Dense blankets of air engulfed me when I touched down at Bacha Khan Airport.
Within minutes, my back was superglued to the scalding leather seat of a Suzuki taxi, driven by my one-eyed driver Shaukat. From Peshawar, we crawled through Swat and Skardu, and then eventually north to Hunza. The journey lasted many days.
Shaukat had been bitten in the left eye by a cockroach. The wound had become infected, melting away the eyeball and leaving the socket hollow. He revealed this to me just as we were reached Karakoram Highway — one of the deadliest roads in the world, which snaked around the Karakoram mountain range. For a tense day, we drove along the edge of a samurai sword.
“How do you feel about it, the eye thing?” I replied in broken Burushaski, not
being able to think of anything else more sensible to say.
Shaukat was slight man with a ruler-straight moustache, his left eye was puckered closed, giving the impression that he was permanently winking. We skidded on loose gravel, barely a metre from the edge of the cliff.
“It was nazr, Ayesha bibi”, he told me, as we pulled up to my relatives’ house in
Karimabad. A blue pendant hung off the rear-view mirror, with an eye inscribed
in its centre. It was the last thing I saw on exiting the Suzuki and falling into the
arms of my Aba-jaan.
“Aba-jaan, tell us a story?”
“Tell us one about the mountain spirits? Or the Churail? Or the Balits?”
“Hamza, Bashir! You must settle. Are you both not excited to hear from your
cousin Aisha? Do you not want to know about life in London? Not doubt she has
much to tell us.”
Fluent Burushaski swirled around in the living space. I only replied back in the
dribbles my mother had taught me. The tongue was strange, a new sensation for my gentrified ears. My cousins — eight-year- old Hamza and his younger brother Bashir were huddled next to me, expecting great tales about the modern western life. They shot timid glances at me with brilliant rainforest-green eyes, shifting down quickly as I met their gaze. The boys lived with our grandparents — we called them Aba-jaan and Nani-jaan.
Save for their striking eyes, the boys had meek faces, infused with absent sorrow. Hamza and Bashir’s parents had been shot dead by a gang of gunmen as they were stopped at a checkpoint in Quetta. Our grandfather had raised the children alone for the past year, all the while caring for our sick grandmother.
As for my departure from London – I hesitated and stumbled out a short version of events: that I was now on an indefinate hiatus from university. That my mother sent me to Pakistan to spend time with our dying Nani-jaan.
I left out some things, too:
That I’d recently finished a stint in rehab, battling the usual stuff.
That the heroin had left my veins thready, and my arms punctured with tracks.
That my own mother wanted me as far away from her world as possible. Northern Pakistan was a pretty apt destination.
At night, the naked tube light in the family room was purposefully extinguished.
Our shadows rippled against pale candlelight. The evening stilled, as the meat sat heavily in our guts and made us drowsy. We digested it with mint tea.
I was settling in well. I hadn’t thought about injecting in eight days, the same
amount of time I hadn’t thought about my mother. Back to square one.
After everyone had prayed Maghrib, as the moon climbed over the stars, our Aba-jaan told us a story before bed.
The hour is late and your cousin Aisha is exhausted from her long trip. But since
you are all very dear to me, a grandparent has no option but to oblige. So I will
tell you one story tonight, but a short one. Listen, then.
Our tale begins in the mountains of Hunza. Where the hollow caverns and ravines overpower time, and thin mountain air quickens the heart.
The valley of Hunza is encircled by seven peaks. Do you know which ones?
(..Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayan peaks!), my cousins replied in
Very good. The mountains cradle our Hunza like older brothers, protective and
fierce to strangers. They are incredibly lonely places for the wandering traveller.
Amongst the roar of the mountain streams, the creaking of the juniper trees, and the crashing of rocks, the shepherds who visit the peaks say they sometimes hear more. A deep and ancient cry.
(..Pari! Bashir, he means the Pari!)
The shepherds would never question when their livestock would go missing in the night. It was the spirits they blamed. Whispering “Pari, pari”, the enigmous
forces which were said to have a thirst for goats and ibex.
Occasionally, the spirits would brush with us…
Our grandparent’s house was in Karimabad. A casual paradise tucked away from existence. It was untouched and exquisitely beautiful. The fig trees bounced with ripe fruit. Clear water streamed through the cracks in the mountains. It was cooler here than in Peshawar.
Nani-jaan had stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which had spread to her lungs and liver. On her deathbed, she was an explosion of colours.
Lying on a charpai, a blotchy, red rash covered her chest and arms. Deep blue
bruises on her flanks. Her malignancy had turned the whites of her eyes to a
banana-yellow. Her body was dying, but her soul would burn hot for moments,
when she screamed deliriously. I could not help but be mesmerised by the
charpai’s psychedelic patterns and geometry. Its crosshatched fibres supported her negligible weight with ease.
The nearest doctor was in Ganish, the next town over. My Aba-jaan had no
intention of calling her. There was a Bitan visiting the house in six days, and our
Nani was to be strictly left alone until then.
…You wanted to hear of the Pari? As far as the legends go, the spirits roaming
our mountains are said to jealously guard their domain against humans. They are
malevolent creatures who relish feasting on the vulnerable. This is why the Pari
often wander into villages and infest the sick.
