Nathiagali Image Credit: Zain Mahmood


  • The impetus behind my writing today is some things that grabbed my attention and made me think.
  • Lessons so valuable that something shifted within me.

“Let’s take a trip to the mountains, Mama.” During all his holidays, since he went to college in 2017, my son has had the same idea that I listened to but didn’t do anything about. It’s not that I didn’t want to. Spending time with my son, who’ll turn twenty on January 26, is my favourite thing to do in the world, and all my vacations with him are a cherished kaleidoscope of special memories that do not have an expiration date. Incidentally, all those vacations were abroad, and planned with the help of his father, my husband, now my ex. I didn’t know how to plan a holiday alone. 2020 changed that.

This is not a travel story; a two-day trip doesn’t have that much that it would become a travelogue. The impetus behind my writing today is some things that grabbed my attention and made me think. Lessons so valuable that something shifted within me. Without resorting to melodrama, I thought I’d try an encapsulation of a few incidents, apparently tiny and commonplace, and my instant response to them. There is no way to word it all without allowing it to have the whimsy of a New Year resolution, except that it doesn’t have that brevity of duration. My reaction would turn into a reality once I incorporate into my day-to-day life and long-term outlook the valuable lessons I learnt during my two-day trip to Abbottabad, accompanied by my son, Musa, nephew, Taimur, 17, and nephew, Zain, 16.

It started with the plan. The last three years and in particular 2019 have turned me into a recluse. Being a typical Punjabi, loud extrovert, my mind and heart have had a lifelong cohabitation with my innate need for solitude and privacy. My son’s departure for college in New York in 2017 changed my life. The knowledge of his happiness at studying at the college of his choice, making New York his home away from home, his excellent grades, and his wonderful new friends sustained me through my pain of his physical absence.

In March 2019, my young brother, Babar, passed. My heart broke. I knew my life would never be the same. Visiting once a week his grave, connected to my mother’s in marble, has become my only constant activity. My reclusiveness became my refuge.

Life's lessons

In January 2020, two weeks into his winter break, Musa insisted that I quit existing within the four walls of my room. After convincing his cousins that the trip would happen, he persuaded me to plan a trip. Before the holidays, during almost all our daily talks on the phone, his exasperation and sadness at my cloistered life was apparent, and my agreeing to travel meant more to him than I knew when I said yes, and asked a friend to book us two rooms in a guest house in Nathiagali, the gorgeous mountain resort town in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Musa’s persuasion broke the worst pattern of my last three years: I decided to get out of my room to do something fun.

Lesson number one: Life must not lose its normalcy even when there is a feeling of pain, and paranoia of loss creeps into your core.

As we started to plan the trip, we found that the snowfall in Nathiagali and nearby areas was so intense the roads had been blocked. Worsening the scenario was the weekend traffic from Islamabad and other cities to Murree and Nathiagali, resulting in hours-long jam on one-lane mountain roads. Not only was Nathiagali out, even travelling on weekend became a question mark; due to Taimur and Zain’s school, the trip could only be on a weekend. Musa refused to even listen to my weak suggestion of cancellation. “We are going, Mama, find another place.” I calmed down and thought a little. A few hours later, I found another place. We were going to Abbottabad, a place I had never been, and my son and nephews associated with the killing of the most infamous ‘bad man’ of the recent human history: Osama bin Laden.

Lesson number two: Just because one plan doesn’t work out, life doesn’t screech to a halt. Replacing the older plan with a new one, and a better one, is to maintain the equilibrium that brings substance to our diurnal existence.

We started our journey at 3:30 am on Friday in fog-free darkness. Taimur–who has the soul of a cat–sleeps as soon as a car moves–was asleep most of the six-hour plus drive. And he didn’t wake up when suddenly the road disappeared into thick smoke. Looking at its density and smelling it from an open window, Musa announced that it wasn’t fog. I went into my usual panic mode. Zain and Musa calmed me down despite feeling nervous about the invisible road. Zain, the precocious sixteen-year-old, told me to stay behind a car or a truck ahead of us. The smoky invisibility was intermittent but while it lasted it scared me. The responsibility of driving three young people is huge, and that too when one is your only son, the other the only son of your late brother, and the youngest your sister’s son and has lived with you his entire life.

Lesson number three: When life or a road disappears into transient darkness, and stopping is not an option, you exhale and figure out the best possible way to move forward.

During our first day in Abbottabad, the very lovely, sleepy city of unassuming beauty and utterly gracious and sweet people, Taimur announced during one of his rare display of exuberance, looking up from his phone that seems like a part of hand, that from Abbottabad Nathiagali was an hour away. I–an adherent of Paulo Coelho’s wisdom of The Alchemist, connect random signs taking that as universe’s alignment with my course–was happy that we would go where we originally wanted to go. Two things happened.

Early morning, as soon as I started to drive, the car made an awful, jerky noise. The car had a flat tyre. Looking at one another, annoyed and amused simultaneously, we looked around for someone to help us. Everyone in that guest house except the guards seemed to be asleep, along with most of Abbottabad. Musa and Zain had seen Haroon, my brother-in-law, Zain’s father, change a tyre a couple of times. Thank God for quick thinking of young people! They knew what to do after the initial clockwise wrong unscrewing of the lug nuts and changed the tyre.

Once they went back to our suite of rooms to wash their hands, they managed to get the key stuck in the door. And Zain, the thin teenager who’s deceptively strong, broke it in two. That was just the beginning of the day!

Lesson number four: A problem has to be solved without wasting any time in flustered swearing. Everyday issues, even the ones you are personally not used to dealing with, have simple solutions, and panic is no one’s ally. Roll up your sleeves and get to changing the flat when that is the main obstacle in your way to the beautiful Nathiagali.

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En route to Nathiagali, on a narrow road lined with a snow-capped mountain on one side and a deep valley on the other, as we marvelled at the beauty of our surroundings, listening to rap, psych rock, indie, swing and Arijit–we all stuck to our favourite music–on one of the innumerable sharp turns, our car stopped dead in its tracks. The slight slushy residue of cleared snow made it impossible for our front-wheel drive car to move. The three young people got out of the car, and Zain and Taimur went into a hyperventilation mode. Zain was adamant:” Our car is going to skid, we’re going to have an accident, we’re all going to die, let’s go back to Abbottabad.” Musa, the eternal wise old man, told him to calm down, told me to exhale, and took charge of the situation. The other two, having calmed down, guided me how to move the car a bit to prepare for the car to become movable.

Thirty minutes later, we had chains on our tyres, and our journey to Nathiagali resumed.

Lesson number five: Fear is human, to give in to fear when there are ways to handle it is also human. It is a test of your character which part of being human you allow to take over in a time of crisis, big or small. Age is not the barometer of your capacity to tackle any unexpected issue. It is your composure and preparedness to deal with life as it unfolds that matters.

Nathiagali was magnificent. The breath-taking gorgeousness of Nathiagali was worth all the enveloping smoke and chained tyres.

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