I met Colonel Khushwaqt-ul-Mulk eighteen years ago in his garden near Chitral, a mountain town on the banks of the Kunar river. He was talking to some men who wanted to know what they could give their fighting falcon for diarrhoea. The bird was there too, perched on her handler’s wrist. Mulk suggested that they try a course of antibiotics. ‘What’s good for us should be good for her,’ went the logic. I remember the episode clearly. It was a beautiful spring morning, the snow peaks of the Hindu Kush behind us, the sky blue, the red roses blooming in the garden. There was a little tremor of an earthquake and our tea cups rattled in their plates.
In March this year I came across Mulk’s obituary – he passed away in his native Pakistan at the grand old age of ninety-six. Educated at the Royal Military College at Dehra Dun in India, he was the most senior living officer of the British Indian Army when he died.
When I met him, Mulk – an accomplished horseman – recounted to me how he went over the nearby border to Afghanistan on horseback to visit Ahmad Shah Massoud, the great mujahedin commander. A truckload of mujahedin forced Mulk off the road and into an old Soviet minefield. Had he not pulled his horse up hard, he would have been blown to bits. He left a note for his son before leaving, asking him not to grieve if he died because he did not mind being buried in Afghanistan. Later, I sent him a copy of Under the Sickle Moon, Peregrine Hodson’s memoir of living with the mujahedin, and Mulk wrote me back a letter of thanks, in fountain pen ink.
I had gone to Chitral because I wanted to write about the Kalash people. With their pale complexions and fair hair, they are rumoured to be a number of things: the lost tribe of Jews, descendants of the soldiers of Alexander, or survivors of Ur, among other things. I wanted to see them.
To get to Chitral, I had to travel through Peshawar. I stayed there overnight for my bus that left in the morning. I liked the city – the blooming jacarandas, the gaudy rickshaws. When I was a little boy, my parents used to bring me to Peshawar to visit my uncle’s family who lived in the Meteorological Colony, next to what is now the Intercontinental Hotel and what was then a paddock. Years later, a terrorist bomb blew up the hotel and shattered the windows of their house, but in those days there were no terrorist bombs. In the antique shops, I would find Russian Rubles from 1910 with pictures of Catherine the Great. In later years, they would sell Soviet medals from their doomed Afghan campaign too. In the bookshops, there were memoirs by Englishmen who had lived here during the Raj. Interned in the English cemetery on the far side of town lie their remains. Among the graves of bakers, tailors, planters and their families, also lie the graves of English soldiers who have been dying here since Victorian times: ‘shot by tribesmen’, ‘fell from horse,’ ‘killed in the Afghan war’, simple epitaphs telling how little things change.
Azhar Abidi, Granta. Road to Chitral.