When that happens, my children, there are few who can offer any help…
I noticed that Aba-jaan spent the majority of the day by Nani’s bedside.
The chemotherapy for Nani had arrived a few months ago, ordered out from DHQ hospital in Skardu by my desperate mother. Expensive western medicine. As of yet remaining untouched. Aba-jaan had eyed the clear pouches of liquid with contempt, taking in the bold-embossed lettering:
P-A- C-L- I-T- A-X- E-L
Every day, Aba-Jaan wept after Nani. He had watched her forearms wither to dry twigs. How could a feeble, colourless liquid be the answer to her suffering, he had asked my mother.
When methadone was first given to me in rehab, I remembered feeling cheated, too. I hated the invisible tangle of its sterile rules. I refused to believe in it. But the knots in my muscles persuaded my body to accept the green liquid.
E-P- T-A- D-O- N-E
My withdrawing flesh had protested every night, sometimes in silence, other
times with a monstrous virulence. The saintly rehab nurses had endured every
outburst with patience.
Eventually I lost myself. My soul became dull and mute. In the quiet, the green
poison healed my body. I had now been clean for three months.
…. You must know, children. There are some men who claim to be close to the
Pari. They are reclusive, and live far in the borderlands — away from civilisation
Our villagers usually stay clear of them. That is, until a need for them arises.
Alas, some diseases have no medicine. The Bitan is then summoned..
The Bitan was coming over today.
In the backdrop of Hunza, cascades of mountains brushed the horizon. A troupe of giants, sugared with snow. Clouds were erupting in sheets of rain. All activity in our village had ceased.
Preparations were made for the Bitan’s requirements. A heap of juniper leaves, a lighter and matches were set out neatly on a table by Nani-jaan. She groaned
intermittently, clutching her distended belly. One of the shepherds had tied a kid
goat to the back of the house, advising us to keep it for the Bitan’s ritual.
Before long, the Bitan arrived. Donning bright orange robes, his face was bare
save for darkened circles under the eyes which looked drawn-on with eyeliner.
His mouth weaved an eccentric half-grin, and he moved in quick spasms.
By midday, a crowd of villagers had gathered in our home to support us.
Without a moments hesitation, the kid goat was decapitated. The ritual to save
Nani-jaan had begun.
It all happened quickly. Or at least, it felt so.
The Bitan sucked smoke from the flaming juniper leaves. His slender collar-bones rose and fell as the fumes billowed into the living room. My cousins whimpered, unable to look into his crazed eyes. Blood was grimed into the corners of his smile, where he had drained it from the goat’s severed head.
The Bitan’s lips contorted in rehearsed movements. An alien prayer. By his feet,
my Nani lay on her charpai, breathing in whispers.
After a few minutes of pantomine, the ritual ended, unceremoniously.
And then, the Bitan was leaving for a bus heading back to the outskirts of town.
He had not stopped to socialise, or partake in the dinner which Aba-jaan had
organised for him. There was no mention of what would happen next to Nani, and Aba-jaan had accepted this without protest – hoping against hope.
In the blow of a breeze, the day became a hallucination.
The Bitan’s chants and prayers failed. Nani expired silently in the early hours of
the following morning. Her death was, well, predictable. A thing prophesised by
But it had been anything but obvious to Aba-jaan.
For the rest of the day, he kneeled by Nani’s cold body — speaking only to
invisible voices in the room. The voices did not answer back. When the children
or I tried to talk to him, he stared beyond our faces, engaged in conversation with someone else.
At night my cousins and I slept together, terrified and sobbing. Whilst we shed
our tears, Aba-jaan’s eyes remained dry. As if he believed Nani was still alive. In
the black of night, he called out to the pari.
It carried on two days, and then Aba-jaan left us. Without words. Without
My cousins were orphaned for a second time.
I settled in for the long haul.
The uncertainty gnawed at Bashir. I was the only one here now, so his question hailed on me like a tempest. Hamza mostly stayed quiet, accepting the situation for what it was.
Aba-jaan was somewhere in the mountains, and Nani was dead. The children still needed to be fed. To be looked after.
The villagers filed in every day, leaving behind their flowers, food and sympathy.
There had been a minority of strongly worded letters, telling us to flee the town
just like Aba-jaan. Suddenly I remembered Shaukat’s winking face.
“it was nazr, Ayesha bibi”
I almost called my mother in London. She would know what to do. How to look after my vulnerable cousins. Instead, I disconnected home phone and sent her a final message from my mobile before throwing its battery away:
[all is well, settling in. Nani recovering. Aba-jaan is looking after everyone. love
The mountains of Hunza towered over me, swallowing my secret. I was terrified but also excited.
…I think, my children, one story is enough for the night. Time to rest our weary
minds, and allow slumber to take us. Don’t give me that look, Bashir. You must
listen to your grandfather. Head to your beds – Aisha, Hamza and Bashir. Put out the candle on your way.
Our story may be over, but do not lament. There are always companions in the
night. After all, we are not too far from the mountains.
Author: Hasan Zaheer was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and emigrated to the UK at the age of eight. He currently works as a junior doctor in London, and pursues writing as a hobby with an interest in short fiction.
Photo credits: insta name: Jawad_jd_