blog 94 eating the love tokens

I would host a party before boxing each treasure up and sending it off to my Uncle Hogg # 2 to keep safe. Shipping cost almost as much as buying and I was using Military shipping too! A perk I exploited with zeal once I was told about it! Peshawar was smaller and if I had a reason to give the party then it seemed less a social occasion and more a unitarian function. Everyone would discuss the mystery of the Gandhara Art and I could just stand back and listen and not worry about talking. I was never a talker but if people would just let me be quiet then I was fine and I did not freeze up and glare or drop champagne glasses or anything. I could serve tea too. It was fine. Everything was fine.

The memsahibs were great. Captain Broadfoot’s bibi, a Sikh lady, was splendid. She had that Indian woman’s exotic beauty but without the exaggerated sexuality of Indian Art that slightly repelled me. Her long black hair was braided and hung to the ground. I rather suspected Captain Broadfoot loved to unbraid it and run a comb through the luxury of it all. She wore a rich red sari wrapped low on her hips, the front dipped even lower where the weight of the five folds pulled the skirt portion of the sari down well below her navel. Because the sari was a semi-transparent Tamil muslin you could pretty much see through it. Fortunately she wore a petticoat and short sari blouse which tied in back in a loose, almost backless scoop effect. All of the embroidery was only on the last part of the swag of sari muslin except for an aggressive hemline of embroidery which accented the folds and swags of the sari as it was cleverly wrapped around her in such a way as to accent her most erotic parts of her body: her hips, belly, and hourglass shape.

But the lack of hysteria in the room meant the Captain’s bibi was a common sight. Sikhs do not force purdah and indeed I had already met Mrs Broadfoot a week before when she was writing a military report. During the day she wore a sari military uniform, the regulation tunic combined with the crisp red cotton skirt of the sari draped at her waist and tied into flowing trousers to allow her to ride a horse. Mrs Broadfoot acted as her husband’s adjutant. Captain Broadfoot had a run-in with the Imam who became hysterical when he saw Mrs Broadfoot. But I don’t know if the male hysteria was because she wore a sari, was not in purdah (sexual isolation), or was a Sikh lady.

There was no Christian minister to be hysteric except for a rogue Catholic monk turned explorer who had ‘gone native’ years before and now even dressed like a Buddhist monk except the fact the robe was black and was graced by a rosary. He was blase. Between surveying mountain passes he worked on his book on the history of the Buddhist Religion and how it paralleled the Christian Religion. His thesis was that Jesus actually visited India and learned key points of Christianity from Buddhism. I don’t think his Pope was going to enjoy his book if it was ever done.

No one was uppity or demanded calling cards or wore silly clothes from London. The officers wore Indian tunics and turbans like myself. Mrs MacDonald wore a matching kilt to her husband and hunted Punjab lions with rifles and her mastiff hounds, great hairy beasties, and she wore a Scottish bonnet and fought in ‘sticky wickets’ as her husband explained obliquely. Mrs Berenice wore her husband’s clothes. When her hair was up in a turban she looked so Pathan she was actually accosted in the streets of Peshawar by Pathans giving her quail. Tame quail. And tame partridges. By the dozen.

“Why?” I asked. Clearly a mistake for everyone laughed.

“Because Pathans here in Peshawar, being Muslim, must lock up their women and girls. So they don’t ever see a girl until the night they finally marry. Like young Spartans in Ancient Greece. The two sexes are kept so strictly apart you see. So your young Pathan, unable to meet any girl pines. Poor laddie. Don’t you know” Mr Berenice replied. I was being dense alas. So alas, he had to continue. “And flirting with window curtains or shrouds an’t very romantic don’t you know! And staring up at lattice windows for shadows only gives one a stiff neck. So when a lonely young Pathan teenager sees a handsome young Pathan teenager walking along, well….. he gives a love token. A tame quail. Or else a tame partridge. And…. don’t you know…..”

