Preamble. LOC Kashmir will offer autobiographical short fiction in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, the 740 kilometer Line of Control dividing the Pakistani and Indian parts of Kashmir. Approximately 500,000 Indian and 300,000 Pakistani armed and battle-hardened troops face each other across their gun-sights. Both sides indulge in infiltration and aggressive patrolling. Exchanges of fire occur with regular frequency. This is where and how I spent my late teens, as a young officer in the wake of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, before having to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. I wish to see peace in beautiful Kashmir during my lifetime, even though I am not very hopeful.
General Shuhrat the Slayer
Just as I emerged from the tomb into the sunlight, the one-star general commanding our Brigade was standing in my path like a two-handled mug, swagger stick dandily clutched in his right hand. Passing by in his jeep he had not failed to notice soldiers going in and coming out of the Sufi Saint’s tomb. He now wanted to give the officer responsible a dusting.
I gave him my smartest salute with the PMA Haider One flick, something I used to be known for.
He was of medium height, wheat-complexioned with a stocky body under a rocky face. One of his ancestors must have been an Uzbek, I thought behind my expressionless stare as I silently christened him Shuhrat the Slayer.
He looked me up and down.
We were now under the shade of a sukh-chaen peace and happiness tree to the side of the entrance. A little brook gurgled in the background. The setting was an appropriate balance to the rocket that would be fired up my behind.
“You’re on a route march, not a tourist trip. Your men are illiterate Muslims who need to be discouraged from saint-worship type practices. Yet, you, a Christian officer, are encouraging it. More, you’re leading it. Explain.”
Shuhrat the Slayer’s voice was tempered steel, eyes carved from marble.
“Sir, we Christians love Mian Mohammed for his t’ha dé masjid t’ha dé mandir. And if I participate in a ritual with my troops, it will strengthen my leadership and raise their morale. The old Brit officers used to do things like this.”
“Hmm, “ the Slayer grunted. “Your route march was supposed to be four hours, finishing time 12 hundred hours. Finishing time now is 1130 hours. Double up to the finish line, Lieutenant!”
I came to the salute.
Shuhrat the Slayer replied, turned around, whacked his thigh with his swagger stick and hopped into his open topped jeep. At a nod, the driver gunned it, sprayed grit and they disappeared in a cloud of dust looking, no doubt, for other prey.
Mian Muhammad Bakhsh, the Sufi author of Saif-ul-Maluk is buried near Mirpur, in the northwestern foothills of Kashmir in Pakistan. His tomb is near enough to the Line of Control to give civilians a shiver, yet far enough from this front line to allow the Pakistan army to retrieve about a third of a rifle company’s strength from the trenches for continuous training.
Accordingly, back in 1973/74, I was taking my troops on an endurance route march, a welcome break from the sight of gun-toting Indian warriors on the other side of the LOC. While enjoying the view of the countryside, thoughts of Dolly intersected visions of mouth-watering makhadi halwa semolina desert and cardamom laced tea waiting at the finish.
Eyes fighting sweat-drops, glands exuding feline odor, we rounded a bend of the tree-lined back road straight into dazzling sunlight that overwhelmed my vision. It was reflected off the marble walls of a domed structure. A shrine, I could tell and couldn’t keep my eyes off it. I might have ended up with a crick in my neck except for Subedar (Warrant Officer) Mohammed Khan, from Sargodha. Luxurious moustache twitching, he said: “Saab, that’s Mian Muhammed Baksh’s mazaar “.
He had an expectant look on his face, mirroring my own. The Sufi’s reprise of Baba Bulleh Shah’s original “t’ha dé masjid t’ha dé mandir” started buzzing in the tiny muscle between my ears:
Smash down a mosque
Smash down a temple
But break not the heart of man
For God resides in there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYMw4BbSCSg
Like other Punjabi Christians, I too read this segment of Sufi enlightenment as inspired by 1 Corinthians 6:19 in the Holy Bible. My heart and step quickened and I went in with my men on a quick rota system.
Which is what Shuhrat the Slayer had seen.
Although he had the tact to fire his rocket out of the hearing of my men, in English and without a single insulting discharge, I still felt a slight tingling where I shouldn’t have.
As my one-mum’s good little Christian boy, I confessed all to the Lieutenant Colonel commanding my Battallion, an admirable officer in the finest traditions of the British Indian army. He gave me a long, keen look and chuckled. Then and later, we were both surprised to learn that the General had never officially or unofficially mentioned the incident. Appearances aside, Shuhrat the Slayer ended his day as an officer and gentleman.
From all accounts, this species of officer is still alive and flourishing!