down the memory lane to the valley of dreams.

when did the night fall and the pitch black darkness descended? no one had any idea. How could we notice? we were in Mingora Bazar after all. The tourist destination where one cannot measure time in any sense of the word. Where there are endless rows of shops lined on both sides of the road and they are overflowing with goodies from all over the world plus local handicrafts, antiques. pattu, pashmina and kashmiri shawls and jackets in all hues and colors.

Suddenly the shopkeeper raised his – so far silken – voice. “shut up shut up” waving both his hands over his head. Startled, we looked at him. He was looking at the entrance of the shop where a man was standing. “shut up, shut up” the shopkeeper shouted again and this time showing us the way out. I suddenly realized that there were only four of us in the shop with these two men we didn’t know anything about.

“kho, why do you say shut up shut up? say ‘time to shut the shop up’. Shut up means don’t talk and I don’t hear anyone talking. Don’t be rude to the girls.”
the shopkeeper turned red in the face and this time just waved his right hand to tell us to go. Like lambs, we put whatever we had picked up to buy, back on the shelf and turned to get down the steps. Still we didn’t realize that it was long past the time we were supposed to be in the Bazar. the whole street was bright with electrical lights, but shoppers had gone. A few people here and there, roaming around but none from our group. still no need for a panic attack.

“doesn’t matter. Its not very far. we can walk back to the hostel.” said BF (my best friend)
“if any of you remember, I told you to leave the rest of the shopping for tomorrow. CG (our colleague) said.
“don’t panic, we are not too far from where we are staying. I tried to be brave.
“isn’t this what someone said a while back?” my dear sis added.
we all fell quiet and concentrated on finding out how fast our feet could carry us to our safe haven.

Suddenly the mingora bazar and its bright lights were behind us and we were walking through pitch black darkness.
didn’t I tell you to….” it was CG
“oh just shut up” BF seethed.

We heard a smothered laughter not very far behind us. a cold wave ran down my spine and like a cat I felt my hair on my neck rising.
BF hiccuped.
“who was that?” sis whispered.”
“oh my God, oh my God I promise I would never go out with these reckless girls ever again, help me Allah, save me Allah.” CG started making pledges with God only for her own safety.
“stop whimpering, concentrate on walking” BF said.

an owl hooted over head. something stirred in the bushes. wild pears and almond trees so alluring in the daylight were like ghosts – silent and waiting to pounce on us. it was time for a panic attack.. I felt dizzy. ” BF, I am feeling sick, I whispered.”
“no you are not. keep walking. with a kid and a loony in the tow, you cant be sick. pull yourself up.” she pressed a cold and wet hand in my hand. ” all of us hold hands and feel strong. no one can harm us.” BF took charge.

“My shoe strap is broken.” CG said
“we don’t see any cobblers here. leave it on the road.” I whispered.
“my best sandals.” she wailed.
“oh just shut up”BF said it again and again there was that muffled sound of someone laughing.
” I am going back and ask why he is following us.”
“no you are not.” I tightened my grip on her hand.
“I am scared” my sis said. I put my hand on her shoulder. “I am here with you.”
I heard her crying.

Our mother didn’t want her to go on this trip. but my sis pleaded and pleaded with her and finally got the permission to go. She was happy and she had brought all her saved money to spend and have fun. she definitely was not prepared for this neither was anyone of us.

I don’t remember how and when or why our college decided to have a four day trip to the Swat Valley and the surrounding areas. we were going to make day trips to see and know this beautiful part of our country.

I was waiting for my Masters results – Masters in Urdu Language and Literature. I had just been home and relaxing that I got a call from a local college where I was a student before going for my masters degree. The principal wanted me to come and take urdu lit classes. I joined. It was a temporary assignment which became permanent. The teacher I was filling in came back but the principal didn’t want to let me go. So I was teaching the girls almost my age and having fun. Six months into the job and we were on the road to Swat, Mingora, Miandam Bahrain and Saidu Shrif.
we wanted to go to Kaghan too to see the Lake Saif al Muluk where – the legend is – fairies come at night to sing and dance and leave right before the first ray of sunlight comes down the mountains. This lake is right on top of a mountain surrounded by other higher mountains.