I did not know but I blushed right royal when I finally got it. Mrs Berenice laughed. “I was mystified initially with all of the damn birds. I kept eating the love tokens! But now it is just funny. I smile. He smiles. Then I smile as one finger gestures to my neck. Then I watch as he looks for the Adam’s apple —-which is not there. Then I watch as he blushes and then goes white! Then the poor fellow runs away in such utter horror! All but blubbering in shock! When he realizes I am that mysterious thing: a female!”

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blog 93 mrs berenice’s magic camera

Mrs Berenice took photographs of each before I sent it off. Mail was an adventure in India so it was a precaution. She photographed everyone’s loot. But she spent a great deal of time photographing this head, arranging the lights through layers of transparent muslin, and adjusting the massive lense on her huge wooden box shaped camera. It took her over two hours just to get six takes. “And until I develop the glass I don’t know if any of the shots even are any good! Photography is still guesstimating. Sometimes you agnize over one shot and it totally fails! Yet you take another shot off the cuff and it turns out so wonderful but in a totally unexpected way! You don’t have to stay here as I fuss John.”

“I want to stay — if you don’t mind. What you are doing is so amazing. Your expertise. Your quiet skill.”

“Why John. You are not flirting with me are you?” she asked as she loaded a new massive glass plate into the huge box camera. I blushed bright red. I suppose I was in a way. She was an amazing woman. She dressed in her husband’s clothes which I found surprisingly erotic.

“I can’t afford to marry a bibi but that is what I am planning. Like Captain Broadfoot.” The idea had become a sort of myth for me. A way to explain…. a way to fob off questions.

“Good idea John. ‘John Company’ keeps fighting to stop widow burning. Sati. But even if a widow is saved her religion will not allow her to live in this world. Marry again. Live a normal life. And her sons do not want to support a widow. And her daughters in law absolutely do not want a mother in law around. That was why Sari got started. Getting rid of inconvenient females! And of course men being men they thought up a great angle to justify it! If the widow burns alive on her husband’s bier then her sacrifice atones for his sins so he can jump to the front of the queue in reincarnation! Nice eh? That puts all of the guilt on the woman! Doesn’t she love that bastard enough to save him some reincarnations! Burn my dear! Burn!

So every widow ‘John Company’ saves is basically abandoned by her caste and left to die of starvation, starve, or turn whore. Or find a European or Sikh to marry. She loses her caste but it saves her from prostitution. Some of us are trying to persuade ‘John Company’ to set up woman’s schools and hire the Hindu widows to be school teachers. Another more respectable way out for the poor women. But right now it is marriage to a non Hindu and lose their caste.”

“But if a Brit woman comes here and marries she jumps up or down in class too. Class. Caste. Same difference isn’t it?”

“Yes. But when Mary Glenrose married Captain MacDonald she did not lose her soul or gained a jump in the reincarnation queue even if she did jump up half a class!”

“Do the Sikhs marry Hindu to convert them?”

“No. The Sikhs have this big religious thing against bullying and abuse of vulnerable people. That is why they are anti-slavery and anti sati and anti child marriage and anti rape. That is why they also got rid of caste. They did not like the idea of Untouchables being damned for no reason or Brahmin widows burning to death just to give their bastards of husbands a jump in the reincarnation queue – and of course to keep the Brahmin caste unpolluted by remarriage! Got to keep the damn caste pure! Not that we can throw a hissy spitty fit can we! We must keep the Parvenu rich fakers here safe in their class caste fakery! Most of the memsahibs that lord it so grandly over us were back home one servant lower middle class nobodies! They seduce their way to a ‘John Company’ businessman or officer and suddenly they are duchesses! Brahmin duchesses!”

I smiled. “Yea. I got burned at my old base by a bunch of those memsahibs! Harpies with talons! Welding fans like artillery! Sailing into the room like ships at Trafalgar! They nailed me to their parvenu rich cross right royal! How come you are so different and how come I can never find someone like you not already claimed?”

