Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Musa’s rock with the hole and the roof

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For the tenth time did Rehmat Khan Buzdar try to convince me that hospitality was not such a bad thing after all. And for the tenth time I returned that it was not such a hot idea to slaughter a sheep for a vegetarian and if he and his lot kept at killing their flocks the way they were doing it their tribal name of Buzdar (buz for goat and dar for owner or keeper) would soon be a misnomer. I said hospitality could just as easily be a nicely done dish of vegetables or lentils. But that, he argued, would not become Baloch hospitality. Then he told me the story.

There was once a Baloch of kind heart and generous spirit whose door was forever open to all comers. It was a rare mealtime that the man ate by himself; always there would be a passing traveller pausing to partake of whatever the man’s hearth could offer. But not so the man’s wife. A shrewish woman of niggardly disposition, she ceaselessly lamented the drain the hospitality caused on their larder and the trouble it caused her. No amount of cajoling blunted her verbal offensives.

One day as she stood by her door she saw two men approach. Withdrawing, she informed her husband of what she looked upon as trouble. Later that evening when her man asked for the company to be fed, she refused. She gave him just enough food for one person saying he could either eat it himself or feed his visitors and the matter was left at that. The following morning as she looked out of the door she saw three persons walking down the path into the wilderness. Mystified, she asked her husband how food just about enough for one person could have sated him and his three guests. He said it was not for her to worry her head about these matters, but the woman persisted. At length the man relented.

There were not three guests but one, he said. It was the guest’s naseeb she had seen as the second person the evening before. For no man, said the generous Baloch, comes to this world without his naseeb – his lot as predestined by his Lord. As he walks the long and lonely road upon the Lord’s good earth, he is, as indeed are all mortals, kept company by his naseeb. What he eats and drinks, what he earns or loses, his pleasure and grief, are all as they have been laid down for him in advance. Not a jot more nor less than his naseeb is what he will get for that is what the Lord has ordained. And so the visitor partook of whatever had been predestined as his naseeb. For him that day the Lord had decreed just half a meal and that was what he got.

What then of the third man that left in the morning with the guest and his naseeb, the woman asked. ‘The ways of the Lord are strange, simple woman,’ said the man. ‘A calamity was awaiting in our humble home to strike when its time was come. The hospitality that you offered, albeit begrudgingly, has won us merit with the Almighty Lord. We are delivered of that mishap. The third person you saw leaving our home with the guest was misfortune.’

Rehmat Khan regarded me with his bloodshot eyes.

‘The story of the generous man and his stingy wife may just be a story and no more. But it does have a point,’ he said. ‘From that day on the woman was redeemed, so the story goes. Not only did she never resent a guest, she became as willing and liberal a provider as her husband.’

That has always been the way of the Baloch and no amount of slaughtering of goats for the pleasure of the weary traveller will lessen the size of his herd, said Rehmat Khan. When one fetes a wayfarer it is not long after that one finds oneself on the lonely road and in need of comfort and hospitality. Then, shading his eyes against the westering sun, he pointed to a bunch of houses barely visible at the bottom of the hill and said that was where his brother was awaiting us with more hospitality. I shuddered: two days of Baloch generosity and I was sick of the sight of roast lamb.

Raheal Siddiqui, my civil servant friend in Dera Ghazi Khan, had invited me to Bail Pathar and ‘stories to sate your thirst for stories.’ Lying northwest of town at exactly sixty kilometres as the black eagle flies, this peak is part of the chain of Suleman peaks and troughs that rises at Fort Munro and culminates in the great massif of Takht e Suleman on the apex between Balochistan and Pukhtunkhwa. At 2328 metres (7636 feet) Bail Pathar is the highest point in Punjab and Raheal said it would be worth my while to boast one day that I had climbed the highest mountain in the province.

But like all the best laid plans of mice and men ours to depart from Dera Ghazi Khan before dawn was thwarted. With only two hours of sleep the night before, I slept through the journey on the metalled road. Even the jolting off-road ride did not rouse me until Raheal shook me awake at Gurg Dath – Wolf Pass. Rains of the past week had put a trickle of water at the bottom of the normally dry ravine beyond which was the settlement of Dada Musa Koh – Ancestor Musa’s Boulder.

The local chieftain pounced upon us with breakfast, the second one that day – the first having been fed us by Raheal’s wife because of our delayed departure from the city. Over roast chicken and lamb and endless cups of sweet tea they told us of that Buzdar ancestor called Musa, a much favoured man of God. But there were others as well and one day Musa got arguing with two friends over who possessed the most miraculous powers. To demonstrate one of them raised up his staff to a bird flying high overhead and brought it tumbling down; the other sat astride a boulder and went riding off into the hills.

Dada Musa took up his muzzleloader and pressing it against a boulder ran it through and through. The rock with the hole was now a shrine and Musa of the clan Buzdar, buried several miles away to the north, was a much venerated saint for the entire clan. Of the other two, the birdman was named Duzak also a Buzdar while the boulder rider was a Laghari called Mirak. The magical boulder sits in the graveyard of Kabir in Laghari country to the southwest and the bird was probably eaten up by the three for there is no bird-like rock to be flaunted. For some inexplicable reason both Duzak and Mirak were not viewed with the same reverence as Granddad Musa. But far away the Laghari miracle worker would surely be holding his own fairly well among his fellow clansmen. To each clan its own saint.

Musa’s rock was there all right with the hole running through its upper part nearly three metres across. I was invited to look through it and I half expected to be told if I viewed scenes from paradise I was forgiven and if not, hellfire was to be my everlasting lot. Nothing of the sort, however and I was spared the lifelong dread of the inferno. Once in the open, the rock now had a roof above it. Baloch sensibility evidently made it irreverential for the holy rock to be left in its pristine condition. The man showing me around solemnly touched the stone and ran his hands over his beard. Then he raised them up in orison and his lips moved silently.

