Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Walk the old city of Peshawar

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In the Bazaar Qissa Khwaan (popularly Qissa Khwani), opposite the lane leading into Mohallah Jehangirpura, there stands a pair of marble cupolas. The plaque below commemorates the patriots who laid down their lives on the twenty-third day of April 1930. That was when the freedom movement took off in Peshawar. As the demonstrators reached this point in the bazaar, a heavy police picket opposed them. Then as the sides stood facing each other down, there came from the side of the cantonment an armoured car that drove right into the rioters as Raj authorities would have called them or the patriots as we like to say.

Then all hell broke loose. The authorities opened fire and many died. That was what made it to the history books. What never merited recording was the story of the boy not yet past his tenth year who had come to watch the demonstration. He stood to one side of the surging crowd and when the first volley was fired was as terrified out of his wits as any ten year-old should be. Ducking quickly under the shop-front ledge that extended over the gutter running along the side of the street, he could only get himself partially under cover.

There, with one leg knee-deep in muck, he was shaking in his knickers when a native policeman spotted him. Hauling him roughly out by his arm, the man boxed the boy's ears and told him to get lost. As the bullets whizzed in the street behind him, the boy scampered into the alley leading to Jehangirpura. He did not stop running until he had entered the safety of his home. Had one errant bullet, just one, found the skinny body of this boy called Yusuf Khan that day, the world would never have celebrated an Indian film icon by the name of Dillip Kumar.

This tale never made it into the books, but this is what Dillip Kumar, a native of the walled city of Peshawar, had told Dr Amjad Hussain, who was born in a home in Muslim Meena Bazaar, not far from the home of Yusuf Khan about a decade after that incident of 1930. And as we stood there by the twin cupolas, Dr Hussain pointed out perhaps the exact spot where the young and terrified Yusuf would have cowered in the gutter and the lane into which he subsequently ran for his life.

A couple of months earlier, Dr Hussain had e-mailed me from Toledo (Ohio, where he now lives) about his visit. He had written that being a short one, this time he would be unable to come down to Lahore. I wrote back to say that I would be very happy to travel to Peshawar if he would show me the old city the way he knew it. And so it was that on the penultimate day of October, we walked the Bazaar Qissa Khwaan.

By a curious quirk of fate, this was the 7th death anniversary of Dr Habib ur Rehman. The good doctor had joined Khyber Medical College in 1961 as professor of surgery when a young Amjad Hussain was completing his final year. There followed a year as a student and some more as intern under the wing of the senior. During this time a friendship developed that lasted until Dr Habib ur Rehman passed away in 2000.

Not long after his death, I got a call from Dr Habib's colleagues that a very moving piece written by an old student of his had appeared in a magazine and that they had kept a copy for me. The piece, titled simply 'Habib Sahib', brought tears to my eyes. Dr Habib was Chan to us four siblings which was our children's abbreviation of chacha jan. From the writing I could see my uncle just as we knew him: kind, indulgent forever unruffled, honest and truthful to a fault and elegant to a tee. The article bore an e-mail address. I wrote and there began the second tier of the friendship that had first started when I was but a nine year-old.

Himself a heart surgeon, Dr Amjad Hussain is also an accomplished writer who has authored six books. And the thing that binds us, perhaps as much as the mutual feeling we have for my late uncle, is that the two of us have not cut the umbilical that ties us to the land of our ancestors. For him this is doubly remarkable for he has lived in the United States for the past over thirty years. Yet Dr Hussain loves his Peshawar with an intensity that that shines through his books. Being on a tour with him guiding was the greatest fulfilment I could imagine.

"Patras Bokhari was born in Mohallah Jehangirpura into which the frightened Yusuf Khan had ducked," said Dr Hussain as he steered his son Usman and me into Shah Wali Qatal. When he was young this locality, a piazza with courtyards and store fronts all around, was famous for two things: the bamboo-sellers and the cubicle that served as intellectual's meeting point. Some of the bamboo-sellers are still there, but cheek-by-jowl now with shops of stainless-steel kitchen ware. The cubicle where such luminaries as Zia Jaffery, Farigh Bokhari and Raza Hamadani talked literature and where a boyish Ahmed Faraz "cut his teeth," as Dr Hussain says, is sadly no more. It has been taken over by yet another seller of household wares.

