Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society


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Kaleem Omar (those of you who don’t know his prose and verse have missed something great) said since I was to be in Kafristan, I ought to look in on Subedar Khan. That was the summer of 1986 and old Subedar who had worked for many years with the Omar family had, some years ago, retired to his native land. I forget the name of the village in Bumburet valley where the jeep driver deposited me outside Subedar Khan’s home. My knock was answered by a man in his sixties and when I announced I was Kaleem’s friend, he warmly embraced me and showed me into his empty home. The family was away in Lahore, he said, and I could take over any one of the three rooms.

Born into a Kalash family, Subedar Khan had converted to Islam at some point and had gone to mainland India sometime in the 1930s. There he found work with the well-established firm of Omarsons. If I had imagined I would glean gems of Kalash culture from him I was miles off target: all Subedar could speak of was Shaukat Omar, Zafar Omar – and in reverential tones too. It was obvious that Kaleem’s father and grandfather had treated the man well. He also had stories to tell of travelling with the family all over the great Indian subcontinent. But precious little of his own Kafristan did I gather from him.

I stayed with him three days and enjoyed his generous hospitality. One afternoon as we sat down to lunch, he asked if I fancied some cheese. I said yes and he quietly got up, took his hat and walking stick from their usual place and went outside. I imagined there was a corner shop that sold the stuff and waited for him to return. After about thirty minutes I began nibbling the chapattis he had made and an hour and a half later had nibbled my meal away.

The sun had dipped behind the western hills when Subedar Khan returned. Wordlessly he handed me a plastic bag with some white stuff, sat down to his own meal which I had covered where he had left it in the afternoon and began to eat. Meanwhile, I had prepared dinner and set it out so that we could dine together. Subedar Khan ladled out a generous portion of the cheese that had taken seven hours in the coming onto my plate. I took a large mouthful and almost puked on the table. The horrid stuff stank to high heaven of a herd of really randy billy goats. It was obviously Kafristan’s answer to England’s Stilton. As we ate Subedar Khan had to leave the room to fetch some water and I surreptitiously dumped the poison out of the window.

It turned out that Subedar Khan had walked three hours to a summer pasture for the cheese. Three hours out and three back and I had thought he had just nipped out to the corner shop! Upon returning to Karachi (where I then lived), I told this tale to Kaleem and the great raconteur that he is, Kaleem had another story to tell.

It was in the late 1950s, a young Kaleem was supervising an Omarsons’ project not far from the city when Subedar Khan, then a member of the crew, came up with a request for two days’ leave. He had to go out to Hyderabad where another man from Kafristan who owed our Subedar a thousand rupees was working. Some time earlier the debtor had said that he would be able to pay back at least part of the amount. Kaleem acquiesced and Subedar Khan ambled off into the heat haze to wait for the bus by the side of the road. That was the last of him Kaleem was to see for a full year and a half.

In those eighteen months, not a word came from him but Kaleem knew him well and trusted him to be safe. Then one day, he found Subedar Khan back at work toiling away on whatever he had left undone eighteen months earlier. Inquiry revealed that upon arrival in Hyderabad Subedar found his debtor to have moved on to another project somewhere in the vicinity of Rohri. Thence did Subedar Khan follow him. Thereafter Kaleem received a lesson in Pakistan geography from the good man: from Rohri west to Larkana and then up north into Bahawalpur, Multan and Lahore. Always the word was that the debtor had indeed been working there but had some time earlier moved on.

At some point the one-man posse of Subedar Khan ran out of money. So he walked. Food was paid for either by others from his native land he somehow ran into en route or by working a day or two with construction crews. From Lahore west into the Thal Desert and down south by the left bank of the mighty Sindhu River to Muzaffargarh did Subedar go. There he finally ran his quarry to ground. With pick in hand and sweat on his brow, the man was flogging away at the hard ground under the blazing mid-summer Punjabi sun.

It was a warm reunion. The men embraced, asked after each other’s families and made small talk as small talk is made by rustic folk. Over lunch, paid for by the debtor, Subedar Khan asked the man to square up. If he had a thousand rupees, asked the man plaintively, would he be killing himself in the hellish Punjabi heat? That was a defence the good Subedar Khan could scarcely quarrel with. So, his debtor had no money, Subedar Khan asked just to be sure he hadn’t misunderstood. Of course not, or wouldn’t he have paid him back, came the response. Ah well, our man sighed and the next morning set himself in the direction of Karachi once more. If Kaleem is to be trusted, Subedar Khan walked back from Muzaffargarh!

The late and much lamented Saneeya Hussain was our editor in whose office these yarns were traded. She rolled her eyes and said I had to be naïve to trust Kaleem’s tale. But Saneeya did not have to wait seven hours for goat-milk cheese that was utterly inedible to boot. An ordinary person would likely have finished his meal and announced that cheese could only be had from the summer pasture and would be available the following day. But not so our Subedar Khan. He simply walked the shepherds’ path into the mountains to bring his guest that horrid stuff.

If he could do that in Kafristan, I know Subedar Khan was not lying, nor Kaleem misquoting, about his eighteen-month long odyssey. For some folks time simply had a different quality.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 17 May 2013 at 11:25, Anonymous Aghader Ami said...

This reminded me of Hatam al-Tai

At 17 May 2013 at 11:34, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

So people like Subedar Khan still exist. Very touching.

At 17 May 2013 at 12:11, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Good man: he could not get over the kindness of the Omar family despite a passage of 40 years. A kind and generous host. I don't imagine he is still alive, but he certainly was an exemplar of a diminishing breed.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days