Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Bunni Bungla - a rest house and a memory

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The magic of the narrow Grand Trunk Road as it wound through the acacia and shisham-covered slopes of the Pabbi Hills between Jhelum and Kharian has been lost to progress. The highway has been widened and straightened and zooming through one hardly notices the clayey vegetation-covered hills.

Lost too is a lovely old rest house that was about eighty years old when I first knew it back in the early 1970s. Bunni Bungla, as it was called, was the property of the Forest Department, if I remember correctly. It was a bulky looking brick building with a pillared veranda on three sides, one large drawing room and two or three other rooms. It sat, unseen from the main road, on a knoll amid tall grass and trees all but forgotten and scarcely visited.

About fifty metres to the north of the bungalow was the edge of the escarpment. Below it was a wild and desolate sort of gorge where we could surprise foxes if we were quiet enough and hedgehogs even if we weren’t. About a couple of hundred yards farther out in this ravine was the main railway line and far away, on the horizon, used to be a crystal line of snow peaks: the Pir Panjal Range of Kashmir. In August, that blessed month of Bhadon, when it used to be what we now only read of in romances and when it meant rain and teeming rain, the landscape used to be magic. Everything would turn a colour so green as to defy definition.

As a young subaltern stationed at Kharian, I and a couple of friends had discovered the rest house by accident on a walk through the Pabbi Hills. Having scrambled up through thickly growing Phulai festooned with creepers in a wet August, we were surprised to find ourselves facing the imposing building where we hadn’t expected anything. The chowkidar was a right friendly and talkative chap, a chowkidar of the old school. In 1973 they were all veterans of the Raj and this one remembered visiting British officials well. He also told us that at some point General Yahya Khan was placed under house arrest in that rest house and showed us the room used by the General.

There was no electricity and each room had a manual punkha. A giant version of those hand-held wicker fans that we still see today. This thing, sometimes with a colourful fringe, hung from hooks in the ceiling. A rope attached to its frilly lower edge went through a hole fitted with a pulley in the upper part of the door jamb and was worked by a professional punkha-puller sitting in the veranda. This person, usually a youngster, was on regular payroll in those pre-electricity days and sitting outside the room he would alternately pull and release the rope to work the fan. It is said that these boys were so adept at their tedious work that they would fall asleep with the rope wrapped around the big toe and even in deep sleep the leg would continue to work back and forth, back and forth. And Bunni Bungla had such a punkha-puller too.

Outside, the lawn had its semi-circle of the bitter hedge that we call ‘gardenia’ with a concentric arc of periwinkles that seemed to be eternally in bloom. Otherwise, it was rather unkempt and used to be rank with tall grass during the monsoon months. But from early October onwards, the grass would begin drying out. That was when the weather turned crisp with a touch of winter and sitting there we could even discern new snow on the distant Pir Panjal – or so we used to imagine. One of our great pleasures then was to go out to Bunni on Sunday afternoons with a few bottles of chilled beer, lie in the dry grass with the sun mellow on our young brown faces and dream great dreams as we watched the shadows lengthen in the ravine below and the light change on the snows of Pir Panjal.

In the few years I spent in Kharian, Bunni was a favourite haunt. Then I left that station and, not long afterwards, the army and went to live in Karachi. In 1985 motorcycling through Punjab I resolved to revisit Bunni, but missed the turn-off. Some years later, having returned home to Lahore, I thought of stopping at Bunni the next time I motored to or from Rawalpindi. But that never came to be until recently. The turn-off was not at all difficult to find, but maybe the drought had killed off so much vegetation that it now showed clearly. On the top of the knoll there was a microwave mast but no rest house. The young man minding the microwave station said the rest house was a couple of hundred metres down the road.

But the site was too familiar: the flat-topped knoll, the sharp escarpment, the railway line. Everything was there. Only the rest house and the horizon of crystal snow peaks were missing. But the latter I knew was lost to us forever because we have ravaged the earth and the air that sustain us. Images from my youth like the sight of Pir Panjal from Bunni or from the peak of Tilla Jogian, are no more. We have pumped so much smoke and filth into the atmosphere that we no longer see the horizon, only a murky greyness. But even if the Pir Panjal was not visible, I knew I was at the right place.