(((once traveling to Skardu, I saw this lake from the plane. It was just unbelievable what I saw – a big round , emerald bowl sitting atop a mountain.)))

” I think we are halfway now ” I just wanted to say something.
“oh goody good !” CG snorted. she had just one shoe on now and was walking like a camel.
“lets sing ” BF said.
no one said anything. We were almost running now. There appeared a bend in the road – a dangerous place to be on a dark night. mountains on one side and a bottomless dark pit on the other. we had to slow down but keep moving almost hugging the mountain. it felt endless. but soon as we came out, there was our hostel, with every window lit and some restless souls walking the grounds. I am sure we all felt like hugging the building the grounds and the ones walking the grounds. CG was about to sprint forward.
“stop” I said. ”
“he is not following us anymore”
“oh misery – go back, bring him, Ms urdu department is sad” CG said and started laughing. You all are unmarried, free like larks – as they say but I have a husband and some children to think about. I was scared for them that what would they do without me.
“oh just shut up” BF said and we all laughed.
“so , if someone finds out we are coming back so late, what are we going to say?”
“they left us there. the bus left without us, without making sure that everybody was on the bus – not our fault – what are you talking about.”
“I was supposed to be with my class. CG said. “and so were you ms zoology”
BF didn’t say anything.
we started moving towards the building. no one noticed. we went to our room and flopped on the beds, exhausted.

A girl knocked on the open door. “dinner time, miss.” she said and went to the next door and then the next …
dinner hall was packed. almost every one was there. we sat down with the students, though there was a separate table for the teachers. they were serving rice, spinach with big chunks of meat in
it and fruit after the meal.

I like rice and spinach and always enjoy it heartily. I had hardly eaten a little bit that my fork touched something different than a chunk of meat. I fished it out. it was a bug – a big, bug with huge wings green with spinach all over. horrified, I looked around. No one was looking at me. I put my napkin over it and pushed the plate a little away. “why?” BF asked. “not hungry” ” why?”
“don’t panic but look whats on my plate.” I lifted a corner of my napkin. “o ma !” she almost choked. CG and sis also emptied their mouths on their napkins. Just then our principal came to our table. “We haven’t seen all of you all day. Come to my room after you have finished.” ” oh sure, we’d love to” I said. “would you like to see something” BF said sweetly. “yes, sure, what is it?” She bent over our heads to see. BF lifted the napkin up a little.
“delicious. want to have a taste?” our dear principal took a step back and almost ran to her table.
“she knows. question is, who told her”
“some ‘khudai foujdar” (some one from God’s army)
“you have no idea …” CG was nervous
“of what?”
“all three of us were responsible for our girls – our classes”
“yes, but did anyone look for us before they left.
” teachers are responsible for their students, not the other way around.”
“we made a mistake. you are right.”

we took some fruit and left the dining hall.

The next morning right before we mounted the bus for our trip to Bahrain, our principal received a message from the Wali of Swat (the ruler of Swat)

“last night your bus left the Bazar without four of your beautiful girls. My people are honorable and you are our guest. we don’t harm our guests. but you must know that human nature is not hundred percent predictable. if our man was not accompanying them, there was a chance some one said, “finders, keepers”.

“now tell your cooks to have a day off and give us the pleasure of taking care of your dinner for tonight.”

Wali’s messenger was standing behind the principal. it was the same man who we saw standing in the doorway of the shop and telling the shopkeeper ‘shut up’ was a bad word.

Note: CG got her missing shoe back, With the strap mended, it was left on veranda, near one of the pillars.
Lucky for her that no one noticed before she saw it.

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