As we stood in the piazza to say a silent prayer for the deceased centre where so many once paused to hear a word or two of wisdom, a bearded young man came up and asked if Dr Amjad Hussain was indeed Dr Amjad Hussain. He was a local shopkeeper and a reader of books. A rare breed, I say! In my native Lahore, I have yet to meet a businessman (save my optician) who spends his time reading, and here we ran into one just like that. He dashed into his store and came back with Dr Hussain's 'Dur e Maktab' (Threshold of the School) but, strangely, did not ask for his copy to be autographed.

We had come to Shah Wali Qatal to visit with Maqsood Ahmed. Heavy-lidded eyes with bags below (very like those one has after years of morning-after-the-night-before), sensuous lips, a full head of hair and an overall rather languid and somewhat sensuous air, this man too runs a store here. His claim to fame is that he is cousin to Shahrukh Khan, the Indian film icon. We were invited into a tiny hole-in-the-wall kind of room for kahva. It was just the kind of place they show in those Hollywood films where the smuggler or the mujahideen-loving hero is ushered in for parleys before being secreted into never-never land: dimly lit, with soot-stained roof and walls, a cupboard in the wall with a door hanging limply on a broken hinge, some odd assortments in a corner that had not been touched for years and for furniture just a rug and bolsters to recline against.

Over glasses of kahva talk did not centre around Maqsood's famous cousin but things more Peshawari. I could not resist asking why Shahrukh was a Khan and he not. "Because he moved away from Peshawar," he grinned. That was true, said Dr Hussain. Anybody from Peshawar is 'Khan Sahib' as soon as they step across the Sindhu River. I could have added that for the entire lot of yahoos of the great Punjabi plains, everybody west of Jhelum River was 'Khan Sahib.' And Taj Mohammed, who sired Shahrukh, was Maqsood's father's youngest brother. Like Yusuf aka Dillip Kumar, he too became Khan because he lived so far away from home in Peshawar.

Through the maze of alleyways we went to Mohallah Khudadad which Dr Hussain once referred to as Mohallah Qasaban -- Butchers' Row. I imagine this name change is a bit of an up-grade. In a tight little dead-end alley he pointed to a doorway with a soiled white sheet acting as a curtain to it and an equally worse for wear chik on the first floor window: that was the home to which the boy Yusuf had fled on that April day in 1930 to the safety of his mother's bosom. If Dillip Kumar's ancestral home had a different frontage in the past, it has now been encroached upon from the two sides and its facade is no more than two metres broad. We did not pause to speak the people that now lived within.
Pipal Mundi was out next stop. During my eighteen-month sojourn in Peshawar (1977-78) when I was a raw and utterly unread moron of a captain in the army, I had stumbled into this absolutely, absolutely enchanting place. Then, as now, it was the spice sellers market. Shortly before, I had read Kipling's 'The Man who would be King' and had also seen the film. A scene from the film, set in Lahore if I remember correctly, showed a street, smoky and mysterious, exactly as Pipal Mundi. In my mind the film was in all likelihood shot right here in these alleyways.

Somewhere in the length of this bazaar and just off to one side I had found an old caravanserai. My memory might be fuddled, but I recall it was abandoned. I walked into the courtyard to see the rows of rooms behind a veranda, but I did not either look into the rooms or climb up the stairs to the upper floor -- in my callowness I was not as inquisitive as middle-age has rendered me. In subsequent visits I have never again been able to locate this magic caravanserai. But this time there was something more important to discover: why was this marketplace named after a tree that my ancestors have worshipped for 10,000 years?

Dr Hussain led us through the row of spice sellers with their heaps of powdered chillies, turmeric, coriander. We took a left turn which brought us to a somewhat open space within the congestion. Here, he said, there once grew the most magnificent pipal tree. So huge was its girth that not even ten men could encircle it with outstretched arms and its canopy was well over forty metres in radius. Sometime in the mid to late 1970s, this tree was cut down to make way for the ugly block of stores. Dr Hussain said he was shocked to see the tree gone on a visit home from the States when he was told the tree caused too much filth! Wordlessly Dr Hussain pointed to the filth of plastic wrappers strewn all around us. Only now there was no tree to provide cooling shade and clean air.

As we had entered Pipal Mundi, we had passed under another tree. But this one was young. Nearly fourteen centuries before us another man marvelled at a pipal tree 'about a hundred feet or so in height.' This was the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visiting the city of Parashapura, as Peshawar was called in the year 631A.D. Under this tree whose branches he found 'thick and the shade beneath sombre and deep,' he found four seated figures of the Buddhas that had meditated in its shade in days past. This tree, our pilgrim tells us, grew about a couple of kilometres to the southeast of the city.

