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Shubnum Khan

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Harvest season in Kashmir

Shubnum Khan in Kashmir

I’m sitting in a tiny village in the Himalayas; behind me in the North lies China, right next to me on the left is Pakistan and ahead of the mountains in the South is the steaming mass of India. It’s been nearly two months since I left South Africa to volunteer at a school in Kashmir.

Breswana is a village on a mountain 7000 feet high in Jammu and Kashmir with a population of around 1400. The villagers live a difficult life, farming their crops and grazing their livestock of sheep, goats and buffaloes on steep terrain for most of the day. Since they spend hours working in the harsh sun, they are weatherworn and tough – pahar (mountain) people. They are also some of the most hospitable and kindest people I’ve met. When we go for walks we’ve been warned not to accept their constant offers to lunch or tea as they would probably give us all their food for the day or week.

At the moment it’s harvest season, so the fields are full of corn, the trees are laden with apples, walnuts and pears and since the cows and buffaloes are producing milk, diary products are plentiful. Lethri (harvest) has begun and each family is cutting, gathering and storing all the grass, plants, fruit and vegetables from the mountain in preparation for the upcoming harsh winter. Harvest time means it’s bear and leopard season in the village and in the evenings we hear the sounds of the villagers beating drums and shouting from their watch posts in the cornfields to scare away bears. The leopards attack small or lame animals and occasionally kill dogs. However, my biggest threat has been fleas; they’ve attacked me furiously in the first few weeks but are now, thankfully, dying down with the colder weather.

The children at the school are nothing short of incredible. Despite the fact that they lack nutrition, spend long hours walking to school and work hard at home; they are still curious and eager to learn. They constantly amaze me with their questions, ranging from ‘why don’t planets crash into each other in space?’ or ‘why are there so many wars?’ The high level of education and the exposure to volunteers from across the word have opened the minds of these children in a tiny village on a mountain in incredible ways. They can already speak English, Urdu, Kashmiri, Hindi and parts of French, Spanish and now, even Zulu.

Once I return home I know there are things I will no longer have patience for (which is ironic since one of the qualities I wanted to learn here was patience) and excess and indulgence are some of them. People here live extremely basic lives; electricity is a rarity and many of the villagers have not even seen a car, and while I have some luxuries like hot water and a hair dryer, my life has definitely been trimmed down to a form of basics. It consists of eating, sleeping and teaching, and any extra time is used to learn Urdu or to read and write. I’ve learnt a new kind of respect for food and time here. Both these things are abused to an extreme level in the modern world. I cannot imagine spending hours on social networks, stewing over insults or even wasting food anymore. There are constant electricity cuts and recently there has not been electricity for most of the day, so charging cell phones and heating geysers have to be well timed. It seems odd and repulsive to me now to be able to return to a world where you can shower in hot water for hours, gorge yourself full on junk food, have indulgent parties and shop for the latest fashion. Perhaps it is a temporary feeling but by God, I hope it’s not. I never want to be that careless with life again.

It’s not been easy, there are times when I’ve been sick, exhausted and uncomfortable but each difficulty brings the understanding that every experience makes me stronger. Also, I’m beginning to realise that what I perceive as difficulties are small matters. Many of the students are not even living with their families; they live with others to be near the school; they sometimes come without lunch; ripped uniforms and torn shoes, yet most of them are happy and eager to learn. Haleema, in class 5, looks after her four younger brothers and sickly mother, cooks and cleans, and never complains. In the face of such natural acceptance of fate, it’s difficult to find fault with one’s own life. And I think, this is why the Prophet (PBUH) advised people to look at those lower than them in life than those higher. It helps build a unique kind of contentment, one which feels more stable and solid.

So I’m sitting in this tiny village in the Himalayas and sometimes I am cold, or itchy or hungry and I do miss chocolate and microwaves and bedroom walls without giant spiders but I feel a different kind of happy here.

And it feels good.

Tightie Whitie Vaginas

A few weeks ago I read about an advert in India for a vaginal tightening and whitening cream.

There are many things that disturb me in this world but I am particularly upset when it comes to women’s degradation. We constantly seem to be fighting a battle in which we put ourselves in the losing corner. I discuss this absurd phenomenon and what virginity means on Mail and Guardian’s Thought Leader.

A woman does not need to whiten or tighten her vagina to be happy and a man does not need a continuous virgin in the bedroom. There is a reason virginity only comes once – it symbolises the beginning of many hopes: adulthood, maturity, a union with another person. While it may not mean many of these things today – the sentiment still is that it is a sacred thing. It is honoured in most religions and most people when asked, would rather have saved it for the right person at the right time. Virginity is not just a physical thing as the advert narrowly implies. That space comes with many important mental connotations. The first time for a couple together symbolises the breaking of barriers, the awkward beginnings, the painful adjustments to allow a new person intimately in your life. It represents awkwardness, newness and overcoming fear. It is a symbolic step in life. It makes way for a future of understanding one another and becoming comfortable with another person. Why then would you want to go backward into a space where you were both still learning how to love one another?

The rest of the article and discussion can be found here: