By Syed Shahid Salam, Canada
Editor’s Note: Syed Shahid Salam spent a part of his formative years in Rawalpindi Cantonment and in two boarding schools, the Convent in Murree and Burn-Hall in Abbotabad. His recollections span the period from the late 1940’s to the early 1960’s, following which he left for England to study. He regards Pindi as his home town, where his parents lived, and where two of his siblings continue to live. He now lives in Toronto, Canada.
My earliest memories of ‘Pindi’ go back to the time when we lived on 43 Church Road, next to the Family Wing of the CMH, and a short walking distance to GHQ where my father worked. I am going back a long time to the late 40’s and early 50’s. There were very few people around in those days; two reasons I would think; a) the low population at the time and; b) the lingering British tradition of separating the military from the civilians into Cantonments and Cities. I don’t believe the word ‘cantonment’ is used anywhere around the world and is associated more with the British military presence in India; etymologically deriving from the Swiss word ‘canton’.
Almost the entire Cantonment area was quiet, peaceful and very secure, especially for kids. One could walk without fear anywhere and not run the risk of being accosted or kidnapped by anyone. Minimal risk of being hit by a car either. There were of course very few cars in those days, and according to the late Mr. S.K. Burki who was in the insurance business, there were a total of 32 cars registered in the whole of Pindi in 1948.
My father was one of the fortunate few who managed to get our beige coloured early 40’s model Chevy across from India, on the train from Ferozepur. We witnessed it being taken off a wagon at Pindi station. I believe General Burki heard about it and told my father he was lucky, because he did not succeed in getting his car across. Unfortunately, I don’t have the photo of that old Chevy. My father sold that and bought another Chevy (1952 Model) in 1956 from Gen Shahid Hamid who was MGO. The photo of that 1952 model Chevy is shown here.
All the roads in the Cantonment area had very British names. The few that I remember: Gwynthomas Road, Church Road, Napier Road, Sale Road, Edwards Road, Canning Road, etc. There were two swimming pools, the Blue Lagoon and Auchinleck (named after Field Marshal Auchinleck).
At the main intersection of the Mall and Murree Road stood the statue of Queen Victoria, Empress of India and close by on the Mall was a fairly large
cement plaque showing distances to important cities in the sub-continent. The statue’s name in Urdu was Malka ka butt (not to be confused with rear-end in English). This location also served as a gathering place for domestic servants in search of employment. After the initial road side interview, they were taken to the residence for a second interview. Those that carried a certificate from a British Officer were given preference over those without references. Not to say their culinary skills didn’t matter. At a minimum their skills had to include Aaloo Gosht, Shami kabab and koftas. Most used to rattle off a whole menu. Before they were hired, the terms of service were clarified. The average wage in those days for cooks, I believe was around Rs.20 plus of course boarding and lodging. A big sign, up on a restaurant front, near Gordon College should give some idea of living costs in those days. The sign read ” Anna Roti, Daal Muft “.
Pindi has to this day, several buildings which go back to British times and are a reminder of Indo-Gothic architecture. Some of the structures were removed, such as the Massey Gate in Saddar, named after General Massey. A few of the businesses in Saddar carried a plaque showing the Pakistan Army insignia and the words ” By Appointment to General Gracey” ” which was later changed to ” by Appointment to the Commander-in-Chief “. One, which I remember was Aziz Tailor on The Mall.
All the houses were occupied by Officers of what, in those days, were still Royal Pakistan Army Corps and Royal Pakistan Army Regiments. Several hundred British Officers stayed back to help in the transition. One of them, was a friend of the family, a Major Glendenning, who lived a few houses down from us on Church Road. I have no idea, when they dropped the ‘Royal’ prefix.I am assuming it was in March 1956 when Pakistan became a Republic.
My father was active in the Aligarh Old Boys Association and a regular at their meetings. A few photos from our family albums shows my father at a few of these gatherings.
There is one photo of General Ayub leaving our house at 43 Church Road after one of the meetings. My father is in a suit at the back, on extreme right, with one hand in pocket. I believe Ayub Khan had some part to play in the founding of the Sir Syed School on the Mall.
What is the bane of existence in Pakistan these days are the panhandlers who harass you every time you step out of the house. That wasn’t the case in the old days. I don’t remember any panhandlers in Rawalpindi. The nearest it got to a panhandler was an old gentleman who came to our house on Church Road, playing the banjo, singing a war-time Irish song ” It’s a long way to Tipperary”. ‘Nearest’ because he was kind of earning his money, by providing entertainment. A tradition throughout most of the West, of playing some instrument, while people pass by and drop a coin in the hat, if they choose to do so. Gives a certain dignity to the act of begging.
The only mode of public transport in those days, within the Cantonment area, were tongas. There were no laws on the maximum number of passengers on a tonga, and, I don’t believe Pakistan has to this day any Society for the prevention of cruelty to animals'; so the poor horse used to get not one, but several whips, when the going got tough. For most kids, the tongas used to provide transport to and from school and were generally quite efficient. The fares were negotiable, so there was always the inevitable haggling at the end. Biking was another way of commuting and before the Sohrab bikes came on the market, Philips and Raleigh were the popular imported brands.