Mrs Berenice smiled. “Jimmy and I were childhood sweethearts. John. Don’t worry. Don’t feel pressured to rush into marriage. You can wait and find the right soul mate. That is what love is. Really! Your right soul mate. Not a social climbing bitch!”

“But a bibi is just marrying to save herself too isn’t she?”

Mrs Berenice shrugged her head. “Ditto British girls in India. But most British girls in India are perfectly useless carbuncles! A bibi is marrying into India. A bibi is an asset. Sure. The parvenu rich fakes smirk like the bitches they are! But at the end of the day marrying into India is the only way we British have a future here. If we don’t —well —. We will end up like the Mughals. Just passing through! Now! How a about a photograph of you…..?”

“Annnd….don’t think so!”

“Afraid I will snare your soul” she said swiveling her massive camera around like an artillery gun to aim at me.

“My soul is too black to be exposed on your nice glass plate!”

“Not a devotee to the Buddha?” she smiled.

“I can’t get the tranquility part of it” I replied. “Or the idea that Nirvana is open to anyone. I guess I am just too attached to the pain of this world.”

“A Buddhist might say that pain only comes from attachment. Like those damn memsahibs! Agnizing over dresses two years obsolete in London! Gashing their teeth over wearing the same dress twice in a row! Tearing out their hair over people not dropping off their calling cards! Shredding flesh over the fact their husband is only a captain and not a major or is in ‘John Company’ Army instead of HS Army! They are torturing themselves and everyone around them about such petty and puny things! They came here to marry –ie prostitute themselves — and then turn so moral and high and mighty about a bibi native wife! They hate India! Plot how to live long enough to retire back to Brighton! And miss out on the adventure of life here! They pretend they are living in England! And get the vapors if they see a Shiva Linga in a Yoni stone. What is marriage if not sex? You can’t have love without sex. So they cling so hysterically to such petty things their souls cannot rise up. They can’t even enjoy life. And they have to make everyone else’s life miserable too. The Buddha might say that is an perfect example of Human Suffering by Clinging to the futility of human life.”

“But I am too intense and I have a black temper. And when the devil is in me I can be so damnably contrary!”

“Well then the Buddha would probably say you just need to find the way to Nirvana by another road. He was not an egomaniac like Mohammad or the Pope. He was not a ‘My way or the Highway’ prophet. In India the gods pick their worshipers. Let the gods find you and lead you to Nirvana: Paradise. But do take one thing the Buddha said very seriously! The Door to Nirvana is wide open. If we cannot go through that door to Nirvana then the problem is with us. We are still tied down to earth and the weight of tonnage of baggage burdening us so that we cannot rise up to Nirvana. But Nirvana is a wide open door!”

“I would like to rise up like a phoenix from the bier of my own damnation. But I have not met Shiva yet. He dances in my dreams. But he has not touched me.”

“Well! Half way there! Don’t worry John. Let things uncoil. Then follow the thread through the labyrinth!”

“To the center to meet the Minotaur monster or to the door marked ‘Escape’?”

“That I cannot say but I rather suspect the Buddha would say you would have to first meet the Minataur monster before you can follow the thread to the door marked ‘Escape’.”

“And what if the Minotaur monster is nought but a mirror —- in which you see the monster— which is you?”

“Intriguing thought. Why not try this Buddhist trick then John? Try to generate positive emotions instead of negative motions. You talk about telegraphy. That means batteries right?”

“Right. I am experimenting with mixing crow foot liquid batteries to generate electricity.”

“A battery has a positive and negative charge right?”

“Yes. Everyone does. In nature. Chemistry. Even magnets.”

“Ditto emotions. Emotions come charged positive or negative just like a battery. Positive emotions are love, friendship, joy, gratitude, enthusiasm, tolerance, compassion, kindness. If you kindle positive emotions you will be charged in a positive direction no less than a battery.”

