Lesley Downer, E. O. Lorimer, SF 70
Baltit Fort, ancestral home of the Mirs of Hunza

Unravelling Burushaski

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When I was young I thought I knew exactly where the real Shangri-La was. It was the land of Hunza, in north-west Pakistan, or if not, then Gilgit or Chitral, and those magical names remained with me as I grew up.

Years later I was clearing out my father’s things and discovered a worn, spineless, much-used book on his shelves. It was called Language Hunting in the Karakorum. More years passed before I discovered where and what the Karakorum are and where my identification of Hunza with Shangri-La had come from. My father never went there but this book must have convinced him that Hunza was that perfect, unspoilt place, and it became one of those certainties that he passed on to me. I settled down to read it. With that rather forbidding title, I hadn’t been expecting such a thrilling tale of travel and adventure, every bit as gripping and informative and exciting as the best travel books.

Language Hunting in the Karakorum (1939) was written by E. O. (Emily Overend) Lorimer, wife of Lieutenant-Colonel David ‘DL’ Lorimer, who had been posted to Gilgit as Political Officer in 1920 to advise its ruler, the Mir, and effectively be the real power right across this British-held territory. Asked by DL’s superior officer whether she would be willing to go with her husband to the hardship posting of Gilgit, Emily replied, ‘I’m willing to go with my husband to HELL.’

After four years DL and Emily retired to England, having spent most of their spare time in Gilgit getting to grips with the Shina language, and most especially Burushaski, the fiendishly difficult Hunza language that belongs to no known family of languages. In 1934, now in their mid-fifties, they decided to return under their own steam so that DL could continue his study of Burushaski. Language Hunting in the Karakorum is Emily’s fascinating account of their year and a quarter in Hunza, their adventures, experiences and the many people whom they befriended

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When I was young I thought I knew exactly where the real Shangri-La was. It was the land of Hunza, in north-west Pakistan, or if not, then Gilgit or Chitral, and those magical names remained with me as I grew up.

Years later I was clearing out my father’s things and discovered a worn, spineless, much-used book on his shelves. It was called Language Hunting in the Karakorum. More years passed before I discovered where and what the Karakorum are and where my identification of Hunza with Shangri-La had come from. My father never went there but this book must have convinced him that Hunza was that perfect, unspoilt place, and it became one of those certainties that he passed on to me. I settled down to read it. With that rather forbidding title, I hadn’t been expecting such a thrilling tale of travel and adventure, every bit as gripping and informative and exciting as the best travel books.

Language Hunting in the Karakorum (1939) was written by E. O. (Emily Overend) Lorimer, wife of Lieutenant-Colonel David ‘DL’ Lorimer, who had been posted to Gilgit as Political Officer in 1920 to advise its ruler, the Mir, and effectively be the real power right across this British-held territory. Asked by DL’s superior officer whether she would be willing to go with her husband to the hardship posting of Gilgit, Emily replied, ‘I’m willing to go with my husband to HELL.’

After four years DL and Emily retired to England, having spent most of their spare time in Gilgit getting to grips with the Shina language, and most especially Burushaski, the fiendishly difficult Hunza language that belongs to no known family of languages. In 1934, now in their mid-fifties, they decided to return under their own steam so that DL could continue his study of Burushaski. Language Hunting in the Karakorum is Emily’s fascinating account of their year and a quarter in Hunza, their adventures, experiences and the many people whom they befriended. It’s an extraordinary story and winningly written, elegant, witty, self-deprecating and humorous.

The first hurdle was to get there. They sailed by ship to Bombay, then drove to Srinagar in Kashmir. From there the only way onwards was by pony. Assured by telegraph that the snow had cleared from the high passes, they were well on their way when they discovered that their informant was wrong. The passes were still deep in snow. With summer approaching the only option was to travel through the night when the snow froze and so was sufficiently hard for the ponies to walk on.

Lorimer describes their hair-raising journey through sometimes impenetrable darkness along narrow mountain tracks, clinging to the pony’s mane and bracing herself on the stirrups as it struggled up and down near-vertical slopes, or skipping across moving rock falls when the ponies refused to carry them along particularly treacherous terrain.

If you could sail down on a tea tray it would not be more than three miles to river level, but the graded road is full ten miles, now interminably crisscrossing the steep face of the Hattu Pir where it seems impossible that a road should cling (and in fact it often slithers quietly downhill and has to be coaxed into place again), now along a rock-shelf where the left cliff almost over-hangs the track and the right falls sheer 800 feet into the river below.

Eventually, after a brief stopover in their old home in Gilgit, they arrive in Hunza where they settle into a bungalow in the small fort-village of Aliabad. While DL takes on informants to help him unravel Burushaski’s enormously complex grammar and record Hunza folklore and history, Emily is out and about. Having already spent four years in the region and having acquired a fair smattering of Burushaski herself, she is able to make friends and is soon a sympathetic and eager participant in village life. The Hunzukuts, as they are called, address her in terms which she translates as ‘Mother dear’.