Was there an old water tank around here, I asked. Through rank mesquite I went in the direction the man had pointed. Back in 1973 the old chowkidar had told us that the tank had been built by Babur, the founder of the Moghul empire. The ramp leading into the tank, bone dry in the third year of the drought, was intact, the brickwork still in good fettle. In one or two places some dedicated archaeologist had applied a coat of cement to arrest deterioration. The thickly growing trees resounded (even in May) to the frenzied calls of the Brainfever Bird and the mellifluous whistles of Golden Orioles.

A slightly older man joined me. I asked about the rest house again. The old building, he said, had been pulled down in 1992 (or perhaps the year after) on the orders of the prime minister. That foolish man, brain-dead from a gross excess of fatty foods, had found that old historic building not to his loutish taste and wanted a new-fangled monstrosity to suit his uncultured Gowalmandi mind. Just as Kamran Mirza’s baradari in the Ravi was ‘renovated’ on his orders so too did this brainless man want to renovate Bunni Bungla.

I will never know why old, but perfectly serviceable, buildings must be replaced. Why they cannot be refurbished. Why they must be destroyed even when they have tens of decades of serviceability left. But the grand old bungalow was pulled down and work on the new monstrosity begun. It was perhaps divine justice that the new foundations had scarcely risen from the ground when the unsteady foundations of prime ministership came crumbling down. Work stopped and when the man again got back into the driving seat four years later, it did not resume. Bunni Bungla and the illicit fun that someone was going to have there were forgotten. There were other hare-brained ideas to consider and see that they never came to fruition.

I don’t know if young subalterns from Kharian still go walking in the Pabbi hills, but if they do and if they ever scramble up through the thick vegetation they will not find a graceful old rest house on the knoll. They will only find ugly unfinished foundations. Gone is the old house and gone too the unkempt garden and rank grass. No longer can the subalterns of today feel that glow that we as young men had felt with the beer warming our souls and the mellow sun of October our bodies. I wonder if they will even know today what they have missed: the tall grass, birdsong leaping out of the vegetation, the vitreous blue sky, the wild gorge below, the distant glaze of the Pir Panjal and, best of all, the buoyant feeling of growing up in a time of hope and idealism. Their fault is they were born too late.

The only redeeming factor is my friend Khushnood Lashari, a rare breed of bureaucrat, who heads Gujranwala division as the Commissioner. Though even he cannot conjure back the destroyed rest house, he has ordered the overgrown Moghul water tank to be cleaned up and a sign installed to tell passing travellers of the four hundred year-old monument. Perhaps the occasional passer-by interested in our legacy will slow down to take the detour up the knoll. When that happens, something of Bunni will have been salvaged.

For me, however, the recent visit brought on a pang of sadness. The rest house has evaporated like so many of the dreams of our youth a quarter of a century ago. The visit brought back a yearning for the heady days of the 1970s when dreams came easy and when the flush of hope and the verve of youth gave a jaunty lilt to our walk. We were free, almost as free as Jinnah had wanted us to be: free to go to our temples and to our mosques without fear of lurking death. Though we had lost half the country only a couple of years earlier, we yet harboured great visions for what remained. Religion lived in the souls of women and men and not on the tips of forked tongues. The mullah had not yet started his unholy war against Islam, and we were all better folks, surely a bit closer to God for we had not yet fully mastered the vile art of hypocrisy. Honesty was still appreciated and decency was not taken as a sign of weakness. What a great time it was to be growing up in.

The loss of a simple brick building perhaps a hundred years old when mindless politicians destroyed it precipitated a longing for a time that was surely much better. I had never realised how close my association with Bunni Bungla was. The desolation that I felt within at its loss brought that realisation. It felt as if a part of my youth had been stolen away. I knew this time around the past really was another country.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 12:00 AM,

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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