The Way It Was: The other side of the wall

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

By next morning we had voluntarily surrendered leadership to our friend. From there on we accepted his instructions at least without a grimace. On approaching Takhtbai, not far from where we had stayed for the night I hesitantly enquired whether it would be possible and appropriate for us to stop for a while to visit the museum. To my surprise he agreed saying, “yes!” but on the condition that we didn’t waste time

Don’t you think that lingering in bed can be a source of immense bliss? On a vacation leisure is the very essence of fulfilment. It is common experience that on a holiday an eager companion, full of pep, fresh and frisky can be a positive pain. I understand that there is physical labour and there is mental labour. Individuals seemingly inactive are not necessarily lazy. Leisure enables a person to replenish and balance out what is often missed in hurried existence. Once I remember driving from Rawalpindi on a trip to Chitral with a most amiable friend. His only failing, which can’t really be called a failing, was being cautious and concerned. He required us to be prompt, ready and punctilious in complying with the trip itinerary. In the end we felt transformed into arms of a clock struggling to make it in time to the designated number or place. Evidently it seemed that my friend was less interested in relishing sights and more concerned in keeping time.

We stayed the night at the old Fishing Hut that has over the years procreated several additional structures. The complex is situated on bank of the Swat River across the bridge leading to the erstwhile Dir State. Thanks to the initiative of our friend things couldn’t have been better taken care off. Dinner was served on the front lawn in moonlight. The ripples of water exaggerated the moon reflecting in the water, while the river cascaded away towards a pair of silver hills above and beyond the dark weeping willows. It was a bit chilly but the sight of a cheerful log fire and appetising aroma of succulent lamb and farm chicken making a hissing noise with their oozing juices while being grilled on its embers, were sufficient to keep us warm.

I must confess that by next morning we had voluntarily surrendered leadership to our friend. From there on we accepted his instructions at least without a grimace. On approaching Takhtbai, not far from where we had stayed for the night I hesitantly enquired whether it would be possible and appropriate for us to stop for a while to visit the museum. The museum I had been informed possessed valuable specimens of Buddhist art. To my surprise he agreed saying, “yes!” but on the condition that we didn’t waste time. At the museum to my great dismay we were reminded that it was a holiday and the Museum was locked. I have rarely seen such an odious sight, an ugly grey door with an ugly greasy black lock dangling at its ugly dirty midriff.

We had come so far and who knew when we would be there again. We pleaded with the chowkidar to open the museum for us, even if it was for a moment. The chowkidar, a stout agreeable middle aged man, with a day old stubble, asked us to stay put where we were and disappeared behind a tall citrus hedge. After a few moments he jauntily strode back with a fair and friendly looking museum official who seemed visibly pleased at our insistence on seeing the historical artefacts held in his custody. As a very special gesture to us the museum was opened. After all we were guests who had travelled all the way from the Punjab. Apparently not very many visitors came to the Takhtbai Museum. The whole place lacked lustre and looked a bit dusty. Let alone a booklet or a brochure, there wasn’t even a leaflet available about the treasures in the museum. This lack of resources was partially recompensed by brief description of individual exhibits labelled at their side.

The Takhtbai Museum is a small museum containing most graceful and aesthetically exquisite carvings excavated close by. The usual Gandhara human figure which one is accustomed to seeing is somewhat stodgy in its frame. The human forms at Takhtbai are supple, graceful and elegantly elongated. Leisurely pacing through the museum I felt impelled to share with others my feeling of aesthetic joy and sensation of reaching into my distance past. The memory of the tactile forms chiselled centuries ago by deft hands of our ancestors has continued to linger and tickle my senses. Unfortunately there is little that could be done in that direction. Surely if a few concerned citizens were to join hands a publication could be made possible, which wouldn’t cost more than a few nights out.

By the time we were through the museum it was about eleven and I would say a bit early for lunch. Takhtbai chappali kabobs are famous through out the Frontier Province so we were constrained to stop and tuck in a few. Actually in the Frontier chappali kabobs are sold not by numbers but by weight, like the bananas in the West. We got two kilos packed to share with a party of our other friends, who had agreed to meet us for breakfast at the rest house where we stayed the night. Failing which they had agreed to meet up for lunch at this charming forest rest house a short distance beyond Dir town. The structure is light and delicate in appearance and nests on verdant flank of a hill. It is built of stone with wooden floors and verandas. Its sloping red roofs, visible through a scanty grove of pines, seem to reach forward to welcome visitors who must approach it over a small wooden bridge striding a friendly ravine. By the time the second party arrived the chappali kabobs had gone bad and everyone had to do with the usual menu of fried rice, chicken, daal and a mixed assortment of vegetables, followed by the inevitable caramel custard pudding for desert.

My friend Kaiser continued to test our patience with his insistence that every one followed the laid down schedule. But in all fairness after adding and weighing the advantages he deserved to be applauded for the patience with which he had to put up with us all. The second party following us to Chitral proceeded at leisurely speed, which must have been more agreeable but they missed both the delicious chappali kabobs, the best you can ever have, as well as the Takhtbai Museum. Fortunately they would never know what they missed.

Going up the 10,000-foot high Lowari pass to enter the Chitral valley was an exciting experience. It was perhaps not as perilous and dangerous as the drive up to Astore from Jaglot, 10 km short of the confluence of the lion river Indus and the Gilgit. I believe Astore now has a metalled road. Unfortunately a tunnel which was to connect Chitral with Dir and the rest of the country has not gone beyond blasting an ugly dark orifice. Ever since the cavity has been used for storing building material and essential tools, by the road maintenance department.

In winter because of the snow, the road to Chitral is usually closed from December to May. In summer frequent landslides often block it, which leaves the people of Chitral segregated from the rest of the country. Incidentally when the Lowari top route is closed the people of Chitral in order to commute with their own country, have to use the Kunar-Nawa Pass rout, which goes through Afghanistan. One of the first important undertakings on the birth of the People’s Republic of China was to build roads and bridges to the remotest nooks and corners of China, regardless of the expense or financial considerations, because without this, China could not politically and culturally have ever become a nation. For any people to forge a nation it is important to create a sense of togetherness by sharing benefits as well as pain and inherited disadvantages.

I wonder when our people will ever be strong enough to exert pressure on the state to correct itself. Almost everyone today pontificates about the benefits of privatisation. I agree with the adage that less government is a better government. At the same time would you not like to question that while the state is readily inclined to privatise education and health, why is it so adamant in holding on to its repressive responsibilities and so resolute in not surrendering political power to the people which is their constitutional domain. For a developing country like ours it is imperative that certain basic and essential needs be met by the state. For the state to surrender its responsibility to provide education, health and an honourable opportunity for its citizens to earn a livelihood amounts to abandoning the very raison de etre for its existence. Private commercial entrepreneurs will never build the Lowari Pass, because it may not be commercially profitable but it has to be done as a part of building a nation. Our tragedy is not how we have failed our nation, but how we have failed to create one. Let us pause here and ponder before proceeding to descend into the incredibly unique Chitral of our own, the other side of the wall. January 2, 2003

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter and a member of Pakistan People’s Party