Let a million Malalas bloom

Then stretch our bones in a still gloomy valley;
Nothing’s so dainty sweet as lovely melancholy.

– John Fletcher (1579-1625)

Malala in Pashtun means melancholy, a word that lies on the border of poetry and philosophy, and means more than just grief.

In the austere, cold deserts of Aghanistan, Malalai, a variant, is still widely remembered as a folk heroine in oral history. Her tale has passed on over smokey pipes of rugged men huddled in jirgas, or traditional village-level conclaves. Malalai is said to be the plucky lady of the Maiwand battle in 1880 (part of the Second Afghan War against the British), who lifted her veil to shame Ayub Khan’s wilting warriors, rousing them to victory.

There must be something about the name. People dwelling in areas strewn across the Afghan-Pakistan borders still name their daughters Malala in the hope that they grow up to be special.

On way to London last month, I flew over these very jagged and deep valleys. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl from Swat shot by the Taliban in the head for asserting her right to education, must have picked her steely resolve from these unshakable hills. Only a doughty spirit as hers made her survive what should have been a fatal wound.

In the craggy mountains of Swat, a district in the tribal Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where Malala hails from, Maulana Fazlullah’s men came raiding like a pack of hyenas, razed schools and lured locals into an international conflict through a combination of threats, money and Islamic rhetoric. Few resisted.

Swat, which I visited during a trip to Pakistan this April, was overrun in July 2007 by Fazlullah, a Taliban leader nicknamed ‘Mullah Radio’ because he had launched a private FM station for jihad. Osama bin Laden vacationed here while the residents were building his Abbotabad home.

Swat is called Asia’s Switzerland, and not for nothing. At Kabal tehsil here, heavenly vistas unfold before your eyes. Rolling green meadows merge with the Korakoram range, towering into the skies. Snowy carpets sweep down entire slopes, where Western vacationers would come to ski.

A blast brought down the higher secondary school for girls in Kabal tehsil, where seven-year-old Taiba Sajid Hamid used to study. “Why on earth do you need girls’ schools?” Fazlullah thundered on ‘Mullah FM’ one fine morning from the Malam Jabba resort, which he had converted into his stronghold after blowing up the skiing facility.

Finally, when all hope seemed lost, Hamid and her younger sister, Hafsa, were packed off by their mother, Fazilat, on the back of a trekker – those gaudily decked-up vehicles you find in rural Pakistan – and taken to Lahore.

The family of three formed a part of the 2,50,000 people who fled the Taliban siege, becoming Pakistan’s largest number of “internally displaced people”.

Today, Swat presents a best-case scenario for Pakistan’s war on terror. After over 8,000 offensives – big and small – the army retook Swat in 2010. Nearly 3,500 militants and 416 soldiers died in the operation. At the heart of this success lay support from local people, Fazilat being a case in point.

“Mashallah, I’m happy to be in a brand new school,” Taiba told me. At the biology lab of the reconstructed school, girls in full-face hijab waited for us to tell their stories. Sixteen-year-old Nausheen Hadi says she has regained her window to the world – Bollywood movies. Not to mention her favourite star, Akshay Kumar.

Though Swat was once one of the most literate areas of the province, around 53,000 children quit schools between 2001-08, says Brigadier Bilal of the 19 Division, which led the anti-Taliban offensives.

Swat has regained its ski resort, and Pakistan its favourite holiday destination. The 19 Division likes to call it the ‘Spirit of Swat’, branding the phrase on gifts, souvenirs and shopping bags. Last year, it also launched the ‘Spirit of Swat’ festival – celebrating freedom of speech, expression and action. Freedom from the Taliban.

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