Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Into the heart of the Suleman Mountains

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Chitterwatta: what a name for a village, I thought when my friend Raheal Siddiqui visited with tales from the Suleman Mountains. There were stories of men with superhuman strength, school masters possessed of exemplary sense of duty and honour – the kind that would have done Jinnah proud, and men who said what they had to say in poetry that evoked the philosophy of Iqbal. Most of all it was the name that intrigued me. Raheal pronounced it ‘Chhitterwatta’ and I assumed it had to do something with slippers and rocks – chhitter being the Seraiki and Punjabi word for slippers and watta being rock or stone.

Now Raheal is a rare breed of civil servant, a man of the old school. He reads (something that so few of us do anymore) and takes genuine interest in his work as an officer of the District Management Group. Within only a few weeks as Political Agent Dera Ghazi Khan, he had already travelled to some of the remotest posts in his jurisdiction and earned the distinction of being the first PA there since the last white officer had packed his bags in 1947. And he had gleaned yarns that he spun in Lahore with such enthusiasm that he left no likelihood of my turning down his invitation to visit. In any case, this was Baloch country, and having travelled very little here, I was not foregoing my chance to do so.

And so it was that we sped northward from Dera Ghazi Khan one day in late March. Raheal and the young Risaldar Khurram Khosa were on tour and Raheal’s friend Ibrahim Beg, the telephone engineer from Bahawalpur, and I were the baggage. Past the village of Tibbi Qaisrani (north of Taunsa) on the Indus Highway that is slowly taking on the semblance of an actual highway with its steadily lengthening new surface, we turned west. Not long afterwards we drove through the high gate into the wide enceinte of the Vehowa Border Military Police (BMP) post.

As the PA, Raheal is the BMP Commandant and we stopped to a nicely turned-out guard presenting arms amid much shouting of commands and rattling of rifles. The Inspection Book was brought out for the PA sahib to put down his comments and a lavish tea was laid out. They sent for the man whose father ran a store in Chitterwatta many years ago. We got Om Prakash instead, a grandson of the shopkeeper, who said his father was away in Dera. Om only had a vague recollection of his childhood in Chitterwatta, consequently we learned next to nothing from him.

The Inspection Book had a past PA’s comments suggesting that the Vehowa BMP post, being unnecessary, be closed down. On the very next page was a short poem in a beautiful, flowing hand. The poem ridiculed the PA’s acumen (or lack thereof) and closed with a word of gratitude for God, and not lowly man, being the Maker of destinies. For had man had supreme power, he would only have brought down infinite suffering on his fellows. The lyric was signed by Risaldar Jehanzeb Jehangir Raz. I knew no visit to Vehowa could be complete without seeing this good man. The poet had since retired from the service, but he was made available.

Smiling a slow smile he told us that the PA had not visited the post at all. Instead he had had the book sent over to Dera, and the record of crime in this jurisdiction being scant had felt the post ought to be abolished.

‘Had he visited, his observation would have been different,’ said Raz. ‘And had I not composed this poem, all succeeding PAs would have mechanically agreed with the remark and the post would have actually been abolished. Someone had to act, and I did.’ The post was saved, but Raz earned the displeasure of his PA. It was just as well that the officer was transferred shortly afterwards.

The Vehowa bazaar called Chhappar Bazaar from the time when the narrow shop-lined alley was covered over with matting, was a fine mix of the old and the new. Here were stores selling film music and gaudy cassette players, digital wristwatches, printed fabric, the kind one sees at weddings in villages, and all sorts of medication. Here too did we find a small, dimly lit hovel with an ageless sort of man poring over some odd bits and pieces. Above his head hung an unlit flyblown bulb and further behind an equally flyblown electric fan that could not have been less than sixty or seventy years old. He said he, the only Pukhtun in this Baloch town, was the local junk dealer. Amid his stacks of dust-laden oddments, the man dusty himself, seemed one of the collection.

Business, he said with an equanimity that comes from a life of few wants, was not too bad. Long ago, too long ago for him to know the number of years, his ancestors had moved south from Dera Ismail Khan to seek their fortune here. He did not know what line of work they pursued. I asked if they had found the fortune they sought and he shrugged his old shoulders, made a wry face but said nothing.

I looked around his shelves and he squinted up from his tinkering to ask what it was I wanted. For some time I had been looking for that old paraffin-burning bicycle lamp that all of us who grew up in the 1950s would remember. I asked if, perchance, he would have one.

‘No. Those are not to be had anymore,’ he said. ‘But I can keep a lookout for one, should you wish to return with your query.’ He sounded as if remote old Vehowa was a place you passed by every so often on your way to and from the supermarket.

I suggested he look around his trove for it could not be possible for a man to know every single item tucked away in those crowded stacks of assorted junk. He looked at me sternly and reminded me that he had run his business for close on forty years. There was nothing in his store, he added, that he didn’t know of. The interview was closed by him lowering himself visibly onto the gadget he was struggling with.

Item: a sign (in Urdu) in a pharmacy exhorted all believers to donate cash liberally for the ‘destruction of Hindustan.’ I found myself wondering what warped mind would machinate to destroy a perceived or real enemy, but not urge believers to work their utmost best for the growth and development of Pakistan. I don’t understand how our poor and sorry country stands to gain from the destruction of India. How, if that magic occurrence should come to pass, would our shameful state of health care, education and economy improve? Nor too do I understand if such jingoistic Pakistanis have ever paused to consider the fate they wish for the two hundred million Muslims of India in the scheme of that country’s overthrow. But then perhaps I am no patriot. I fear sometimes that our crazed passion for the destruction of India matched only by the total disregard we have for our own national well-being could indeed, in the end, be the undoing of Pakistan.

We left Vehowa just after midday. An hour and a half later, having followed the Vehowa stream (which becomes a raging torrent after a shower in the hills), we came to a small hut by the roadside. A crowd of men was gathered because word regarding the PA sahib’s impending visit had rung through the mountains and this delegation had come to receive him. A formal address was read out and Raheal commended for being the only PA to have made a repeat visit to these remote parts. After braving one visit, no mother’s son of a PA had ever come back, said the reader of the address. And here was this strange sahib who had returned within six weeks of the first visit.

A vast lunch was ready to be devoured. But the Baloch entertains guests with meat and only meat, and the hapless vegetarian be damned. Besides the two whole lambs there was also a couple of birds, dark and wooden that tasted like nothing in the world. Over the meal, the delegation discussed the various problems among which the road (its absence, actually) featured prominently, some petitions were presented to Raheal and then we took our leave.

We hadn’t gone more than twenty minutes when we were ambushed by another similar delegation. There was more meat to be consumed. I balked but Raheal and Ibrahim, brave and good men, sat down to eat. Earlier they had told me of the sure-fire Baloch blackmail employed in the event of a guest declining to accept hospitality: the host declares that his wife stands divorced should the guest not oblige. Since no self-respecting guest would want a hospitable man to be driven into such a dire situation, hospitality at this point is usually accepted. But I had no stomach, or even eyes, for any meat and not wishing to cause a divorce I sauntered off lying that the first meal had left me with a queasy stomach and I needed a secluded rock for a squat.

Under a lowering sky the scenery was still beautiful in a savage sort of way. The broad, pebbly bed of the Vehowa stream was braided with a wide silver-grey ribbon of water. On the far side the gorge walls rose sharply in a striated wall, on this side gently. In the sparse vegetation on my side, ashy finch-larks trilled and jostled. I stopped to see if they were already nesting in March, but found nothing. From further afield a sonorous double hoot rode the wind to me: the magnificent Indian eagle-owl was very likely watching us from its perch on a crag. Earlier we had surprised a wolf in the rank vegetation along a small stream and one of Raheal’s bodyguards had very nearly raised his rifle. Happily for us conservationists the animal fled in good time. I thrilled to the thought that the mountain yet lived.

They had finished when I got back. Ibrahim confirmed that the very real threat of several divorces had been successfully parried. Our hosts seemed relaxed as they sat about slurping their tea and smoking, their conversation punctuated by loud sounds of gastronomic repletion.

Chitterwatta with the BMP post commanding a low hillock and the village sprinkled beneath was made an hour before sunset. Chitter meaning ‘pocked’ in Seraiki (as too in Punjabi); the name comes from a large rock ‘pocked’ with inscriptions. Here were names of visiting PAs from a hundred years ago to the present. There were some Hindi and Urdu inscriptions together with some sort of hieroglyphic script that I had never seen before. There was also a star; a poor swastika and what seemed to be a crude Wheel of Life – all rather eroded. These and several others were without doubt from a long, long ago time. The Chitterwatta Post, Raheal tells me, was built by the British to ward off the marauding Pukhtun raiders from Musa Khel Bazaar and from as far away as Waziristan. What attracted these raids was the wealth the traders of Chitterwatta garnered from the passage of a healthy commerce through here, and since all the rich of the village were Hindus, the Pukhtuns legitimised their raids by looking upon their work as holy war.

The post did indeed lessen the intensity of the raids, but even as little as thirty years ago there was sufficient pressure to force the grandfather of Om Prakash (whom we had met in Vehowa) to immigrate. If one were to look at the map, one cannot doubt the tradition regarding Chitterwatta lying on an ancient trade route: it is the shortest connection between Multan and Ghazni. The trade, once lively, now no more than part of the collective memory, is a reminder of the importance of the route. And man has always travelled. Long before man built cities and trade became the purpose, man travelled in search of sustenance. The horse was yet untamed and man unburdened by goods of trade indulged in the most primordial of activities: he walked. This route, like many others, is timeless. Somewhere in that timelessness this rock would have served as a sort of notice board to post news of the comings and goings of the famous and the ordinary. On this rock, friable and susceptible to erosion, the esoteric symbols that intrigued us could not be more than a couple of thousand years old, however. If there had been any earlier artistry, that had either been obliterated by erosion or heavily over written. We ran our fingers over the drawings and I wondered if the fancy of our ancient artists had been excited by the thought that their work was to be admired something like two millenniums later.

The post itself comes straight out of an M. M. Kaye script. But owing to a lack of funds it is falling to pieces. While Raheal attended to yet another delegation (his third that day) Ibrahim and I climbed up the roof with one of the BMP men warning us where not to tread for fear of a roof collapse. We eventually gave up and walked up the hill behind the fort to watch the darkness falling and the stars coming out one by one.

Our departure from Chitterwatta was delayed until midday. All because of Raheal – and not for an entirely useless cause. Being a trained doctor, he had brought along a medicine chest and spent the entire morning ministering to the medical needs of suffering humanity that hadn’t seen another doctor in a long, long time. I sent up a silent prayer for all such doctors turned administrators who put their knowledge to good use in such remote places.

There was also the elderly woman called ‘Chairman.’ All of seventy-five years old, she was a live wire if I have ever seen one. She chattered away with Raheal without waiting for her Balochi to be translated. She smiled, she threw her head back and laughed, she chuckled and slapped one of the BMP men who said something naughty to her. She was as liberated as any woman in Karachi or Lahore. She was the ‘Chairman’ because, they said, she firmly kept her husband well in line. A very paragon for the women’s libbers of Pakistan, if you ask me. Like others of her kind I had seen elsewhere, she earned this status, I felt, because she was past the child-bearing age and was the mother of adult sons. I wished to speak with her, but fearing so much would be lost in the translation, abandoned the idea.

There was also the elderly man with the aging muzzle-loader that he brought out to fire for our benefit. Although it could take down a man, he said, he used it only for partridges. The weapon was loaded: cordite and shreds of old cotton cloth (‘to build up pressure’) packed hard into the breech. Some lead pellets went in via the muzzle. The fuse was put in place under the cocked hammer. The man aimed at a rock, squeezed the trigger and the hammer fell with a thin, empty click. The crowd jeered and the man looked only slightly fazed. He pulled the hammer back again, aimed and this time a lot of cotton flew with a bang. Up ahead a handful of dirt jumped. We all clapped and the man looked around smugly.