“Ahhh. Yes. Well….” I replied.

“Negative emotions generate emotional sparks that affect people like static electricity in a different direction.”

“But I think I am a crow’s foot battery. As in the negative charge of the battery.”


“I was born in my mother’s house. Mother was a kirk and damnation sort. We lived in haunted houses. Really! Haunted houses! Well. Hogg Heaven was a nice place even if it was haunted. But Mother’s home we moved into when Father died was haunted! Black. My childhood was black. So negative emotions were the only emotions I could feel. I don’t know if I can project positive emotions now. I mean you don’t talk about goals. Motives.”

“A person can have a noble goal but go about it so negatively he repels rather than attracts. In fact most religions for all of their noble goals tend to go about life in a negative way. So a motive or goal or purpose in life, however noble, does not necessarily bring about happiness or kindness. So The Buddha asked people to look around and see how they are traveling down the to road to Nirvana to see if they were projecting positive or negative emotions. It is just one little trick but one I have found useful. You might try it John.”

“Are you a Buddhist?”

“Yes. Actually.”

“I hope you find Nirvana. All of my sparks are black energy. My motives might be good. But I spit out black sparks and radiate negative polarity.”

“Well then dream of Shiva. Shiva shows his devotees how to channel even negative emotions and even violence into constructive channels.”

“I may prove to be Shiva’s most difficult student. I tend to be everyone’s most difficult student!”

“Sometimes the most difficult students prove to be the best over the long haul …….like looking into my glass lense. Look! Count to ten! Too late! I have snared your soul John! It is trapped here inside this magic box!”

“Beware developing the glass plate!”I replied. “Er you see my black soul and drop the glass and it shatters!”

Actually I had rather looked forward to seeing myself in a photograph. Looking into a mirror is not the same thing as seeing yourself as others see you. But alas the glass plate that snared my face broke during development and I never saw my face as others see me. But perhaps it was all for the best. Perhaps I would have seen my doppelganger too, my double, my dire devil in me. Then Mrs Berenice would have had to waste so many chemicals blotting out my dark twin like the photograph of little Queenie and her dead brother Rex.


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blog 92 beauty in the eye of the beholder

We carefully boxed up our treasures and tied them to our camels before returning to Peshawar. There we proudly showed them to the officers and NCO’s of the cantonment during a tea. I was trying to get off on a right foot with this military base. I had my Indian family prepare the tea for the British and Sikhs and I asked a Rajput cook to cater the tea for the NCO’s. They came but did not partake. But at least they came. Caste and class can be such a bitch!

Only two officers had memsahibs and Captain Broadfoot kept a stunningly beautiful bibi so things seemed to be better. The one memsahib was a stout, but sensible woman of adventurous personality and notorious temper being Scottish. She said “Nicholson! I hear you are the very devil with your temper! I will challenge you to a swearing match one day!”

“And my memsahib will win too!” her red haired husband replied. Everyone laughed, including me.

“And I love your kilt Mrs. Memahib!” I replied. “And yours too Mr Sahib!” It was actually a joke! I made a joke! And everyone laughed!

The other memsahib was so quiet we forgot she was there until she said “Nicholson. You are surprised by the Greek influence but Peshawar saw quite a Greek afterglow. Around here it is called Gandhara. If you offer money at the bazaar you will get raggedly Pathans coming with all sorts of things.”

“I don’t know if I should. They will smash and bash.”

“But they smash and bash anyway. Anything we and other archaeologists can save will be saved. I can help you box this up and you should send it to safer digs.”

“Wife is an archaeologist” her husband explained. “She digs. Serious digs! I mean she measures as she digs! With fine watercolor brushes! And she takes photographs too! She had been taking some of the very first photographs ever taken of this region! The damn camera is almost as big as she is!”

“How can you afford it?” I asked. “The chemicals and everything?”

