The approach to Golra village was blocked off at an overflowing parking lot, as is the custom every weekend because of the swarms of villagers who descend on this fringe of mainland Islamabad.
They come to pray, make an offering, sneak in a request or two; or they turn it into a fun day out for the whole family; or they come for the trades and services that flourish wherever pilgrims gather in large enough numbers.
‘Janab I am not going to the shrine, I want to go into the village,’ I pleaded with a bad tempered guard whose upturned mustache was as stern as his stare. ‘What business you may have in the village … janab?’ I am looking for a girl …’ I paused to choose the words that could adequately explain the objective of my visit.
‘You are looking for a girl in Golra! In the midst of a pilgrimage?’ he hissed. ‘No, nothing like that,’ I pre-empted his thoughts, and in my defence, picked up a calendar from the passenger seat, flipped a few pages and pointed at the girl in the picture, ‘I’m looking for her’.
By the time the guard allowed me to drive into the village, the villagers had gathered round my car. I showed them the picture. ‘This picture was taken by a friend who came from, and has now gone back to a foreign country. (A cocky young man challenged me to name the country, expecting to catch me off guard. I replied, Latvia, and he was visibly shaken by the confidence with which I had named a country he had never heard of, and that may not even exist if I was pulling a smart one.) She met this 9-10 year old girl in a park with lots of caged birds in it, somewhere in Golra. This picture was selected for publication from entries sent by amateur photographers. She is very pleased for the girl and of course for herself and has asked me to find this girl and give her a copy of the calendar,’ I explained in Punjabi.
Thus simplified, the crowd of men and children lost interest in my project. ‘This girl is not from here, she looks Pakhtoon’. ‘There is no park around here, let alone a park with birds. The photographer has got the place wrong.’ ‘Why don’t you take picture of my girl? She’s prettier and local, not a gypsy like your calendar girl.’ I returned home and decided it was a really stupid idea to go around looking for a child only on the basis of a picture.
The next morning though I was prepared to give the stupid idea one more chance. Golra is right next to the edge of Islamabad proper where I live. This time instead of going into the village, I targeted the local transport hub just off Margalla Road. People from surrounding villages take a van ride to Golra and take another if we they wish to go into Islamabad. There, I learnt there was indeed a bird farm in the vicinity. It’s called Shah Allah Ditta Farm and is about ten kilometres from Golra, towards the hills. They did not however tell me that the ten-kilometre ride feels like a very long journey because of the potholed and intricately jagged narrow road that meanders in a part of rural Islamabad I never knew existed.
It did take me to the farm eventually. An old man was sitting at the gate. I showed him the picture and asked if he knew the girl. He narrowed his eyes, grew a dozen burrows on his forehead, then shook his head and called out to a boy who was watering plants. The boy took a good look at the picture, then looked at me quizzically. ‘Have you seen this girl around here?’ I asked without hope. ‘She is my sister,’ he said. I couldn’t believe the end would be this simple. ‘Get her,’ I said.
Ayesha, the kid who was produced looked nothing like the calendar girl. She had unkempt hair, her breakfast had dried around her lips and smeared on to a cheek, and her clothes were dirty. She was promptly taken back home, which was within the farm, and brought back ten minutes later, washed, re-clothed and all dolled up with lipstick and three dots of kohl on the forehead. She was indeed the girl I was looking for. Mission accomplished. Her father and many brothers who are all farm hands, were now standing around the child as if posing for a photograph with a hard-won trophy.
The old man also got up from his chair and shuffled his way to put a hand on Ayesha’s head and addressed me with patriarchal pride: She is my grand daughter.