Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Living with one of those Alam brothers

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Guest Post by Mrs Subuha Khan

Ejaz Alam
It has been said before, and it needs be repeated: the famous Alam Khan brothers of the defense services were a very special breed of men. Nine of them, all in the forces and all of them with brilliant careers as soldiers. There is one thing about these good men that one needs to stand back and regard – and not without a degree of awe: there is no one, absolutely no one anywhere in the world, who can bad-mouth any of the Alam Khan brothers. There is only admiration and respect for this merry bunch.

And a merry bunch they were too! They were all gifted with a great sense of humour and with that unique facility of delivering a witticism deadpan. More often than otherwise, the joke was on the hearer because it came so seriously one was hard put to grasp if it was a joke or a serious statement. For that, one had to know these good people.

Brig Zahir Alam Khan
Yesterday I received a phone call from Tumble, Lt Gen (Retd) Javed Alam Khan. He said one of his Bhabis, herself a writer of repute, having read my short piece titled ‘Cheers’ was moved to write something about the men she knows from being married to one of them, the late Squadron Leader Shuaib Alam Khan (Sitara e Jurat).

Among other things, Mrs Subuha Khan writes that whenever her late husband was asked how he got his SJ, he always said, he just happened to be standing in the right line. That, people, is the mark of the true hero, a man who made no big thing of the outstanding work he had done. That was one self-assured, self-effacing person with great wit to boot.

Having read this moving Urdu tribute, I was thinking what Tumble would say if one were to ask him why he never got an SJ. I can bet my last few rupees he would go, ‘I got caught up in the traffic and missed the investiture ceremony.’ Incidentally, as far as I know, all the Alam Khan brothers were decorated for gallantry in action. All, save the eldest, Brigadier Zahir Alam Khan and the youngest, Lt Gen Javed Alam Khan. But that does not take anything from these people.


PS. Tumble said he hoped my Urdu was better than his and I responded, ‘In Urdu, Sir, you are illiterate compared to me. I can read and understand Nun Meem Rashid!’ Tumble did not have anything to say to that!
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Inspired by True Greatness

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Most of us, when we set out on a course that is somewhat removed from the usual and mundane way of life, are motivated by some very strong external stimulus. I was very fortunate to find just the right incentive – almost by accident. After struggling through seven years of a very colourful but hardly glorifying military career, I joined a multi-national firm in Karachi. Here I was supposed to be an administrative officer looking after the smooth functioning of the office, but, as I used to say, I was no more than a glorified clerk.

My escape from the drudgery of a stultifying, unrewarding life was weekend flights to the wilderness just north of Karachi. It started in February 1979 with the first outing to Khadeji Falls, some 30 km out on Super Highway. Though the fall could have been pretty in a rather modest sort of way, the crowd of Lalu Khet picnickers, the noise, the garbage strewn all around and the loud music from cheap ghetto-blasters was a total put off.
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Deosai Romance

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Aasim Akhtar
 
A travel book can be defined as one that its author would never think of as a travel book — to him, it is history or anthropology, memoir or even camouflage fiction. Yet the first thing any traveller learns is that every rule is made to be broken — if you stick to the guidebook, or the itinerary, you’ll come home wondering if you ever left.

In the great spirit of travel, therefore, and of venturing where only daredevils would dare to tread, Salman Rashid is much less traveller than writer.
 
The travel book must teach you something, ideally by highly unorthodox means. Heinrich Herrer, for example, stumbled into a Tibet that almost no foreigner had ever seen, and so every detail of his Seven Years in Tibet is new to us. P.J. O’Rourke does so much research on his Holidays in Hell — and delivers it so saltily — that every bit of information is like a crunchy piece of popcorn.
 