“I have a ‘John Company’ stipend from Fort William College. And batta. Without the batta I could not afford it of course. Batta is batta! What soldier does not swear by it! Each time I ship back an intact glass plate to reproduce something never before photographed I get a bonus too. But it is very hard. But I am making history too.”

“The Pathans thought it was like a mirror” her husband explained. “A thing of magic that could steal a soul! Their Imam is a prick.”

“How did you handle it?”

“I claimed to have secretly photographed the old buzzard! And I said I would stick pins into his soul through the photograph! Like a voodoo doll! Unless he kept very far away from me! And was very nice!” and I waved an old hat pin as I told him! So he has been —-very, very, very, nice!” Everyone laughed and applauded Mrs Berenice.”

I was nervy about spending money I frankly did not have on stuff when I was suppose to be sending money home to my mother who would have declared all of this obscene work of the devil.

“I have paid for loot too” Captain Broadfoot said. “Perk of being in Peshawar. And Mrs Berenice is right. We will save it. Believe me Nicholson! The natives around here destroy it regardless. But they know we will buy it and now they offer it to us first. It is like bloodgold. We pay so they don’t murder us and we pay so they don’t murder art! And this Gandhara stuff is great art. No one seems to know much about it and I don’t know if even the British Museum has it. But you can waste your batta on a lot worse!”

I did as I advised. Mrs Berenice introduced me to a bazaar merchant and that basically advertised that I was buying Gandhara. But I let Mrs Berenice advise me. Kushan coins came. More of those mysterious bowl-like disks. I found a stucco fragment of a Greek like young man in a loose cloak around his shoulders, one hand on his bare chest, his hair tousled in Greek waves, his face inclined downwards and at an angle that cast his face in haunting shadows. I got piece of schist stone carved with a lively ground of devotees of the Buddha. Each of the nine small figures was listening enraptured yet totally uniquely. One was bowing, overwhelmed in awe. One was standing in a pompous gesture. One was turned and gesturing to another who sat with his arms casually around one knee. It was quite amazing how the devotees were each so totally lifelike. The costumes were Indian yet executed with all of the grace of some Ancient Greek. The faces and hair were Indian too yet at the same time so naturalistic, spontaneous, and humanistic you would have thought it created in Ancient or Renaissance Rome.

One savage Pathan found two severed heads that were so remarkable it was tragic he had absolutely no idea how amazing they were. It was clear they had no meaning to the man. It was like a man who is tone deaf listening to Beethoven. The life sized severed stucco heads were of a man and woman. The woman had a sort of turban or perhaps even a shroud wrapped about her. One hand was covering her mouth. She was apparently consumed by fear or terror. The other stucco face was of a robust man, the clay’s texture masterful, his hair’s curls just hinted at, his mustache framing a bold, baroque mouth, his nose strong, his eyes round and bold, his eyebrows expressive, his square jaw strong. It had to be a portrait of a real man. How many centuries ago was it done? And the man was dust, his name completely forgotten now!

I got a small weight measure of schist too, reversible, showing wrestlers at an competition on one side and on the other side a Heracles type of fellow with his pet lion. The lion stood at attention like a mastiff dog. The Heracles character had a lion pelt and club so I guess he really had to be Heracles. He was quite nude and very robust. Except for the fact it was carved of native stone and brought by a Pathan I would have fancied it dug up from Thebes or Athens or Sparta.

I also got a three foot tall stone Buddha, almost intact from the chest up. He was probably originally standing, but now he was an heroic torso famed in back by a halo- like stone disk. He had a strong sturdy body, an Indian’s body, not muscular, but still strong, broad shouldered ,virile. His soft robe was draped with Greek elegance with small, fine folds over one shoulder. It was Indian cotton after all and not Greek linen. His Brahmin cord of caste hung across his chest along with a fashionable necklace. This must be the Buddha before he became enlightened when he was a rich Brahmin. There were rich earrings in the elongated lobs of his pierced ears. His hair was up in a stylized turban or crown of some type. His moustache was very Indian, aggressive, yet silky. His chin and jaw was strong in that typical Indian face, round, with sensual cupid bow lips, a thick but handsome nose, and heavy lidded eyes of implied limpid brown depths.