Rawalpindi was a fairly small town in the days after partition; known as a Garrison town with it’s dominant military presence. At one end of the Mall, I believe were the Courts, the kutchery and, at the other end, the Polo Ground, which is where I learnt how to drive. The main intersection of the Mall was with Murree Road which, until you hit the overhead Railway crossing was and still is part of the Cantonment. Beyond is the City, which in the old days extended to where the Hospital is. It was all farm land after that. The Mall was and is part of the Grand Trunk Road or the GT Road; described by Kipling as “such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”. Several books have been written on this fabled highway extending from Calcutta to Kabul.
On the Mall in Pindi stands the old colonial Flashman’s Hotel. According to a biography on the famous Mohan Singh Oberoi, founder of the Oberoi chain, Flashman’s was the first hotel he saw as a young man of 14 when he went went to the Dayanand Anglo Vedic school in Rawalpindi. Oberoi was born in Bhaun near Chakwal; Manmohan Singh is the other famous man from the district. Chakwal gave two great men to India, but none to Pakistan. And we mustn’t forget Mr. Gujral from nearby Jehlum.
The other hotel with a colonial touch was the Mrs. Davis Hotel, not far from the Flashman’s. The owner of the Davis Hotel also ran the Canteens (now called CSDs) in the 50s and 60s. One of these Canteens was just outside the entrance to GHQ, Gate No, 7 (near the Family Wing of CMH ), and a short walk from our house on Church Road. A lot of the products at the time were imported from Britain; the few that I remember as a kid were Mars bars, Huntley & Palmer biscuits, Kraft cheese and condensed milk.
The original owners of most of the bungalows and the old President House in Rawalpindi, were Sikhs who left for India at Partition. Their houses were declared as ‘evacuee properties’. Our house on 217 Sale Road (Now Firdosi Road) was allotted to my father against a claim for property left behind in Ajmer. The transfer was made by the MEO’s office on payment to the Government of Rs. 63,000, which in 1961 was no small sum; considering that some years later, 2000 sq. yd plots in Islamabad were being offered for Rs 6,000. Fast forward to 1985 when I visited the Cantt Board office to question a property tax bill, I was surprised to see that while the bill was addressed to my father, the owner was listed as Mr. Sultan Singh. I was told that we weren’t the only ones whose names didn’t match, even the Pindi President’s House was still listed under Mohan Singh’s name. I read some years later that one of Mohan’s kids did visit Pindi, but was declined entry to his former property.
In the early 50’s we moved to the Sale Road bungalow. The house was on a very large plot of land and had a wrap-around veranda, before entry to the rooms. The land in front became a cricket field, with one of the pine trees serving as a wicket. It attracted a number of the neighbourhood kids, and some from afar. One of them was Shabbir Sharif my classmate in St. Mary’s High School. Part of our house and the flats my parents built had two important tenants; Doxiadis, the Greek Town Planners who planned the capital Islamabad and the offices of Mr. Aslam Azhar and Television Promoters Ltd. the precursor to PTV.
I tell my Canadian friends that I come from a place immersed in fascinating history. Alexander’s Greek armies, Emperor Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries, the Great Mughals from Central Asia, the Persians, the Afghans and of course the British. Explorers from China and Italy left their footprints on the Silk Road. All have left lasting legacies.
While churches have for sometime been closing their doors in the West, because of dwindling congregations, they were at one time I imagine more than just a religious symbol for the British Empire. Within a few years of the 1849 conquest of the Punjab, churches were built in Rawalpindi.
The Anglican church behind the Pearl Continental, close to GHQ, was built in 1852.
And the other church stood on the Mall, next to the statue of Queen Victoria. One thing I guess one could say about the British is that while they built their places of worship, the people they ruled were just as free to build their own mosques and temples. Not interfering with people’s beliefs was one of the founding principles of British Colonial rule in India, except in the case of the inhuman practice of ‘Satti’. When we talk of the good old days, we see days of peace and happiness, of a tolerant society. Not once I believe for over a century, since those churches were built, were they ever attacked or vandalized.
We lived in a safe environment, there were no barricades anywhere. I remember, when my mother’s first cousin General Akbar Khan (PA 1) was visiting in the early 60’s and my parent’s asked me to take him to the President’s House, next to the Murree Brewery,
I drove straight up to the gates of Ayub Khan’s house, without any hindrance. Ayub was a much admired leader in the West. In 2008, while walking through the grounds of Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s House in Ottawa, I was pleasantly surprised to see an Elm tree planted by Ayub in September 1962.
The generation that grew up in Pindi in the days shortly after Partition will have grown up seeing the vestiges of the Empire. The British presence in the Pakistan part of the sub-continent was relatively short (1849-1947 ); yet it left behind an imprint which has effected all our lives. The missionary schools have produced a great majority of Pakistan’s ruling elite, including my own, St. Mary’s High School, Rawalpindi and Burn-Hall, Abbottabad.
From the days of Alexander to the current; in the long march of history we are but a tiny speck along the road. In the words of Omar Khayyam:
“For in and out, above, about, below
Tis nothing but a magic shadow-show
Played in a box whose candle is the sun
Round which we phantom figures come and go”or in the words of Shakespeare:
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.
I’d like to take this opportunity to invite the old nostalgic brothers who have made Canada their new home to a social get-together in Toronto.
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