Mounting sins in the Hindu Kush

The ongoing construction of an eight-kilometre-long tunnel in the Hindu Kush Mountains, and a little earlier than that the launching of the internet service in the valley has finally brought Chitral to the fore on the national scene.

Before that few in Pakistan, except some greedy hoteliers from the down country in the Kalash valleys, appeared to care whether Chitral really existed on their country’s map. On the other extreme, Chitral has since long been more extensively introduced to the outside world, particularly the readers in Britain, Russia, Afghanistan and China owing to its geography, and more profoundly to its breathtaking scenery.

The most inspiring comments about the manifest and latent beauty of Chitral were made by a living legend, 93-year-old British writer and winner of Nobel Prize in literature Doris Lessing. Recalling her visit to the valley in the 1980s, Lessing emotionally commented, ‘as far as Chitral, even now I can’t believe anything so wonderful existed in the world.’ A much younger Briton Carey Schofield, 58, who was to take over from Major Langlands as the principal of Langlands School in September 2012 is already so enamoured of her future abode that she just can’t help restrain her fascination to pronounce it until after some residency in the area.

‘Chitral is a magical place. I can’t imagine anyone who has been there not wanting to stay,’ Ms Schofield is reported to have told her interviewer. Though known for an all pervasive sense of relative peace and a divine aura of tranquility, Chitral in the late 19th century was the hotbed of simmering palace intrigues that would not quite infrequently end up in loathsome patricidal and fratricidal crimes. The news of such internecine conflicts remained cocooned behind unbreakable walls of mountains until chronicled by the indefatigable and incurably inquisitive British officers posted to India. But the British need not unravel the mystery of Chitral anymore; the modern facile modes of transport and the latest means of communication have made the present day Chitralis savvy enough to tell us the tale that appears to be less sanguine and indeed getting more unsavoury with each passing day. Nearly five years before he was made the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon trod the better part of what we presently call the Province of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral during a fifty-four days long journey in 1894 covering 1,200 miles.

The journey that took the English traveller as far as the source of Oxus was performed on foot and horseback averaging 21 miles a day. It was ostensibly aimed at reporting on and checking the infiltration of Russians in the Indian territories. During his sojourn in Chitral, Curzon allowed his imagination to wander and indulge to its heart’s content. In his memoirs, ‘On the Indian Frontier’ Curzon has recorded his impressions of Chitral in such glorious words that one can ignore them only at a great cost to one’s sense of aesthetics and proportion. ‘Could the traveller mount in a balloon and float in the air from the northern to the southern confines of Chitral territory — a distance of some 200 hundred miles — he would see below him only a sea of mountains, ridge succeeding ridge, a panorama of snow and ice and verdure less rock. It would seem to him a fearful and forbidding country.

Hardly at the bottom of the winding gorges would he discern the isolated patches, where water has converted the arid slopes into delicious parterres of green. Nor would he dream of the rich crops of fruit and grain which the strong and steady sun can win from that rugged soil, wherever the valleys widen out a little or the industry of man has carried the life-bestowing stream,’ the viceroy to be thus inked. Such explicit artistry in words is rare to be found though the proof of how Curzon was impelled to describe Chitral and its numerous valleys could now be discerned quite easily as airplane was invented not many years thereafter; flying now to Chitral as well. A little less than a century after this event Maureen Lines, who loathes flying to Chitral by air, would capture through the lens of her camera what Curzon had so assiduously painted in prose.

Maureen Lines is a British citizen by birth but as in the case of Langlands Pakistan appears to be her one and last love where she has been, with brief interregnums, living for the past thirty years. It would not be an exaggeration to call Ms Lines’s house in Peshawar as a veritable museum of Chitral. Her love for Chitral is so complete, and indeed so unblemished that nothing appears to have missed the dogged eyes of her camera in the same way that she wouldn’t allow anything to come in the way of her love for the Kalash valleys. It is such an unmitigated tragedy that Maureen Lines’s vast collection of photographs, each one of which is in a class of its own, and which have so meticulously been framed are catching dust on the walls of her house.

‘How such sins could be allowed to go unnoticed?’ one wonders. One would wish that the culture department would wake up by holding an exhibition of all Maureen Lines’s photographs where camera photography is at its best. Such an event would liven up the said department more than it would do Maureen any good. The last two years have found Maureen Lines languishing at her residence. She is grappling not only with an acute back pain for which she is undergoing a surgery but also fighting the odds against her travel to and presence at Kalash where her adopted family, a widow and her four children, are craving for her company and support. Quite a number of times during the last two years she was most unkindly bundled out of the valleys. ‘I don’t know who is afraid of me and why? I miss my family. I have no one in England to look to. All that I want to do is to attend to my charity developmental work and my family in Birir,’ Ms Lines laments while brooding on her fate.

Meting out such inhuman treatment to a woman, who has given the best years of her life to working for the disadvantaged people of our country, is certainly an unpardonable sin. Maureen blames the timber and construction mafias for her fait accompli as she keeps protesting against them at various forums.  But why did we treat Major Langlands is such a shabby manner. The aging Major has always steered clear of any controversy during his 65 years long stay in Pakistan. A friend from Chitral recently emailed that the English educationist was detained at a security checkpoint for well nigh three hours during his journey from Chitral.

It is so sad that we don’t even know our benefactors. Close on the heels of these unforgiving sins came the news of the virtual destruction of the 90-year-old Shahi Mosque in Chitral. In need of some restoration work, some blunderbuss was apparently handed over the task. As reported in the press dynamite was used to bring down the exquisite structure or a portion thereof, but as luck would have it the blundering workers failed to inflict major damage on the mosque.

The news of poachers having expedited their work aimed at the extinction of all rare species of animals from the confines of the valleys have also accelerated. There seems to be sins galore in Chitral, and no one caring the least. Maureen Lines, Major Langlands, Shahi Mosque left to the bulls and poachers roaming with impunity, how many sins can we atone for?–Dawn (Dec 11, 2012).

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