Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

The Witch's Fire

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Decades ago I heard from soldiers of Jhelum district, especially those who lived around the hill of Tilla Jogian, that at night djinns walked around in the wilderness with lanterns. So many of the soldiers from my unit claimed to have seen those lights. No amount of lectures on science and ball lightning could make them believe anything else.

 Once a thick curtain, as the Vemonia creeper as it looks in June 2017

I learned of ball lightning from the Penguin science magazine that my father regularly got back in the 1960s. Exceptionally dry weather and wind scudding along rocks and trees can create an electrical charge that grows and glows. It moves about with the breeze, erratically because it is repelled by any object of similar charge (remember your physics?). I would ask my men if the lights sort of danced about as if carried by drunken beings and they agreed, but none of them save my MT NCO, the very smart Ashraf Mirza of village Vahali near Choa Saidan Shah, ever believed me.

The men also agreed that the lanterns were seen only in summer months. Never in winters or during monsoon rains which in those good old days were always plentiful. During these months the charge cannot be generated either because of the low temperature or dampness of air.

And then in the army also the Quartermaster’s store had instructions on dealing with spontaneous combustion. Yes, in very dry pre or post-monsoon summer months a pile of stuff, especially army issue blankets, could of a sudden catch fire.

All this was a preamble to tell you how fires can occur naturally and that the lanterns that djinns roam around with are nothing but ball lightning. Incidentally, if you poke such a ball, it can deliver a goodly electrical shock of about 100 volts. I speak from experience because during an army exercise in May 1974 between Gujrat and Mandi Bahauddin, I found myself next to one on a hot afternoon. I couldn’t resist and just to check stuck my finger into it. The jolt scared me nice and proper.

Now to the main story.

October 2010 was a very dry month in Lahore. One afternoon as I was having lunch I found myself wondering what the crackling sound was outside. Then there was this commotion on the first floor on the side of the staff’s quarters. I looked out to see black smoke rising above our Bombay Creeper. Also known as Curtain Creeper, Vemonia Creeper or in India as Parda Bel – the same as Curtain Creeper – Pakistani gardeners call it Sehra Bel. The scientific name being Vemonia elaeagnifolia, this is a useful creeper which once you take to the roof falls down like a curtain to keep parts of the house from direct sun.

We had planted our Vemonia in March 2002 after we failed to cover our west wall with ivy. By 2010, it was a true curtain protecting the staff quarters and our bedroom wall from afternoon sun. But that October day the top part of it was in a blaze. I went upstairs with buckets and together with our staff’s young son Qamar managed to douse the blaze. But not before the upper part of the creeper was completely charred.

As the boy and I were clearing the ashes, we discovered a dead kitten and another injured one breathing its last badly caught within the tangle of branches. Both had severe burns. One kitten, unscathed, was cowering under the water tank. I did not tell Qamar what it was, but I knew then that the kittens were playing among the vegetation, much of which was dry as tinder. The sparking from their fur started the fire. What surprised me was that the kittens could not manage to extricate themselves.

Anyways, later that afternoon when Faqir Hussain who lived upstairs with his family returned, he told me the fire had been started by the witch. Months earlier he had said a witch lived in the amaltas in our backyard. To that I had told him the only witches on the premises were his wife and mine. Their presence kept all other evil spirits at bay.

But Faqir Hussain would have nothing of it. The fire was started by the witch, he insisted. At this point I called his sons and lectured them on how if we rub our hands on a cat’s back we can make its fur crackle. And how when the kittens were playing amid the tinder their fur sparked and set the dry twigs alight. The boys looked at me solemnly nodding their heads.

I do not know how much they believed my palaver and now, seven years on, I do not know if Faqir Hussain (whose family has since moved on to their own home) believes me and not the witches. But the one thing that reminds me of that spontaneous fire is the Vemonia that never regained its past glory. From being a true curtain, it is now a straggly thing. It no longer protects us from the summer sun and I am desperately trying to grow other things over it.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 3:58 PM,

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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