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A Cultural Conglomerate

Visalakshi Menon

By Benedicte Grima
Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2005, pp. 160, Rs. 250.00


The North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan have for long been a source of fascination for outsiders. But few have ventured into the region and spent long years living the harsh lives of the local people in the way that Grima has. The author, an ethnographer who currently teaches Pashto at the University of Pennsylvania, has spent twelve years in Peshawar, the Swat valley, Quetta, Zhob and other adjoining areas. At the very outset she tells us that Pashto, the language of this region which she mastered, is not just a language but a complex conglomerate of cultural behaviour. β€œOne does not merely speak, but one does, one performs Pashto.” As she explains elsewhere in the book, in Pashto, behaviour is rooted in maintaining honour and reputation and the persistent fear of being shamed. Here one would recall that the title of her other book, published in the 1990s, is The Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women. Since laughter, dancing and singing are considered undesirable activities for women in that region, it is perhaps only through grief or gham that women could express themselves. The experiences are varied – from life in remote mountain villages where Grima roughed it out with her one year old daughter, to living with an affluent family in Peshawar in the midst of a family wedding. She was constantly chafing at being confined and secluded with the other womenfolk and there were times when she yearned for some male company or to be able to walk out freely into the beautiful landscapes around her – a near impossibility most of the time. But she felt privileged to have been able to enter into and participate in the lives of the Pashtun women, learning to do the attan, the traditional dance at the family wedding, balancing pots of water on her head, attempting to make bread, cleaning out the stables and even cutting grass. This resulted in her becoming so well integrated into the local way of life that she was expected to observe all the proprieties of the womenfolk from covering herself with a veil to being careful about where and how she seated herself in a bus. One of the most hilarious descriptions in this book is of her bus journeys through the barren mountains and passes of the Pashtun and Baluch tribal lands. (Interestingly, she states that she felt more secure and comfortable travelling through ...

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