Zeenath Jahan

Having been away for many years, I recently revisited my family's summer house in Abbottabad. It faces a range of pine-clad hills which it was a family tradition to climb every evening. Biwa Pahari, the highest peak, was the culmination of our mountaineering skills.

My favourite haunt had always been a secluded valley, tucked away between the hills. I had stumbled on it on one of my ramblings. A little stream ran through it, whose banks were always generously sprinkled with daisies. Whenever I feel low, I return to `my' valley in my thoughts. It never fails to lift my spirits.

Driving around the bends on Sarban Pahari opposite Abbottabad, I tried to spot the house. As children we had always tried to be the first to locate it amongst the distant patchwork of houses and trees. Now it was impossible to find. There seemed to be so many more houses and far fewer trees than I remembered.

On the way up to the house at the corner of the Chita Pul road, I was glad to see that the little shop was still doing business. We used to stop there on our return from bazaar, to buy hot, spicy pikoras fried in mustard oil. I felt my heart lifting. It was a good sign, things could not have changed too much!

The first inkling I had that all was not well was when the car stopped before the house. Two poor stumps were all that remained of the cypress trees that had jealously guarded the front door for over sixty years. The house itself seemed unchanged.

My fears allayed, I ran out to greet the hills, I was home! I stopped short and stared in dismay at the sight that greeted me. A dirt road, with gaunt electric poles straddling it, scarred `my' beautiful hills; molesting them, defiling them.

I remember watching the villager's bobbing lanterns as they plodded to the peaceful stillness of their homes. We used to scare ourselves silly with the tales of smugglers and jinns that we wove around their flickering lights. In the evenings the hills used to become enchanted and fitted in with all our imaginings.

Now there were no more flickering lights. There were no more magical dusks in which a child's imagination could run riot. Glaring head-lamps and strident horns had taken their place. The hills had entered the modern age!

I was enraged. I was heartsick. I felt a part of my childhood had been robbed. I resented the hill-folk the luxury of modern technology! I resented them the luxury of electricity! Most of all I resented the price `my' hills had paid!

I cut short my trip. I could not bear to visit `my' valley. I could not risk seeing it desecrated, too. It would always be magical in my memory, a memento of my childhood. Yet, the more I think of it, the more I question my moral right to deny the simple hill-folk comforts of modern life. How can I expect them to value beauty when they lack the basicnecessities that I take for granted?

It was then that I realized a truth that seems to have escaped the policy makers of the world. The environment can only be saved from destruction after the basic needs of people are fulfilled.

As the Pashtu saying goes, `A full belly speaks Persian'. It is almost immoral to speak of aesthetics and the future of the planet to the destitute. Their todays are painful enough to inure them to disasters in the distant future.

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