An unseen Almighty God is all right, but it was more reassuring to have something material like Granddad Musa’s rock to worship as well. For the Baloch, Musa is the hearer and fulfiller of entreaties who answers prayers for sons. The gnarled old peelu tree by the cubicle housing the rock is festooned with a few hundred colourful rags containing the first shaving of newborn sons acquired in response to supplicating at the rock.

We were introduced to Nawab Khan of the Border Military Police (BMP). With handlebar moustache and sly grin, his claim to fame was the shooting of a leopard many years ago. Convinced that he had done a great and heroic act worthy of adulation and perhaps a monetary gift as well, he skinned the animal and betook himself with the pelt to the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Dera Ghazi Khan. Now the DC of that time was a man of good sense and judgment who told our man he ought to be imprisoned not rewarded for killing what was perhaps the last leopard of the Suleman Mountains. He came away perplexed and in all these years Nawab Khan has not been able to understand the DC, a right proper gentleman of the first class called Tasneem Noorani.

Nawab Khan’s mischief somehow has an anti-environmental hint to it. There was in the neighbourhood an ancient tree reputed to be the abode of evil spirits that would possess anyone who attempted to cut it down. And so the man went off with his axe to kill the tree and fashion a plough from the timber. Not long afterwards the implement fell to pieces and friends and neighbours tried to persuade Nawab Khan that the djinns were culpable and that he ought to do something to make amends. He wasn’t convinced and shortly after that his house was periodically bombarded with stones. He said the bombardment would only be at night and did not persist for very long. I suppose envious neighbours who thought they deserved to have cut the tree themselves but were afraid to do so had had enough of the stone throwing.

The nightly bombardment, however, did not keep the man from getting a second wife. Nor too did it get in the way of the fathering of a dozen and a half children – nine of either sex.

Horses do not have handle bars or steering wheels and for the life of me I can never figure out reins. On past outings Raheal has attempted to get me on a horse but with little luck. This time he pointed out the intense dry heat and the hour-long hike to the house of Haji Sherbet Khan. I asked for a horse with handle bars and Raheal and his team took off along the pony trail. My two guides led me straight across the narrow valley to a ridge. We climbed up and down the other side into a desiccated gulley. Then up again and suddenly I lost my legs. I wanted to call out to my guides to wait, but something kept me trudging along until they thankfully stopped under an acacia tree.

We walked across a scrub-covered landscape with the heat rising in shimmering waves until gun shots shattered the silence. My guides said Sherbet Khan was welcoming Raheal and his entourage. Fifteen minutes later when we entered the cool darkness of the good Haji’s guest room, they were already laying out the food – roast lamb again. And we had stuffed ourselves only an hour and a half earlier!

I told Raheal I wasn’t walking anymore and needed a horse that would have to be led. He ragged me good-naturedly about the great dream I was dreaming of an expedition across the frozen wastes of the central Karakorums and being unable to go less than half a dozen kilometres without fagging out. As he spoke I thought of whinging about the enervating heat in my defense. But even before I could open my mouth I had drifted off into deep, dreamless sleep.

It was just as well that I was no district officer and having no decorum to keep was able to catch up on much needed sleep through the meal. When we were ready to leave they brought out Dada Musa’s famous gun that had run through the boulder. It was in a colourful and fancy wrap that they said someone had gifted upon his return from Dubai. I presumed this event of financial betterment would be taken to have been impossible without Granddad Musa’s sanction. Hence the gift. Gingerly they removed the cover and all present came up to touch and kiss the holy gun.

It was an old fashioned jazail matchlock with a finely worked barrel a metre and a quarter long. Together with its curved butt it was just over a metre and a half in length. The piece of string that fired the charge was still attached to it and the entire mechanism worked. The keeper of the holy weapon boasted it was a full one thousand years old. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that was balderdash for firearms did not reach our part of the world until about the end of the 16th century.

In my younger days I might have felt silly being led on a tired old nag. But the desire to perform foolish heroics having left me years ago I sat contentedly in the saddle trying as best as I could to keep myself awake as the man led my horse. Beyond a dry canyon we began the steady climb to the pond of Jaghani. The horses were watered before we resumed. The Acacia modesta was soon interspersed with wild olive and Raheal said we had reached 2000 metres above the sea – that gave us another three hundred metres to go. Just before sunset we reached another pond evocatively named Gokh Talab – gokh in Balochi being the lower part of the skull just above the nape. It was said that having left the foot of the hill our little caravan had now reached the bottom of the skull just below the crest.

The crest was however some distance away. With the sun behind the western ridge, the heat gave way to welcome cool and Raheal and I gave up our horses to walk the rest of the way. It was in pitch dark that we reached the encampment at Sahib Talab. Rehmat Khan who holds charge of the Bail Pathar BMP post under the eastern shadow of the hill had organised a right festival for us. A blue and orange canopy was flapping madly in the forty knot gale and scores of men were all over the place. I don’t know how he did it, but he had even brought up a dozen charpoys.

There were no prizes for guessing what was for dinner and when we brought out the bag of okra that Raheal had very thoughtfully packed for both of us, Rehmat Khan pleaded it be held until breakfast. It would take too long to cook, he said. Moreover, the roast lamb he had prepared for us might fail to make the desired impact.

And this was only day one. More was to follow.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 27 January 2016 at 14:56, Anonymous Nadeem Akram said...

Its like reading Rudyard Kipling, great story telling!

At 27 January 2016 at 15:25, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Why, thank you so much, dear friend.


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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

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