriously it's a very good anthropological account.

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    1. Yup! I don't think that that hut had ever seen a hoover - nor a feather duster or a tumble dryer. They managed fine without.

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  13. That is a fascinating account YP. I can picture the scene and almost imagine that I was there too.

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    1. Thanks for reading it JayCee and for allowing the text to carry you there.

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  14. Fascinating descriptions YP. I wonder, if he went back today, your father would find things changed, or still the same?

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    1. Both I should say but because of global warming the glacier he climbed upon soon after meeting the shepherd people would have receded very significantly.

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  15. I would thing that the lady in the photo would have been quite beautiful when she was younger.
    Briony
    x

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    1. Her life story is written in her wrinkles and in the loveliness of her eyes.

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  16. Your father's power of description was/is magnificent. I felt as if I were in the hut with him; experiencing every detail. So very glad you are taking the time to save his diary for posterity.

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    1. That is so kind of you to say so Mary - especially so for I know you to be an intelligent and literate human.

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  17. The Gujar woman is fascinating and her blue eyes extraordinary, and your father's words so clearly descriptive of the household. We all live in such different ways and probably the shepherds have moved on to a different time.

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    1. I would love to go to that valley and check out the situation now but I fear that all that will be left is the ghosts of those who went before.

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  18. Wow, those are very detailed descriptions. Sounds like it could be of real value for historians interested in that part of the world.

    Actually your previous post on this inspired me to have another go at my grandfather's notes about family history. Even though he typed some of them on typewriter back in the 1950s they're not a coherent story, just bits and pieces from various sources - and his own repeated attempts to put things together. I'll probably just end up another generation not able to make much sense of it. (I think my dad tried a bit too but gave up, except he did fill in the family tree a bit.)

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    1. Please don't give up DT. Make it your mission to pull those notes together. I am very chuffed that my transcription has rekindled your own enthusiasm for the job.

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  19. Your Dad paints a wonderful picture with his words, you can almost smell that hut and the occupants, I wonder what became of them...

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    1. A few of the children in that hut may still be alive - perhaps eighty years old now. Maybe they remember the day the white men came.

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  20. Amazing narrative. That smell inside the huts must have been diabolical. I suppose they get used to it and the smell of one another.

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    1. I suppose visitors to our house have to get used to the aroma of baking Yorkshire puddings.

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  21. Your Father was an excellent writer. This reads as good as any book and it deserves to be available for the public. It is not only interesting but an important historical document.

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    1. Very kind of you to say that Bonnie. Thank you on my father's behalf.

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  22. Your father's writing reminded me of Kipling's other novel, The Light That Failed, not as well known as his masterpiece, Kim.
    The Light That Failed was filmed (YouTube) with Ronald Colman, Ida Lupino, Walter Huston and Muriel Angelus. The novel's protagonist really does go blind.

    Your father's generation had such hopes for postwar Britain, all of which now lie in the dust.
    Bradford has the youngest population in Britain and the highest child poverty rate, a statistic that ought to condemn Boris Johnson and his predecessors, Theresa May and David Cameron, to the hottest place in Hell.

    The beautiful blue eyes of the Gujar woman have such compassion and understanding.
    Haggerty

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    1. Thanks for this response John. Yes - such hopes and indeed expectations. A land still fit for heroes and for a while it was... The NHS, The Welfare State, acres of social housing. Where did it go wrong? Perhaps it was like rising damp rather than particular moments. However, we still have a lot to be proud of and grateful for - I still believe that my friend.

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  23. My lord, man. What a writer your dad was. As I now see that everyone before me has the same opinion. Who wouldn't? I really, truly want you to publish his book when you are finished. His students must have loved him. I'm gobsmacked!!!

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    1. Hello Colorado Sister... And please understand that he was just twenty nine or maybe thirty when he wrote this journal. I always loved him but the journal has brought me closer. Painstakingly typing every word - it is almost as if I AM him. I will post a couple more extracts very soon.

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  24. It must be very interesting for you to be reading and typing your father's writing....not knowing what gems might come next! He definitely noticed details. I wonder why they were so unwashed. Perhaps they lived in a dry valley?

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    1. Oh no - there was always ice cold water there - running down from the glacier but frozen in the winter. It makes you think - why do we in the west have this obsession about keeping clean? When I was a boy I had a bath just once a week and we had no shower. Were you the same?

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    2. Yes....bath once a week.( whether we needed it or not!) We had one of those rubber pipe thingys that connected to the taps for hair washing purposes but not useable as a shower!

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  25. YP.. your father had an amazing ability to paint a picture.. you can almost smell the hut interior!
    I say this with the sense of what we have been finding in our old 1936 built home (which is next to a river) currently undergoing a recladding - mummified dead river rats must have been on the nose at sometime in the distant past. Did our previous occupiers bathe or were they so accustomed to the stench of decaying rats it was the normal. I wonder if the natives that your father encountered were of the same disposition.. either no sense of smell or so accustomed to those earthy odours it was part of their existence and not offensive to them?
    I'm sorry to be squeamish, but the thought of unwashed bodies for years really is way too stinky and I would have been exiting their abode mighty quickly too! Loving the snippets of his experiences.

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