Why high hills have a high suicide rate

Published 01 Sep, 2018 09:18pm
Family members of a person who committed suicide gather in Hunza | Aurangzaib Khan
Family members of a person who committed suicide gather in Hunza | Aurangzaib Khan

When winter arrives, the village folk come down from the mountains to their villages, bringing back cattle fattened on the highland grass. Soon there will be snow, confining them to their homes. They will slaughter an ox or a goat and salt and dry its carcass — as part of Nasalo, their winter festival. This, along with fruit dried and grain harvested in summer months, will sustain them through a long, cold winter.

But before the villagers move into closed indoors, they must exorcise evil spirits that have moved in while they were away.

The spirits are quiet and secretive. From their hiding places, they are expelled through a rite of noise — villagers knocking walls and doors with a pickaxe or a rolling pin. Residents are not allowed to sleep inside their houses during exorcism because if they do, the spirits will possess them to stay on with them. The ritual done, the villagers have a feast of goli – bread rolled in butter – to declare their houses safe for habitation. In mountain valleys of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan, communities are as disciplined and single-minded as ants. The clockwork of their lives is regulated by nature – through its bounties and scarcities, through the harsh and kind turns of seasons – as they work through summers to save for winters. Their naturalist outlook on life, and a mountain culture conceived and preserved in isolation from the rest of the world, hint at their region’s Shamanic past even when these communities have long embraced Islam. Largely symbolic than being an article of faith today, doman koh, or the rite of exorcism, is a throwback to an age covered in mists of time like the mountain peaks in clouds on a rainy day here.

Of late, though, the mountain folks have returned home to find that evil spirits have hardened themselves to withstand the ritual. Not only do they insist on staying, they demand a sacrifice far bigger than slaughtering a goat or a cockerel.

While the elders were in the mountains beseeching fairies for fecund cattle and bountiful harvest, their children left villages to get education in cities. They returned disabused of myths, divested of faith in fairies their forefathers bow to and seek counsel from in time of adversity. Drawn to the gods of globalisation – Oracle, Nike, Hermes, Mars: brands, not deities from mythology – the children have become split personalities, torn between an ancient world and a new one.

As the culture, festivals and traditions that give the locals a sense of self and sociocultural identity die so do the bonds that hold mountain communities into a cohesive whole. As those bonds die, they leave a curse behind. The locals find themselves amidst a zone where the self stands on shaky ground between the solid world it once inhabited and the virtual one that lacks a core.

The self stands lost. And there is no help from fairies in the face of an onslaught from fiends – the relentless, faceless forces unleashed by modernity, globalisation, sectarianism, radicalisation and state oppression – that snuff all hope for self-realisation. At the altar of these raging demons, the mountain communities must sacrifice their own lives and those of their children. With a cockerel, a goat, a prayer, they cannot be allayed.

This excerpt is part of the Herald's September 2018 issue. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.