The final coup was a head in marble which had to have been imported into region. Peshawar has no marble. It is so barque you would swear it was done in Rome by Michelangelo yet the face is clearly Indian. I suppose it must be the Buddha before he became the Buddha. It was too tempestuous for the Enlightened One. Yet it nicely hinted of the original passions of the man before his transformation which made his transformation all the more remarkable. If only the body was attached. You had to wonder. The head is life sized and so magnificent. The neck is strong. The head is at a slight angle so the neck throbs. The hair tumbles down from a topknot with grandiose splendor of ringlet curls. His moustache curls up slightly and frames bold but sensual lips and a strong chin with a very slight dimple. His eyebrows arch bold eyes with heavy lids but still large, round, surging with emotion. His cheekbones are strong too, though the face is Indian, round, softer, than the European face. The nose was smashed. A pity but it did not deface the virile majesty of the piece. Mother had never allowed us children to enjoy art or music. I had seen my first art and heard my first music in London with Uncle Hogg. So this was all quite a revelation. But not of course my mother’s version of Revelation.

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blog 91 I meet the Buddha

We finally reached the most distant site and therefore the site least vandalized: Takht I Bahi. The hilly terrain boasted ruined monasteries and a key stupa sanctuary to the Buddha surrounded by lessor stupas plus shrines of various sorts in various states of ruin and vandalism. Fortunately, monasteries to the Buddha do not imply gold so after the initial vandalism and obscene defacement of beauty, the Muslim Pathans left. Then the extreme distance of the site from any populated bastion left the vandals disinclined to come back solely to defile yet again ancient beauty they could never achieve in their own barbarity.

We wandered around the monumental ruins, some over 30 feet tall. I could not visualize the original shape of the buildings anymore. It did strike me that the meandering buildings had been built outwards, expanded, with shrines added to shrines added to shrines in an improvised way. There was not the vivid boldness of say the Parthenon or Stonehenge. Here and there I was able to dug dirt away to find some great head, apparently by age or vandalism, severed from the body, of a Buddha. And I found quite a few severed feet. Apparently at one time there were giant Buddha sculptures like a march of the titans around the complex. Most of the severed heads that I could see were terra cotta or stucco. But there was much evidence of burning too. I imagine Troy must have seen like this to later travelers too: burned ruins just hinting of ancient glory. I imagine the later travelers curst the vandals of Troy: the victorious Ancient Mycenae Greeks. I certainly curst the victorious vandals of Takht I Bahi: the Pathan Muslims!

I found three great treasures: a wonderful fragment of a terra cotta head of some chap who most surprisingly, looked just like some Greek God! It was most strange! The fellow had a curly beard and mustache and jumbled hair of some Zeus- like god. Even his features seemed Ancient Greek somehow. The face was more aggressively square than the softer Indian face, the nose more aggressively aquiline, the classic Greek aquiline, the eyes larger, rounder, less Asian. It was most strange.

I also found a stucco and terra cotta chap sitting in his almost Greek style armor having quite an animated conversation with himself. One hand rested on one hip. His other hand was raised and gesturing. His head was slightly turned. It was as if he had but paused during an intense debate with some other fellow, the pause lasting a few centuries, the fellow he was debating with vanishing. Yet there he sat mid-pause, waiting to exclaim ‘Yes but!’

The final treasure was found by my Sikh guide. We could not believe it was still intact. It had been almost completely buried in rubble. I was amazed when we at last carefully dug it up. It was almost life size. The stucco head was almost completely intact. The topknot was broken and part of one ear only was missing. Like every head, it had by chance or malice been beheaded but it had not been defaced. The pale stucco had traces of gesso and paint. I had never seen anything so beautiful.