She chips in with the daily work, trying her hand at threshing and sorting, spinning and weaving, noting down vocabulary and inspiring gales of affectionate laughter when she gets words wrong. The Hunzukuts are amazed at her inability to perform the simplest tasks, such as spinning, and they tease her when she fails to tell a diseased ear of millet from a healthy one or when she worries about children with babies on their backs falling off the precipitous walls which form some of the main walkways in this mountainous terrain.

Emily for her part is constantly impressed with their cheeriness and the perfection with which they carry out their daily tasks – bridges built without scientific instruments of any sort, yet completely straight, stable, reliable and long-lasting. In many ways their lifestyle is an improvement on hers, she finds, from her shoes which make it difficult to clamber around the steep terraces, to her reliance on chairs which means she finds it uncomfortable to sit on the ground.

When she’s invited to visit neighbours’ homes, she checks on the proper compliments to make and the gifts to bring, not so valuable as to embarrass but that will be appreciated and be of use. She describes the square stone houses where the men sleep on a wide bench along one side and the women along a bench on the other. There is usually a cow in a byre in front, and most gardens have apple trees, mulberries, peaches, apricots and vines.

She befriends the next-door neighbours – Grandfather, who built the house himself, ‘my friend, Bibi Gimo’, the ruli gus or housewife- in-chief, and Najat, the beautiful wife of the younger son, who has ‘the happiest face I have ever seen, and a natural grace of bearing and man- ner that would adorn any station in any country’. Then there’s Ustad Nadiro, a famous carpenter, weaver and bootmaker, and his wife, ‘a sporting old lady . . . with a game leg and toothless gums, indefatigable energy, a priceless sense of humour and an unfailing smile’. In Hunza the women are strong, opinionated and respected and, though nominally Muslim, certainly don’t cover their heads or faces.

There are wonderful photographs of many of the people whom we meet in these pages, at work or outside their houses, beaming glorious smiles. As Emily writes, ‘There never was a people anywhere with such a gift for looking happy as the Hunzukuts.’ There are photo- graphs too of the spectacular mountain landscape amidst which these people live.

Emily also fills us in on historical events like the British conquest of Hunza, though she is, of course, of her time. An old man she meets who was part of the resistance to the British refers to ‘the downfall of Hunza’, though it was clearly not a ‘downfall’ in Emily’s eyes. He shows off the sword and muzzle-loader which he used in the relief of Chitral five years later and talks with a tinge of unconcealed regret about the days when ‘men were men and fighting was toward’.

Emily is aware of her privileged position. She is in the society but not of it. She will leave but the Hunzukuts are there for life, and when winter comes and everyone runs short of food, she and DL still have plenty. And of course she and DL have worked with and know the Mir well and so are treated as honoured guests. All the same, in the year and a quarter she spends in Hunza, her curiosity, warmth and command of the language enable her to delve deeply and sympathetically into the local society.

She and DL are the first Europeans ever to brave the ferociously harsh Hunza winter and enjoy the festivals that brighten the dark, dreary days. The Bopfau, the Barley Seed-Sowing, marks the end of winter in February. Invited by the Mir, they go by horse to Altit Fort, perched high on a cliff with the houses almost literally built on top of one another, surrounding a courtyard ‘with no straight walls for edges’. Everyone is in their gayest and brightest dress. There is archery on horseback, music, clowning and splendid dancing. The following day the Mir, in a gold-embroidered velvet cloak and a silk turban, presides over the Seed-Sowing festival.

One chapter I found particularly fascinating. In it Emily describes how DL goes about learning a language no outsider has ever learnt before. Burushaski has no writing system, but it is an incredibly rich and complex language with different words for each stage and variety of crops, buds, fruits, fields, sheep and even baskets, and a fiendishly complicated grammar. Imagine being a non-French-speaker ship- wrecked off the coast of France, meeting only illiterate fishermen and trying to acquire spoken French, she writes. It’s a daunting task.

I realized then why my father had used this book so much that the spine fell off. He spent years among the Yao and Miao hill tribes of Laos, unravelling their languages in just this way and assembling dictionaries. As I discovered for myself in Japan, language is the key to Looking-Glass Land. Unless you can speak it you’ll always be the outsider looking in. Language enables you to step through into a different world.

And thus Emily takes us deep inside this world, getting under the skin of this rarefied place in the days when Political Officers were the only westerners who ever visited. Hunza was not really Shangri-La; life there was too hard to call it that. But it was a remarkable place, a lost horizon. Language Hunting in the Karakorum is a unique record of a world that no longer exists and the story of an extraordinarily rare experience. Today we can visit Hunza. But who, even today, speaks Burushaski?

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Lesley Downer 2021


About the contributor

Lesley Downer is half Chinese but has spent much of her life in Japan, either in reality or imagination. She writes fiction and non-fiction on Japan, including four epic historical novels, The Shogun Quartet, based on fact and set in the mid-nineteenth century.

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