In the same vein, I would never call the great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky a travel writer — and that’s why his book on Venice, Watermark, is a classic.
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Deosai: Land of the Giant Launch

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Happening Today
 

Deosai: Land of the Giant launch at Gymkhana Library today [Friday, November 22, 2013] at 4.30 PM.
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A Tale from the Lahnda

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Ahmed Yar, my friend, is a Bandial; and as blue-blooded as they can come. A native of village Bandial on the highroad between Sargodha and Mianwali, he is a romantic despite his urbanity and education. His line of work takes him all over the country, but his heart remains rooted firmly in the wide, fertile plains of western Punjab – the Lahnda, ‘land of the setting sun.’ Here the blue hills of Sakesar loom on the northern horizon and here the searing summer winds bring the sands from the Thal Desert in the south. Ahmed Yar is a teller of folk tales as they were told long before television put paid to the tradition of story-telling in rural Pakistan – and he might well be the last of a dying school. His tales naturally come in that Lahnda dialect; a language so beautiful that it can raise goose bumps on the most blasé of listeners. And that is how he relates the story of Aali Ghanjera.

Aali, of the Ghanjera tribe from the village of Vijhara, was a cowherd. One day as he was tending his flock, he came upon a group of banias (Hindu merchants) resting during the midday heat. Among their horses, browsing nearby, was a filly not yet into her second year that caught the eye of Aali who knew his animals well. In rapture this animal pranced about galloping through the meadows to the stream and in one great leap clearing the wide waterway. ‘If so young a horse can do this what will she grow up into,’ thought Aali and resolved to buy the animal off the banias.
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Battle between the Rinds and a Chandio-Magsi Alliance

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Imdad Ali Chandio of Shahdadkot in Sindh is cast in the mould of the classic teller of tales; that breed of men and women who kept local histories alive through word of mouth. Once, long before the arrival of television and video, countless others like him told the stories and sang the ballads that recalled the valour of generals, the magnificence of kings and the ardour of lovers. But no more on hot summer evenings with the powdery dust shackled by a sprinkling of water, do men sit under the spreading shisham or banyan tree and feel the surge of adrenaline to the verses of battle songs of old. No more, too, do they tell tales around the brazier in the otaq or the dera as the mist descends bringing with it the cold, and feel thankful for the smoke that brings tears to the eyes to hide those that come at a remembrance of past glory.
 
The story of the battle between the Rinds and a Chandio-Magsi alliance fought sometime in the mid 1820s never made it to the history books. It is nonetheless a part of the annals of Upper Sindh – a part that is all but lost. That I came to know of it was for Imdad Chandio, the keeper of a dying tradition. And I tell it the way he would.
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Sassi da Kallara

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They call it Sassi da Kallara, or simply Kaalar, and connect it to the popular legend of Sassi, the washerman’s daughter of Bhambore in Sindh, who here becomes a princess, and Punnu, the prince of Kech (Makran), who is transformed into a camel driver. Standing on the crest of a crumbly clay and sandstone ridge on the banks of the seasonal Leti Kas (Stream) in the extreme northwest corner of Talagang tehsil, the stubby ruin is visible from a distance. Built with large kiln fired bricks (440 mm to 480 mm x 260 mm x 50 mm), it is the only Hindu Shahya temple in the Salt Range to use this material. All others being constructed with porous, fossileferous limestone.


Situated at the very edge of the crumbly hill, the building raised above a high plinth of limestone blocks, is entered from the east via the remains of a portico that fell away years ago. Indeed, the erosion that undermined the entrance now threatens to sweep away the entire building. Inside, the floor of the cella has been partially dug up, very likely by treasure hunters. The walls, fortunately, are intact, above which the original roof has been replaced by a cement and steel dome - the brave attempt of some concerned archeologist to preserve the deteriorating structure.
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Travel is not going to die, ever

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On 7 November 2013, at the Sharjah International Book Fair, I was in very good company. There was Tarquin Hall, Tahir Shah, Robert Twigger and I with Victoria Amador moderating the discussion on travel writing. We talked about how the four of us were inspired to become travel writers and I discovered a kindred soul in Tarquin, a Londoner who having travelled extensively now lives in Delhi. We both hated school and just wanted to get away from the drudgery of books.
 
