Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Haji Machhli

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It was in 1989, the month was October. I had attempted to climb Takht e Suleman outside Zhob but lying in South Waziristan. But I failed. I failed because I did not believe that a mountain can be without springs of fresh water. Takht e Suleman is just such a mountain and I aborted halfway up dehydrated.

With a day and a half for the flight to Dera Ismail Khan, I was wandering about the bazaar having green tea and conversations at every tea shop when I heard of Haji Machhli. My informant said he had a treasure trove of artefacts from the time of ‘Sikander e Azam’. I asked directions and walked through streets dusty as they can be only in autumn and was soon standing outside a rather beat two-storeyed building that in the dark of the evening seemed mud-plastered.

Haji Machhli lived in the upstairs portion, said the man who was lounging around in a ground floor room. He pointed to the stairs and said I should go up and knock the door. The door, opened by a fifty something man of rather unkempt appearance, looked into a dusty room glowing yellow in the light of the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling.

I asked to see Haji Machhli and the man said it was he. He took me into the room and all I remember of him is an unshaven, shabby person. We sat down on ramshackle furniture and I heard how his passion for fishing and the time he spent on it in nearby rivers earned him the sobriquet he was commonly known by. He told me his real name which I now forget and which may or may not be in the frayed pages of a diary from that year which may or may not have survived the several moves in the last three decades.

I brought up the ancient artefacts the man in the bazaar had said Haji Machhli held. It was surely a sign of his total lack of guilt that he at once opened a cupboard and began to take out all sorts of material. His forthcoming guilelessness resulted from the fact that he had not stolen the artefacts, merely collected them from the surface of ancient mounds that the Department of Archaeology did not care about. There were terracotta figurines, utensils, toys, metal objects and, last of all, coins.

Back in 1989, I had no knowledge of coins and could not even tell Haji Machhli what he had. But like him I was completely taken by one gold coin that, two millenniums after it was minted, glittered as if new. Of the figurines, I could only recognise the goddess of fertility with her fancy head dress, heavy breasts and heavier buttocks.

Haji Machhli said he had found these from the various cultural mounds scattered between Zhob and Qila Saifullah. All these places he had stumbled upon quite by accident in the course of his gallivanting around from river to river for fish.

It was only after this meeting that I read up on the unexplored mounds of Zhob that were believed to pre-date even Mehrgarh which had been discovered only a few years earlier. What Haji Machhli had showed me was a very treasure house of the early history of the Sindhu Valley: his collection harked back on the earliest of the great cities of this wondrous civilisation.

Now, in those days I did not carry a tripod and we used film cameras. In that dim yellow light, I tried every which way to take some hand held pictures of his coins. Then I steadied my camera against various objects to prevent shake but there was no way of knowing then what the images would come out like. In the event, they all came out blurry and were of no use.

Haji Machhli said I should come back the following morning, but that was out of the question because I needed to be at the airport early for the plane. I promised the good man that I would return to photograph his collection and interview him for the paper I then wrote for.

I returned to Lahore and time flew by. The next trip to Zhob was October 1994 when I successfully climbed Takht e Suleman but I do not remember if I went looking for Haji Machhli during this trip. I vaguely recall that in a now forgotten year on a wet, wintry afternoon I did go to the Haji’s home again.

I climbed up the stairs, excited that I had both a flash gun and a tripod and that there was time to photograph the collection and interview Haji Machhli in detail. The door was opened by a young man. I asked for Haji Machhli. The man looked at me strangely and began to ask me where I had come from and how I knew the man. Then he dropped the bombshell: ‘My father died in a road accident some months ago!’

I was completely deflated. I could not believe Haji Machhli was gone. I felt cheated. I just stood there dumbly making silly apologetic noises. The man did not ask me in, but standing right there in the doorway told me that the bus having set out of Rawalpindi met with a serious accident somewhere near Mianwali en route to Dera Ismail Khan and Zhob. The Haji’s lifeless body was extricated from the mangled ruins of the vehicle a couple of hours later.

I remember asking about the collection, but got only half answers. It was apparent the young man had no interest in his father’s collection and that it was only a likely source of wealth. I came away dejected never again to return to the street where Haji Machhli lived. I have no idea what became of his priceless collection of artefacts some of which were certainly eight or nine thousand years old.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 9:38 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