The Buddha was almost smiling, the beautiful lips, touched with a hint of color, just ever so slightly smiling as if an Indian Mona Lisa. His nose was slightly aquiline and very fine. Some Indian noses tended to be thick. This was almost Greek. His eyebrows were finely arched. His eyes were heavy lidded, Asian, but elegant, the pupils hinting of paint. He was utterly, utterly, divinely, and most supremely beautiful!

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blog 90 greeks lost in time

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?’

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blog 89 Peshawar

Peshawar resided in a beautiful valley watered by the Swat and Kabul Rivers. The land had all of the potential of a garden of Eden. It boasted wild fruit trees like plum, peach, apple, pear, and pomegranate. Wild roses covered the mud walls of the homes. Streams and ancient canals lined with willows watered terraces built by Ancient Punjabis long ago exterminated by the Pathans. Wild game abounded. The hills and dales were littered by ruins of the original inhabitants, who were, like I said, exterminated so violently the Pathans never even bothered to learn their names. The Pathans used the once beautiful Buddhist monasteries and stupas as target practice. It was not just the arrogance of the Muslim but the arrogance of the Pathan. The Kushan were Buddhist Punjabis and therefore inferior despite their ruins of monumental splendor. The Pathans were heroic masters of the land despite their rags and poverty.

Peshawar was the ancient city of the Ancient Punjabis, the Kushan, the Hindko, and even the Ancient Greeks. It was so old no one even knew how old Peshawar was. It was walled city too, with 16 great, if ruinous gates, and it was full of three story tall buildings of mud brick festooned with ornate wooden balconies and ornate wooden doorways. The streets twist and turn, narrow, filled to overflowing with people, bazaars, food stalls, coffee and hookah houses, swaggering warriors on their horses or camels with their jiggling bridles, red and green flags of jihad, and very rarely, the fleeting glimpse of a ghostly shrouded woman.

I loathed seeming them. The women in this ‘City of Men’. It gutted me to see women shrouded in pale blue from top to bottom, not one inch showing, eternally shrouded, never alive, never allowed to even whisper, much less sing, the living dead. You would see a ghostly pale blue shadow slip into an ornately carved wooden door and you would shudder thinking what they faced inside. Were they being beaten to death? Burned alive? You heard rumors. Occasionally you saw one laying in a gutter, in her pale blue shroud, bloody, beaten, dead. The pale blue living shroud had at last become the actual shroud of a living ghost turned dead corpse. And they would be left for all to see ,bloody corpses, left like garbage. You shuddered to think what happened to the women of this ‘City of Men’ because you knew whatever was happening behind closed doors and lattice windows, it was not good!

Peshawar was conquered by waves of conquerors vying to control the Silk Road when once it passed through Peshawar. The Hindko. The Kushan. The Pathan. The Turks and ruled for a bit. Persians. Others. When the Mughals came and Akbar the Great, taking a fancy to the place, built the great fort and rebuilt the greater walls. He tried to turn Peshawar into a city of artists and poets and Sufi mystics. His grandson planted gardens and flowers and trees. The Mughals tried to turn Peshawar into the ‘City of Flowers’. But alas that dream proved as fragile as the gardens and the flowers. Sher Shah Suri used Peshawar as one of his key cities for conquest, capturing and raping Peshawar like a woman taken after her men are slaughtered in defeat. One wondered if Peshawar felt like that poor wife of Mohammad who slew her father, brothers, and husband before her eyes before declaring his mercy toward her, the loot of battle, by bestowing marriage upon her provided she converted to his Religion of Peace and embraced his feet like the prophet he said he was.

