I moved into the cantonment the Sikhs had assigned to us British as their ‘allies’ fighting the Afghans and their rumored ally the Russians. Another move. Another struggle for digs. But my new commanding officer Captain Broadfoot was a remarkable man. He was a political officer, and expert of the Frontier, a master of languages and customs as well as terrain and warfare. His job was to police the Khyber Pass. That was thankless. ‘John Company’ had to pay extortion bloodgold to both tribes that guarded either side, Pathans naturally, to keep the pass open for us to use and closed for the Afghans to use. Dost Mohammed might have vacated his palace in Kabul but not Afghanistan!
Captain Broadfoot allowed me to draw advanced batta to get digs. Soon my Indian family was moved in! The fireplace was filled with wood and set aglow! And Captain Broadfoot came to dinner with a gift: an Afghan pony. The Khyber Pass favored ponies rather than camels to navigate. I rather suspect he just did not want a soldier under him riding a mule but I accepted the mangy pony gladly! The patrols were one week on and one week off. When I was not on patrol I roamed Peshawar with my munshi teacher learning the Hindko. Captain Broadfoot hired a munshi to teach me Pashto. “Remember son. The Pathans are egomaniacs. Especially about their vaulted language. So if you speak Pashto and quote some odds and sods of Pashto poetry then you discombobulate them!”
My munshi teacher found Sanscrit from the Ramayana describing Peshawar which was neat. I trumped him by finding a biographer of Alexander the Great and read Ancient Greek describing Peshawar too. Apparently some guy called Nicator had the place for a while before passing it on like a raped camp tart to a Punjabi called Chandragupta Maurya. For a little while it seemed there were Greco Punjabis in Peshawar too. They were called Kushans. My munshi then trumped me by finding an old Chinese tourist memoir of his life on the great Silk Road and we read about Peshawar as seen by a Chinese tourist. I found that especially funny! He seemed very fussy and persnickety. “So what the fuck happened to the Silk Road?” I asked.
“It flew away like everything else” my munshi replied with a gesture of one aged hand.
“So what is left for Peshawar?”
“I hear they sell a lot of dried fruit” my munshi replied ironically.
“Not in the same league as Chinese silk, porcelain, tea, and spice eh?”
Thinking back now I remember those evenings with my munshi with such affection! We would be before the fire. He would sit on my folding camp chair wrapped in layers of old robes. I would sit on a fur rug by the fire. My trunk of books would be open. And how we would dive in! And oh! The tactile feel of those second and third hand books! The aging leather! The smell and feel of the paper! I would give my munshi part of my preciously small wage for the month and he would wander the most obscure merchants of the bazaar and come back with such treasures! Who would have thought Peshawar could read? Actually Peshawar could not read but ancient cities pile up old junk like in my mother’s attic of her dubious rental. Abandoned. Forgotten. Things accrue, rejected, unloved, but waiting for someone to come along who will recognize them for what they are: things of value!
I used the excuse of surveying the lessor Malakand Pass to survey some of the ancient ruins of the Kushan Buddhists. Their vandalized sites litter the desolate mountains. Fortunately my Peshawar stationed Punjabi guide was a Sikh and oddly, the Sikhs were gracious toward other religions. They prided themselves on leading self disciplined lives, protecting beleaguered women, and tolerance. The later of course had been frayed by the continuous reign of terror the Muslims, especially under Aurangzeb and his murderous Wahhabi fanatics, had exacted on them. I think the Sikhs originally thought they would be greeted like the Sufi Mystics, with open arms on all sides. What they failed to see was that while Akbar the Great was a Sufi mystic, his descendants with the exception of his one grandson, were murderous maniacs or else opium addicts with a penchant for perverse depravity. Naturally that made the Sikhs, being famous for their self discipline, zeal for protecting vulnerable women, and tolerance the target for the Mughals’ excesses, depravity, and fanaticism.
We rode camels, leading a picket of camels, and surveyed some of the ruins around Sahri Bahlol, Takht I Bahi, Sikri, and Thareli. It was amazing to find ruins in the middle of such seemingly desolate mountains and lonely dales seemingly inhabited only by jackals and lions and vultures. Sometimes it was hard to even see the ruins for the wild landscape. It was all big and small jagged rocks with scarcely a scraggly bush. The ruined stupas were like small round hills. They were usually round domes set on round or square bases. Once of course they would have been topped by ornate bronze disks speared by a giant lancet and placed on the very top of each dome to symbolize heaven. The monasteries were so ruined only my guide’s eagle eye could spot them at all.
“I still can’t see it!” I would exclaim as I peered through my eyeglass.
“There Sahib” at 2 o’clock on the dial!”
“Ah! Yes! But how can you find it so quickly?”
“Because Broadfoot Sahib and I spent two months scouting this out Sahib!”
All of the stupas had been battered open to steal their contents centuries ago. Stupas were small temples to the Buddha and sanctuaries for travelers. So the vandals must have been terribly disappointed not to find Mughal gold inside! At one site, Sikra, we found some bowl- like disks carved of the local stone, rather like grey soapstone, called schist. Because the bowl- like disks were as small as the palm of a hand vandals and missed them. They were not, after all, gold. But I found them utterly delightful. Each one seemed a miniature delight, showing any manner of delightfully human scenes. One seemed to be a drunken fellow being helped home by his two mates. Another showed a less than dainty damsel either being carried by, or procreating with, a sea monster. The best, an almost intact plaster bowl disk, showed a voluptuous lady emerged from her bath playing with a small child who seemed winged like cupid. In fact, but for the fact I found it here in the Punjab, I would have thought it looked like some Roman piece of roguish art. She was not the Indian style nude. She had the more study waist and small breasts of a Greek or Roman nude rather than the bee waist and voluptuous breasts and hips of an Indian siren. She seemed very Greco- Roman. Her towel was draped over her hips in a very Classical way. The roguish cupid boy was so very delightfully mischievous. The image was I think pressed from a mold into the plaster and then an artist’s hand quickly and deftly finished the scene with quick strokes that left spontaneous impression long after the wet plaster dried.
I also found a piece of broken pottery that looked almost like Dionysus which was not possible surely yet there it was! And I found three Kushan coins! They were most wonderful. Some of the words seemed to feature Ancient Greek letters. Yet the Kushans, or so my munshi told me, were Punjabi originally from the Russian Steeps brought to this part of the Punjab by the Silk Road. Perhaps more of the Ancient Greeks lived on than was generally supposed. I wondered if in some few centuries we British would be so remembered by the Indians, as nought but half forgotten bits and pieces of broken bowls and broken buildings and the few odd letters or names. The traveler would pick bits and pieces up and ask aloud ‘who were these mysterious people then? These British?’