My final goodbye to Mirpur, my ancestral home
The Mirpur that my grandparents grew up in is not one that they would recognise today.
Today, I will visit the graves of all four of my grandparents. They are buried in Mirpur, Kashmir, where I am able to trace my unbroken lineage for at least 200 years. I have visited my ancestral village a total of 11 times since my birth in the UK, but I feel confident that this visit will be my last. Despite its immense natural beauty, the region of Mirpur suffers from a deep and insufferable moral decay, the likes of which I have never experienced elsewhere in the world.
In the 60s, thousands of young male Mirpuris migrated to the UK to search for employment, sending remittances ‘home’ to support families, many of whom were displaced by the expansion of the Mangla reservoir by the Pakistani government. The new wealth brought to the region prompted an exodus of most able bodied men, seeking to join their peers in providing low paid manual labour in the steel foundries, textile mills and rail networks of England. The migration was intended to be temporary, but the lure of a stable income prompted the beckoning of Mirpuri women to join the men as wives and then came the births of a new generation of Mirpuris, born on British soil.
The departure of its young adult population and the receipt of comparatively huge sums of money from the UK had a radical impact on life and society in Mirpur. A once agrarian economy, based upon a system of co-dependence amongst neighbours and respect for the land, its wildlife and its inhabitants, rapidly collapsed. The arrival of the British Pound removed the necessity to till the soil, to barter for dairy, to grind the wheat, to sew fabric, to walk for miles to the nearest drinking well or conduct any of the former necessities that made Mirpur an animated and dynamic society.
For those that remained, all survival requirements and comforts could now be purchased from the burgeoning markets, supplying goods from around the world, without needing to work. Many of those who were accomplished and enterprising enough to leave did do so and the region suffered loss of some of its best human capital. The raw ingredients of organic socio-political growth were missing, local government became inept and corrupt and the state virtually non-existent.
Decades have now passed since the original pioneers migrated from the region in search of new horizons. For all but a small minority, the intention was never to integrate with British life, nor seek further education. The UK was des pardes, a home away from home, but the Mirpuris in the UK were not truly settled in either place. That original generation of migrants struggled to evolve from the primary ambition of sending wealth back to Mirpur to achieve status and recognition amongst their peers who were left behind.
Travelling through Mirpur, one sees tens of thousands of kothis (large houses) in every direction, paid for by those sending money from the UK. The kotihs are lavish with expensive marbles, oak furniture, elegant kitchens and kitted out living rooms. They are significantly under occupied, often left entirely empty. Not to be upstaged by rival biraderi (clans), the size and grandeur of such kothis have increased every year beyond all reason, some with more than eight bedrooms, to accommodate just one couple. They have nothing but a dirt track linking them to the outside world and and the high cost of maintenance leave some in a state of disrepair.
Despite enormous amounts of private wealth, there is virtually no attempt to generate a sustainable economy in the region. Money arriving from the UK is spent on motorcycles and jeeps rather than tractors or irrigation pumps, on jewellery and fashion, rather than schools or libraries and the only industries that thrive depend upon the development of more kothis such as the manufacture of windows, doors, bricks and cement.
Throughout the villages, piles of rubbish are left uncollected. There is no public fire brigade, nor ambulance and the police force operates with impunity. The roads are notoriously undeveloped and the power grid cuts electricity for hours every day. There is widespread illness and disease, local schools are dysfunctional and institutes of higher education are negligible. As a result, the entire economy of Mirpur is locked into a tightly constrained condition of dependency on remittances arriving from the UK.
The parasitic relationship with foreign money has had a clear impact on social development too. Those born here sense a futility in investing themselves in a future in Mirpur and instead look forward to the day they may join their family in the UK. Adults in receipt of pay outs from abroad occupy entire weeks without meaningful production. Without the former necessity to cooperate to achieve, neighbours are often hostile, family feuds are rife, bitterness and cynicism paralyse society and progress is impossible. I have observed a tangible regression in the minds of the people here and severe boredom prevails.
I wish to exclude from this description a few notable exceptions to the rule who have endeavoured to improve village life through hard work, perseverance and humility. These individuals have refused to be shackled by dependency on remittances and have instead aspired to self-sufficiency and the pursuit of dignity. These exceptions are overwhelmed by the great majority who are content to remain kings of their dung hill.
Since my teens I have sought to find an identity with my roots in Mirpur. As a school pupil I romanticised about the famous mountains, valleys, lakes and green fields of Kashmir. As an adult I have travelled throughout the region, engaging in discussions with my expansive and historic family connections, I have observed the remnants of village life, drank milk fresh from the buffalo and tasted roti fresh from the clay tandoor. I have prayed at the heels of my grandparent’s graves on every occasion.
I have however, never felt that I belong here. The Mirpur that my grandparents grew up in is not one that they would recognise today. I will always be able to trace my roots here and for that privilege, I am grateful. But I have taken from my ancestors a sense of justice that is repelled by the inequities of what I see before me today.
My grandmother passed on to my mother, as she has passed on to me, a line of poetry by Allama Iqbal,
“Sitaron se aage, jahaan aur bhi hain”
(There is a world beyond what we see)
So, I will pray one final time at my grandparents’ graves, and take all that they have given me to a world beyond.
All photos: Ousman Noor
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