‘Jirga’ assembly of tribal chiefs: an impressive gathering of upstanding men, most over six feet tall, many with red beards and piercing eyes.
A dream childhood in Balochistan
Hindu, Muslim, Sikh & Christian merged effortlessly in one household
The turmoil in Pakistan today takes me back 75 years to the time I spent in Balochistan, then part of the North West Frontier Province of British India.
I was just entering my teens when my family entered a world totally new: a brave and barren world, so different from the strait-laced bureaucratic world of Delhi-Simla and the lush and languid world of Ceylon, where we had spent the preceding four years. We were taken aback; so, I think, were the Pathans of Balochistan! When they heard that my father, a South Indian Hindu, was coming there as the Political Agent they, as one of them confided in us later, had expected a dhoti-clad, betel-chewing, Brahmin with a caste mark, and not the agnostic, Oxford-educated individual my father was.
As for my devout mother, knowing that Balochistan was a land of fierce Muslim tribesmen, she worried as to how her husband, as a Hindu and, worse, the representative of a distant government, would be received. (Indeed, my father’s successor, one Baines, was shot in the very same office where my father worked for over two years, by a Pathan, who then raced down the hill proclaiming, “I have killed the Political Agent”.) My mother’s fears, however, were unfounded. For, within a month, we were accepted and treated with a hospitality and friendliness that surpassed our expectations.
Our own castle
We spent those memorable years in a mansion called ‘The Castle’, on a hill-top in Fort Sandeman, a garrison town in the middle of nowhere. The landscape was rugged and forbidding, and no outsider could or would venture out of town without armed escort. Indeed, there were only three families of us “outsiders”: the Scottish doctor and his alcoholic wife, the English Assistant Political Agent and his wife and child, and our family of 11, including two sets of twins, a Malayali cook, a Tamil teacher and old Naniamma. (It was one of the rare situations where Naniamma condescended to wear a blouse, for women of her background in Kerala in those days went brazenly and unselfconsciously topless!) I often felt it was Naniamma, with her gregarious and uninhibited attitude, who did a lot to integrate our family with the Pathans who surrounded us. Indeed, we would hear her holding forth in the afternoons with Sultan the watchman and Janat Khan the sundry help. When my mother remarked how quickly she had learned Pushtu, she said: “Too old to learn a new language, but they are picking up Malayalam.”
My parents’ broadmindedness and respect for their religion and customs were appreciated and reciprocated by the tribesmen. I also feel that we six kids, ranging in age from eight to 14, played our part in this happy interaction. For the Pathans love children deeply and accepted us unreservedly. With enthusiasm they would join us in preparations for the very amateur, dramatic shows we put. We called our troupe the CADS – the Castle Amateur Dramatic Society. Our ‘Director’, was an intrepid young Christian woman from Chennai. Also in our menagerie was the amiable Sardar Singh, my father’s personal assistant. Thus four religious groups – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian – merged smoothly in one household.
From the garrison
Though not actually part of our household, the officers of the local garrison – both Indian and British – were frequent visitors. Far from their own families, they came to savour home-cooked food and the rambunctious family ambience at ‘The Castle’. We six children were on almost back-slapping terms with the Zhob Militia as the battalion was called. Encouraged by them, we were taught horse-riding. One sister, barely 12, became an expert horse woman, but I preferred a docile mule to an Arabian steed.
Once, as a special favour, we were allowed to attend the ‘Jirga’ assembly of tribal chiefs: an impressive gathering of upstanding men, most over six feet tall, many with red beards and piercing eyes.
Other highlights of our stay in Balochistan were the visit of the imposing General Cariappa and his exquisite wife; an occasional trip to Quetta or Karachi, huge metropolises compared to Fort Sandeman; the acquisition of an Afghan Hound puppy by the name of Lulu; and our summers in Hindu Kush, with its profusion of flowers and streams.
Too soon our stay in Fort Sandeman came to an end and we returned to Delhi by car as we had come, via Dera Ismail Khan, Multan, Lahore and Ambala, stopping at Travellers’ Bungalows at night, sad to leave, glad to be back.
We had arrived in Balochistan in a solitary and rather apprehensive manner, but our departure was in a grand cavalcade. Apart from the usual armed escort, we were accompanied as far as they could come by a galaxy of tribal chiefs on horseback.
It was a touching farewell, an unprecedented gesture.
(The author, now 90 and living in Chennai, was in Balochistan in the 1930s. [email protected])
REUTERS Hindu devotees climb a mountain range to visit sacred grounds and deities during a pilgrimage to the Shri Hinglaj Mata Temple in Pakistan’s Balochistan.