 
In the end, we ended up becoming permanently wedded to books!

Travel writing, if it has to have any meaning at all (unlike what passes for this genre in Urdu) has to come from a learned source. In my search for material on the Khirthar Mountains, I stumbled upon Eric Shipton’s masterpiece Blank on the Map that triggered both a thirst to read more and more and a desire to physically see what I read.
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Sakhia

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It was a balmy day in February 1989 that he came upon me sitting under a kundi tree by the side of the road skirting the small village of Gori in the heart of the Thar Desert. I was in no hurry for I was awaiting the westbound kekra (WW II vintage truck) to carry me out of the desert and so we sat together and talked. Sakhia in his Sindhi (or was it Thari?) and I in my mix of Sindhi and Punjabi. We got along like a house on fire and Sakhia, all of twelve years old, endeared himself to me like few people have in my thirty years of travelling.

I returned to Thar on a brief visit in 1995 but despite my wish, failed to get as far as Gori. Indeed in these past years I had often thought of Sakhia. What would a live wire like him be doing in the backwaters of the Thar Desert? Wouldn’t he have moved on to a job in Hyderabad or Karachi? Or even to the Gulf? Would he have added to his two years of schooling? I even imagined young Sakhia, with his intelligent, active mind to be a sahib. Of course there was also the dreadful thought of him having got on the wrong side of the law. And so it was in quest of this remarkable person that I asked our convoy of three jeeps and twenty odd people to pause a while in the village of Gori.
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The Garden of Indra

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From the distance they appear as two stubs of masonry on a ridge that is gashed open by a wide crack. Beyond the crack the Salt Range makes a spectacular dip and melts into the plains of the Punjab. This is the Nandna Pass. Two millenniums before the modern web of roads was laid out in this area, a major road passed through here. Having crossed the Jhelum river somewhere between the modern villages of Rasul and Jalalpur, it went through the spring fed fertile tract of land where the village of Baghanwala sprawls today and climbed up into the Salt Range via the Nandna Pass. Winding past Ara it skirted Chakwal (which of course did not exist then) and headed due north for Taxila. Simultaneously, another branch followed a westerly alignment to the Sindhu river near Kalabagh on its way to the cities beyond the Suleman Mountains. There were yet other branches that crossed that river at no less than three points between Kalabagh and modern Attock. 

Here, by the side of this busy highway, guarding its entrance into the strategic pass, would have stood from times immemorial, a fortress. And when in the 9th century AD, the Kashmirian kings began the construction of their chain of temples in the Salt Range, this location would have been a foregone choice, for the Vishnudharmottara, an ancient religious book, recommends just such a site and the installation of consecrated images in forts situated on hilltops. In less than three centuries, the temple and fortress complex of Nandna was to become a great seat of learning, a veritable university, for it was here that Abu Rehan Al Beruni tarried in his quest for knowledge of the Sanskrit language and the arts and sciences of India.
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Last Train to Thal

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The last train from Kohat to Thal ran sometime in June 1991, so the Station Master at Kohat informed me. Then the section was closed. For a while afterwards, the staff remained at their stations; slowly they were re-assigned. The first to go were the Station Masters from the several stations strung out between the two termini. Gradually went the others, until only a very small nucleus of gang men remained – ostensibly to look after the abandoned one hundred-kilometre Narrow Gauge line. And ostensible was all the looking after there ever was.
 
 
Even before 1991 the Kohat-Thal line had shown every sign of impending demise. Back in early 1987 when I was doing my series called The Little Railway Bazaar pompously named after one of the good travel books of the 20th century, I had arrived in Kohat to ride the once-a-week train. The coolies around the station said that the Thal line being closed I would be better advised to ride the bus which was not only a sight more comfortable but faster too. My Pakistan Railways timetable said the service was still in operation, so not trusting the red-shirted coolies I sought the Station Master.
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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