Near this huge tree the great Saka king Kanishka built a stupa to house relics of Buddha. This was apparently a massive building for Xuanzang tells us it rose no less than a hundred forty metres high and the circumference of its base was some 270 metres. In its vicinity the king also built a monastery and several smaller stupas. Dr Hussain tells me this great complex is now marked by Shah ji ki Dheri to the southeast of the old city.

But back in the ugly market where the pipal grew under whose shade my guide had played as a child, he asked a shopkeeper if, when they came to chop it down, anyone had said a prayer for it. "Pray for a tree?" asked the man incredulously. "We pray only when we kill sacrificial animals." The tree, a true heroic creature of Nature, that had shaded more generations than the storekeeper could count and that had held enough carbon in its huge bio-mass to keep global temperature down by at least a fraction, figured lower than an animal sacrifice

Past Cunningham's Clock Tower we made our way to Gor Khatri -- House of the Khatri (Hindu trader). If I estimate correctly (failed to ask Dr Hussain), this is the highest spot in the old city. This then is the Mound of the Ages that has been lived on for century after century. Here for well over 2,000 years the people of Peshawar have lived, given birth, died. Here they have worshipped Buddha, Shiva and Vishnu, the Sky and the Winds or whatever else they could not explain or that took their fancy.

When the good Iftikhar Hussain Shah was the governor of the province, he one day got it into his head to turn the highest part of Gor Khatri into some sort of amusement park. Dr Amjad Hussain got wind of this hare-brained scheme in the States. Somehow he met the governor and pleaded with him. It goes entirely to the latter's credit that he saw the sense in Dr Hussain's argument. He subsequently got the Department of Archaeology to investigate the site and the seven metre-deep trench today is entirely because Dr Hussain was able to raise funds for the venture.

And so we today know that the lowest cultural level so far revealed goes back to the Indo-Greeks. That, good people, is the 3rd century BCE, a date that precedes the coming of age of Lahore by at least 1,000 years. We briefly stopped at the dig to talk to the archaeologists and learn that they planned to go deeper to the level of 600 BCE.

During his rule over Peshawar, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had placed the town under the governorship of the Neapolitan adventurer Paolo di Avitabile. Abutabela to the locals and the Pathans, this ruthless man governed with an iron hand and it is said would daily hang half a dozen miscreants for breakfast and leave their bodies rotting at the gibbets. That kept everyone well in line.

The imposing facade that looks down as one approaches from the Clock Tower, was the entrance to Avitabile's fortress-like residence. During the Raj compound housed, among other offices, the Peshawar Fire Brigade. An old fire engine from the 1920 is still parked in a newly built garage. In another more civilised land, this machine would be a spruced up showpiece. But here it rots together with a vast assortment of broken furniture, tools and sacks of discarded documents.

Outside the old city we drove to the Christian Cemetery on University Road. In 1983 Geoffrey Moorhouse, the well-known travel writer, visited Peshawar and one fiery hot day he poked around this cemetery because his guidebook (he does not give its name) said there was one gravestone that read, 'Here lies Captain Ernest Bloomfield. Accidentally shot by his orderly, March 2nd 1879. Well done, good and faithful servant.'

The last part is a Scriptural quotation whose comical absurdity in this case was perhaps lost on the maker of the gravestone. Alternately, said Dr Hussain, the man may have been universally loathed. Despite a search of a few hours, Moorhouse never found the grave. And in the 1990s when a good deal of expatriates was working in Pakistan, many of my friends among them also went looking. They too failed. I had tried once several years ago, and now together with Dr Hussain returned to the cemetery hoping by some miracle to discover the grave.

I was horrified to see the once verdant burial ground with scraggly denuded skeletons in place of those magnificent pipal trees. Even the grasses underfoot had dried. It was as if the graveyard was, for the first time since I first saw it in 1977, in mourning. We spent a good one hour scouring the graveyard. But nothing. The famous headstone was not to be found. The guidebook surely had made it up.

Our day came to an end with the withered trees of the cemetery silhouetted against the sun low in the west. I realised that although I have walked so many times in the old city of Peshawar, but today was different. Everything stood out differently when seen through Dr Amjad Hussain's eyes. I was lucky to have had the opportunity.

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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