We drove through a landscape of pebbly flood plains twined with thin ribbons of water, caught between stark, brown hills and jagged precipices. Every now and again we passed below escarpments that seemed uncannily like man made fortifications. Phugla was made in time for a late lunch. A great crowd of Baloch men was at hand to receive Raheal. They fired their Kalashnikovs in the air, the guard rattled their service rifles and presented arms, Raheal inspected and then they sat down for the address to be read out. More problems for Raheal to look into: clean drinking water, health, smuggling of wheat and absence of roads. I dozed through the proceedings and never learned how the smugglers were to be tackled.

As we were leaving Phugla storm clouds billowed out from the west and soon sheet lightning went streaking across the darkling sky. Rain was teeming down when we entered Fazla Kuch that, like Vehowa, lives in a time warp broken only by the few ugly concrete buildings that do not belong with the rest of the 19th century village. Here were a couple of shops and an inn that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. The ground floor of the mud-plastered hotel was occupied by the cook-house with a large window that had grease-encrusted wire mesh stretched loosely across its frame. It did not only keep the flies out, but light as well. A wooden ladder painted bright green led to the rooms upstairs. The balustrade on the first floor was the same colour as the ladder and the floor of the foyer was thickly laid with fading and dusty carpets. Behind the foyer were three or four rooms for travellers. After years of wandering about this country and looking for traditional inns, this was the first one I saw. And one that was functioning at that.

The building rubbed shoulders with motor workshops where oil-stained mechanics waited for business. Of that there was plenty, one man told me with a smile. Taunsa, rather than the nearer town of Zhob, being of easier access and affording better supplies for the traders of Musa Khel Bazaar, locals routinely travelled up and down this road. Busted road springs and shock absorbers on those decrepit, overloaded four wheel drive pick-up trucks are common complaints. There was plenty of business in Fazla Kuch; the mechanic said pulling lazily on his cigarette.

Ibrahim Beg said farewell to us and rode away. He had wanted very much to be on the expedition to climb the peak of Behu just across the border in Balochistan, but none of us was sure how long it would take to get there and back and he had a job to look after. His inquiries in Vehowa and Phugla revealed that once we left our transport we would have to walk no more than a couple of hours to reach the peak, and if we left early we would be back in time for dinner. Now Behu is 2348 metres above the sea; I estimated Manrka, where we planned to start walking, to be no more than 400 metres. Therefore, we had to be supermen to climb almost 2000 metres in a couple of hours. So far as I reckoned, it wasn’t as simple as they made it appear.

But Ibrahim’s informants were adamant: so many times they had themselves walked from Manrka to Behu and back in three or four hours and we, softies that we were, would take maybe six hours. Ibrahim was almost enticed. But from years of mountain walking experience I knew otherwise and told him it was just a lot of hot air. None of these heroes had ever been anywhere near Behu. And so as Ibrahim said farewell, I told him we would be very sorry he was no longer to be with us if the climb to Behu turned to be as short as it had been reported.

We left Fazla Kuch in pre-dawn darkness. Horses awaited us at Manrka (the nr producing that nasal-palatal sound that only speakers of subcontinental languages can produce). Khurram, the young Risaldar, appeared to have been born in the saddle and Raheal, being just as bad, had brought his riding helmet and crop. I, for my part, have this pathological fear of being dragged behind a demon horse with one foot caught in the stirrup and keep a respectable distance from all horses. But I was forced into the saddle; not only by Raheal, but also by his staff. I did not last there more than fifteen minutes and snapped at the first man who said anything about the walk being long and hard.

