Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

PIR CHHATAL’S MYSTICAL FISH

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The Moola River of Balochistan is the only one in the 400 kilometre-long Kirthar Mountains that cuts clear across the range from the west to the east. Rising in the Central Brahui hills just southeast of Kalat, it flows in a southerly direction, irrigating the wide valley known after it as Moola. Halfway down its course, the river swings north and widens until it shears the rocky Kirthar barrier to reach Gandava.

The point where it enters the lowlands is evocatively known as Naulung — Nine Fords. Interestingly, among the highland Baloch, it is also known as Punjmunh — Five Mouths. Both titles signify the width of the river as it debouches from the rocky confines of the hills. For several thousand years, this was the most convenient passage between the Indus Valley and the Kalat uplands, the only one that could take ox-drawn wheeled transport with ease.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:50, ,

Tareekh Ke Musafir

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The genre of Urdu travel writing in Pakistan is dead, brutally butchered by a narcissistic writer whose travel fiction — written more like the post-summer vacation essays of a class four student — has destroyed the genre. Over the past four decades, his countless books, produced as travel literature, were more about the writer than about the place. The result is that most readers of Urdu now believe that what they have so avidly consumed is travel writing.

Now, travel writing is not just a narration of a journey — though there have been some fabulous and substantial books of this sort, too. It is a presentation of history, culture, geography, sociology, even a little bit of geology and, sometimes, anthropology. In Urdu, this was just not done. The trend of spurious writing spawned several copycat works, none of which made an impression on the reader.

Abubaker Sheikh stands apart from the run-of-the-mill travel writer in Pakistan. Tareekh Ke Musafir [Travellers of History] — the book under review — is his second work and, in keeping with its title, it is truly a journey through history.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:41, ,

The Rock Art of Karachi

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In February 1987, trekking up to the source of the Hub River in Balochistan, I had my first exposure to ancient rock art. Etched on a rock, in a wild and desolate area north of the village of Goth Badal Khan, was a hunting scene.

Dismissing those drawings of men, animals and geometric symbols as the work of modern youngsters, I took no further notice of them. Such was my understanding of our local petroglyphs, even when I erroneously considered myself an informed layperson.

Those etchings on stone were in the vicinity of what the locals call a gabr band — or wall of the fire-worshippers. Scores of these walls of dressed stones are scattered around in the mountainous areas northward of Balochistan and Sindh from the 26th parallel latitude.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 09:30, ,

Major Munir Ahmad

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My first battery commander was Maj (later Lt Col) Bashir Ahmed. A Dhariwal Jat, tall and impressive, he was a fine, professional soldier. I learned much from him in the few months I spent in his command. Thereafter I, as a lieutenant, commanded the battery until early in 1974, word was received that Maj Munir Ahmed had been posted to the regiment.

Since my battery was the only one without a commander he was coming my way. As things go, reputations precede and the word I received was of a very stern disciplinarian who brooked not the slightest shade of misdemeanour. He was, in a word, a true terror.

My adjutant Captain Khalid Jamil was delighted. Every time we met he would grin wide and tell me how I was going to be screwed. I have to admit I was not the most liked person by either my adjutant or the commanding officer. For the adjutant there were ample reasons for his dislike for me.

Kharian in the early 1970s was much of a forest. Right in front of the 6 Armoured Division Artillery Mess we had this spreading wooded area alive with jackals, porcupines and wild boar. In winter, the jackals would wander out to the mess and our quarters for food and there begin their long, lugubrious howling. It was very disturbing for most. I, however, learned to mimic the jackal almost exactly.

Every night after the club, I would set up a howling right by the back window of Khalid Jamil’s room. He would come to the window and try to shoo the unseen jackal away. But to no avail. Then one day I heard him tell the subedar major to draw his pistol and twelve rounds so that he can shoot the jackal that daily disturbed his sleep. That was the last time this jackal serenaded at his window.

Then, since he lived in the room directly below me, I would every late night set up a marching drill in my room halting with a proper ‘Check-One-Two’. Or I would drag my bed, drop things and generally make a racket to wake up the dead. A couple of times Jamil called me to the adjutant’s office and gave me a dressing down about the noise. My response was that since he was a teetotaller it was impossible for him to understand how an inebriated person can stumble into things turning them over.

His glee therefore was unbounded when word of the posting of Maj Munir and his reputation reached the unit. To be frank, I was concerned that my goose would soon be cooked.

Major Munir, a Sargodha native, was rail thin with narrow hips and wide shoulders and not an inch of fat on his body. He was good-looking and with the sternest set of the jaw I had ever seen in my life. Our first interaction was very business-like. Coming from field artillery, he had not yet done the conversion course to ack-ack (now Air Defence) but he had taught himself enough, he made it clear, I would not be able to pull any professional wool over his eyes. I had to be on my toes, 24/7 if I was to serve under him, or he would not think twice about placing me on adverse report, he said. All through the twenty minutes of the briefing not once did so much as a shadow of a smile broke his severity.

The first battery durbar Maj Munir held was a nightmare. Short of calling us names, he gave us hell. For fully thirty minutes, too. The upshot was that the battery having been without a real commander was in a shambles in every way and we had to shape up immediately. Any laxity, lack of discipline and punctuality meant demotion for NCOs and adverse reports for JCOs. After the durbar, several NCOs came to me almost terrified out of their wits. Eighteen months of my command had accustomed them to an easy going style, now this was unusual and frightening.

