Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

What I told the Girls at LCWU

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Moneeza Hashmi is a very dear friend who values my work. It was in her tenure as General Manager PTV Lahore Centre that we did the 19-part, 30-minutes each, travel/history series titled Nagri Nagri Ghoom Musafir. It was also under her stewardship that I made the 13-part documentary Sindhia main Sikander on Alexander’s Indian Campaigns, once again each episode of 30 minutes.

The first series was executed in 1998-99 and the second in 2001. This was more than a quarter century after the now vaguely remembered masterpiece travel show titled Selani kay Saath had enthralled PTV viewers. That was the work of the one and only, the great doyen of documentary makers in Pakistan: Obaidullah Baig. OB, as we who had the great good fortune of being his friends, called him, was the master story-teller. The raconteur par excellence who leapt straight out of the pages of some thick medieval tome of fairy tales. When he spoke, his gravelly voice and the turn of phrase held so many of us rapt for he easily matched (if not outdid) Scherazade of the Thousand and One Nights.

There was no place OB had not seen in Pakistan. And there was no place he did not have an historical background on. I watched his show first as a college student and then as a young army officer. It was my favourite and even then there was the desire to be like him someday.

Years passed by and it was only in the early 1990s that I first met OB when he was working with IUCN in Karachi and I was a contributor to their magazine. It was like meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen for years. The humility of a man as great as OB completely floored me. It was preciously rare for in Pakistan I have seen men with lesser achievements and great pretences.

A few years later, it was through OB I met the other great legend of PTV’s heyday: Qureshpur sahib whom OB addressed and referred to as Baday Bhaiya. Immaculate in his dark suit with his thick mop of hair neatly set, Qureshpur with all his intellectual elegance was even more humble. I knew then that Providence had given me the good fortune of meeting two men that should be role models for anyone who claims to be human.

In the course of one of our meetings, I told Qureshpur sahib that OB was my murshid and that I had modelled my TV documentaries after his Selani kay Saath series. Baday Bhaiya asked if I had outstripped OB in my quest of out of the way places in Pakistan and before I could respond that it was impossible for a disciple to outdo the master, OB closed the matter – despite all my protestations, ‘He wrongly calls himself my pupil and if he ever was, he certainly has seen way more of Pakistan than me.’

Such then are the signs of men of lofty character.

I began with Moneeza and made this lengthy segue to my pir Obaidullah Baig sahib by design. To go back to the narrative, Moneeza now heads the Benazir Bhutto Chair at Lahore College for Women University and she called some weeks ago to ask if I would be interested in talking to the students of her institution. Who wouldn’t, I asked. And so it was that on this past 5 April I was there with some images on a USB to tell the girls as Moneeza said, ‘of a Pakistan that few people have seen’.

The hall was packed and thankfully the air conditioning worked! The students, so I understood, were mostly from the geography department, but there were others as well for we had an audience of about perhaps one hundred and fifty. I flashed the map of Balochistan and asked if the girls knew which part of Pakistan was being shown. At least the geography department is doing its work all right for the girls knew it was Balochistan.

I began from Chaghai district with the story of Balanosh (Eater of Demons) as my favourite study in anthropology and how changing times alter ancient legends. I had the girls laughing with the narrative and that was a good sign: they were not sleeping.

We move west to Nok Kundi and then north into the mountains known as Koh e Sultan. The rugged landscape, the wild and desolate gorge leading up to the volcanic peak and the grotesquery formed by erosion had the audience entranced. On top of the mountain, I showed them the panorama of the caldera of this extinct volcano and told the girls if anyone wanted to see what a volcano looked like they should head for Koh e Sultan in Balochistan.

We were on an ever westward trajectory. Beyond Saindak now famous for its copper mining, I took them to the ancient and ruined caravanserai of Rabat. Sitting in the very apex formed at the tripoint where Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan converge to a needle tip, Rabat became known to minds that had never had any idea of its existence. I told them stories of this Rabat and the Jali (False) Rabat across the border in Afghanistan and how this would have been on the great route from Bahrain in the Persian Gulf to Kandahar.

Since no visit to Rabat could be complete without reference to Colonel (later General) Reginald Dyer, the Butcher of Jalianwala Bagh (Amritsar). I told them of his posting in Saindak in 1914-15 and how he suffered from the severest case of colic that all but rendered him invalid. And of course of his ‘escape’ by motor car that broke down not once but twice until Dyer simply decamped by camel all the way to Quetta.

Thereafter, as Moneeza had suggested, I had a smattering of images of our railway heritage and then several from various parts of Punjab, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan to give them views of some natural grandeur. Jahlar Lake in the Soon Valley and the Chiring Glacier of the central Karakoram region drew sharp intakes of breath.

None in the audience could imagine railway could be something that a curious soul would follow and learn about. I took them from the ‘Lonely Line’ to Khost north of Sibi and hurried them along the Zhob Valley Railway with Kan Mehtarzai, the highest Narrow Gauge railway station anywhere in the world. Then from the Soan River Bridge up the line to Attock Khurd station. There wasn’t a single girl the daughter of a railwayman, and none of them had any idea about the sheer majesty of our railway heritage.

I think I had the girls a little confused when I showed them an image of Shuwert, the summer pasture east of Shimshal village, and told them it lay in Central Asia. The geographers would have understood the clarification that the Great Asiatic Watershed dividing the waters between the Indian Ocean and the deserts of Tartary was the border. And that Shuwert lay north of the divide for all its waters flowed into the Shaksgam River system to eventually slake the Takla Makan Desert. I have no idea if it made any sense to the non-geographers and I do wish there were some way of knowing.

I had spoken non-stop for a full hour. But we did not give the girls a Q&A session and I have no idea what they thought. I only hope they enjoyed the show and I had managed to instil just a little iota of the desire to go forth and see for themselves.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 11 April 2016 at 11:27, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We are a people who have a remarkable history of settled life since over 9000 years. Each and every place of our beautiful land is historical and studded with glorious tradtions and heritage. I only wish that we start owning our thousands of years of history and heritage and start knowing about the marvel that we are. You are a marvellous story teller and very few in this land can match your travel itinerary and thus the knowledge that you spread with your writing and word of mouth. I wish there were more of us, like you.

At 11 April 2016 at 11:52, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you very much, Anonymous. It only takes knowing the truth and then a little adherence to principles and the courage to tell it.

At 11 April 2016 at 14:03, Anonymous Nadeem Akram said...

Loved it being a Railway brat!

At 12 April 2016 at 00:17, Blogger Ali Gohar said...

Very interesting. I found one of the images very intriguing, the one with a mud wall and gate half buried in dust or is it sand.

At 12 April 2016 at 12:28, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Ali Gohar, this is one of the abandoned stations on the Lonely Line. It sits between Isa Tahir and Nok Kundi.


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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