We went up a sharp incline to a ridge. Below us spread a cultivated bowl with a single spreading tree in its middle. But Behu was not visible. Our guide said it was behind the khaki ridge in the distance. With a pair of binoculars they showed us the post of Jhandi on that ridge. In a straight line the post was about a thousand metres distant, but going around the ridge instead of descending into the bowl it would be some three kilometres. Again insistences for me to ride ensued. I snapped at everyone that mentioned ‘horse’ to me. Following the contours around the bowl we arrived at Jhandi some time after nine.

Again a delegation was at hand to welcome Raheal with gunfire. Lunch, they said, was ready and I knew it was going to be more roast lamb which at midmorning, with breakfast still sloshing about inside, can be a most revolting sight. And it was. But I politely sat through it picking at a piece of wholesome kak, the Baloch bread prepared on a hot stone. If you do not believe that feeding can be an operation of intense activity, you should have witnessed the scene outside where the rest of the delegation ate. On their hunkers this merry lot choffed, chomped, slurped, sniffed and burped as great quantities of meat steadily disappeared into them as stellar matter into a Black Hole until there remained only two rib cages and a few femurs and shoulder blades. Then they sat back to survey this scene of carnage with more burps. Satisfied that the foe had been suitably depleted, they lit their cigarettes and home-made pipes. Then all conversation ceased; only a chorus of belches rose above the soughing wind.

Even at Jhandi there were conflicting reports on the time to be taken to Behu. The range of estimation varied from a couple of hours to half a day. We headed out nevertheless. Beyond the scattered houses of the village we passed a small stone hovel that flew a proud Pakistani flag and it turned out to be the local school – the only one in almost two hundred square kilometres. A bunch of boys and girls squatted in front of the blackboard and the school master, not to miss the opportunity, invited Raheal to inspect. If the diligence he showed was this young teacher’s daily routine, he can put innumerable peers of his to shame. In that case he is surely the exemplar to be emulated.

An hour out of Jhandi we heaved ourselves over the lip of the bowl that we had been walking in. This was Zain Sar, 1630 metres above the sea. And a right lovely place it was with its wild olive trees, scattered tiny yellow flowers, superb views and a cool, gusting wind. Far away, in the shadow of dark thunder clouds, Behu loomed. Raheal sent one of his men up a nearby knoll to make radio contact with base. Sure enough they confirmed what we had wished against: that some minister or other was visiting the day after and that Raheal was to return to Dera Ghazi Khan immediately.

As for our mountain, it was yet eight hours away! Since Zain Sar is not connected with Behu, we were to descend about 1200 metres and then begin the long drag up Behu. So much for the estimate of all those who claimed to habitually go up and down that hill. We knew our friend Ibrahim had not missed anything.

We lounged about enjoying the clear mountain air and watched the thunderheads piling up over Behu. It was said that spring is a time of almost daily afternoon storms. The topography of the eastern periphery of the Suleman range is a series of peaks and troughs that begin just below the 30th parallel of latitude at Fort Munro and run up into the main massif of Takht e Suleman northeast of Zhob. The troughs are no more than 400 metres high, while the peaks are nearly all above 2000 metres with Fort Munro being the lowest at 1935 metres and Takht e Suleman the highest at 3379 metres. I suppose it was this unique topography of alternating crests and dips that somehow attracted even weak westerly disturbances and brought down rain as we had seen only the afternoon before.

Our picnic was disturbed by the first drops of rain. We hurried back, brushed aside invitations for more food at Jhandi and went on. As we were coming down the last slope my aging boots simply fell to pieces and I had to get on the horse. It was just as well that we had aborted for I scarcely know what I would have done without boots on the slopes of Behu.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 8 September 2014 at 11:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Waah! Great read.

At 8 September 2014 at 17:38, Anonymous Muhammad Athar said...

A great article ever red. I had a chance to visit a school near Rahimyar Khan where there was only one teacher looking after the education of five class. She got retired about one month back but there was no one to relieve her. The devoted teacher use to come to school daily and teach all the class but varied that who should sign the school leaving certificate.


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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

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