Khalid Jamil lost no time telling him what a nuisance I was. About a week after his arrival, Maj Munir gave me a stern, ‘Oye, tum adjutant ko raat ko sonay nahi detay! Kamray kay ooper shor sharaba kartay ho?’ (You don’t let the adjutant sleep at night with all that noise upstairs?) That was all. No threat for me to mend my ways or else.

I had nothing to say to that. But I stopped the racket.

Now, whenever I entered his office, I found Maj Munir reading up on the gunnery pamphlets and I knew we had a professional leading us. Shortly before he left for his conversion course, we prepared to go out on deployment and he surprised me with his competence. But as soon as we hit our area, Maj Munir disappeared. I deployed the battery, established communications, set up the command post and called him on the radio to report readiness.

As his jeep stopped short of the command post, I stepped out, saluted and gave him the ‘All correct’ report. He had been with us about six weeks and that was the first time I saw Maj Munir Ahmed smile, ‘Well done!’ was all he said. In the command post he got the grid references of all twelve guns and then drove around the perimeter to check if the layout was as shown on my map. He came back to give me my second well done. It was known that a Command Post Officer (earlier known as Battery Captain) would fudge rather than do the painstaking actual layout.

Three months went by and the adjutant was surprised no shit had hit the fan in our battery. He commented a number of times on my ‘cowardice’ in the face of a strict disciplinarian. His favourite was to taunt me with the Punjabi phrase about my torn arse. I never told him I was having a ball of a time with Maj Munir because all he wanted was competence, efficiency and punctuality.

One time I had to march in two senior NCOs. I don’t recollect what the issue was. But in his office, the three of us stood to attention while Maj Munir gave the men the rocket. It was summertime and when he dismissed us, we left six little puddles on the floor. This was from the sweat that had streamed down our arms.

Soon it was time for him to leave for Karachi for the conversion course. Shortly after his return, we went on another exercise and once again, I noticed that Maj Munir was not the kind of commander who would breathe down the neck of a junior for as soon as I moved the convoy, he disappeared. It had been raining and the area I had selected from the map to conceal the battery before we moved into deployment was, unbeknownst to me, water-logged.

The inevitable happened. Five of our twelve guns bogged down before I could stop the rest. It was a right snafu. I had to request the recovery vehicle from regimental headquarters to haul out the equipment. The adjutant was thrilled: now I was sure to get the rocket he so desired for me. Since the request was on radio, it was certain to have been heard by Maj Munir. But there was no intervention from him. No questions were asked.

Maj Munir arrived when I reported by radio that the battery was in action. I was awaiting the rocket and he surprised me by very mildly asking how we managed to get the guns out in just under an hour. Over the course of the next three days, my battery moved thrice. Maj Munir would be there to give the orders and that was all.

After every redeployment he and I would have this long radio exchange regarding the deployment in Griddle Code (a WW 2 British cypher system) which was heard on the regimental radio net. At lunch on the last day of the exercise, my commanding officer (who I have to admit was a real bastard) grudgingly admitted that the exchange between Maj Munir and me was the best voice procedure he had heard in a long time.

Not long afterwards, my battery commander fractured his leg in a road accident and was hospitalised in CMH, Kharian. I visited him every day to keep him in picture. He remained away for, I think, about five months. When he came back, we ran the 12 miles together in the quarterly Battle Efficiency Test.

Not long after that Maj Munir went off to Quetta for his Command and Staff course. I worked myself to ever worse relationships with my seniors and eventually was posted out of my parent regiment with an adverse report. By September 1978, I was out of the army.

I do not exactly remember the year (could have been 1987 or ‘88) when I was freewheeling around Peshawar where I met an officer from my parent unit. He told me of the new Air Defence Brigade stationed there and that the commander was Brigadier Munir Ahmed. It is as easy to see genuine pleasure as it is difficult to feign it. And it was genuine pleasure on Brig Munir’s face when I stepped into his office. He knew I was out of the army and was full of questions about what I was doing with my life. Done with that, we both returned to our stint together in Kharian and for the first time I told him how Capt Khalid Jamil had thought I would be done for under him. He had a hearty laugh.

As I was leaving, I had to tell him that he was the finest battery commander I had served under. After him I had known three more. Not one of them could hold a light to Brig Munir Ahmed.

PS: During one of our deployment exercises as I was setting up the command post, the adjutant Capt Khalid Jamil kept calling on the radio asking for my deployment data. We had been on ground barely ten minutes and he was expecting me to have everything worked out. Our call sign was 53 and he being headquarters, the calls went something like this:

‘Hello, 53. Send data. Over’

‘53, wait. Out.’

Five minutes later he would call again. On the third call I snapped, ‘53, men are working here, not machines. Out!’ Fida Hussain, my signal NCO from a village near Daultala (Rawalpindi), a right smart cookie, burst out laughing. ‘Theek keeta nay, sir.’ (You’ve done the right thing.)

Within seconds, the field telephone rang. It was the CO, the very one who was a bastard. He burned the earpiece off the telephone. We were speaking on the divisional artillery radio net, he bawled, and all four regiments as well as headquarters had heard my ‘rubbish’. He ranted on and on and on. Silently, I held the receiver away from my ear to keep the flesh from catching fire.

When Maj Munir came to the command post, he said nothing about my radio exchange with the adjutant. I think he approved.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 11:19, ,




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