Later Khushal Khan Khattak attacked Peshawar as he waged war against the Mughals, especially Aurangzeb, to create the new Pathan Empire like the ancient Parthian Empire. So much for gardens. Peshawar was raped once again. Later still Nadir Shah the Persian Marauder seized Peshawar as he pillaged his way across the Punjab all the way to Delhi to bring that city of the Mughals to it’s very knees. And the guy did not even bother to toss a new coins to Peshawar as he left, despite hauling away that fabled Peacock Throne! But then Peshawar must have been raped and violated so often she must have been looking pretty trampled and no longer at all pretty. Later still Ahmad Shah Durrani saw Peshawar as the capital of yet another glorious Pathan Empire. But when the dust of battle cleared Peshawar, ever more bloody and battered, raped and violated, manhandled and abused, ended up a groveling client state of Afghanistan, paying tribute to not be burned to the ground.

In 1818 One Eye Ranjit Singh the Maharajah of Lahore and the Leader of the Sikhs, kicked the collective butt of the Pathan for the first and possibly only time in it’s collective arrogance. He captured Peshawar. Afghanistan was furious and tried to yank Peshawar back. Back and forth! Back and forth! So Afghanistan under Dost Mohammad and his son Akbar Khan and One Eye Ranjit Singh fought over Peshawar as if the city was Helen of Troy. But do not assume it was out of love or respect! It was strictly a case of egotism! The Afghanistani is Pathan at their most bitchy and mangy and One Eye Ranjit Singh is a Punjabi tired at being kicked and raped and mauled by Pathans. The Sikhs decided it was time to kick Muslim butts. Any Muslims. Particularly Pathan butts because they were closest. It was not even a question of religion. It was a question of ego. Pathans considered the Punjabi to be their dog to kick. But under the Sikhs, the Punjabi dog was finally biting back! Hurray for the Punjabis!

The trouble for us Brits was that we were caught in the middle. We just wanted an undisputable border at the Khyber Pass and the damn pass closed to invaders so Delhi and the rest of the Punjab was no longer raped, looted, ravished, and butchered. Was that too much to ask? Apparently yes! As long as Peshawar was the bone being gnarled by two mangy dogs, Most Mohammad and One Eye Ranjit Singh, there could not be any peace at the border!”


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blog 88 the lliad come to life

Cold weather came at last. I had hoped to visit the Golden Temple at Amritsar with my favorite NCO who was a Sikh and eager to show me his religion’s key temple. But alas, I was deemed too unpopular. So I was promoted instead and told to report for duty to Peshawar. So my Indian family packed up the bungalow which I refused to sell. I did agree to lease it for a tiny rental on the provision that if I or my Indian family ever returned we could reclaim it. I could be mulish. I never denied it. I had bought it too dearly!

We tramped east toward the Khyber Pass and the ‘City of Men’ as Peshawar was known. We arrived as a slight dusting of snow fell gently giving a frosted crystal elegance to the ancient city. Peshawar was reputed to greeted Alexander the Great howbeit no one knows if it greeted the mass murderer with open arms or not. Once it stood on the Silk Road that for centuries brought riches from China across desolate mountains to Arabia and Rome and the West. But nowadays this part of the extreme Northwest Frontier was populated only by the willful Pathans, a remains of a mythic empire that once straddled the ancient world and was known as the Parthian Empire that once stretched across Persia and Afghanistan and part of the Punjab. That was also long ago. Perhaps it was even only an memory of some ancient migration of Persian tribes across the desolate rocks of a rocky land. What empire there was had long ago vanished into the dust of history no more and no less than Alexander the Great.

Now the latter day descendants of those long ago mythic Ancient Parthian Persians were rough tribes of pale, lean, high cheek boned, grizzled men who feuded continuously, recording blood feuds going back centuries as if that was a sort of dubious honor worth boasting of. It was in fact. The Pashto speaking Pathans boasted an elaborate Code of Honor called Pashtunwali which enshrined personal and clan honor above all. A Pathan would kill for his Nang or honor. But a Pathan would also kill for Zan (women), Zar (gold) ad Zameen (Land) too. And a Pathan would kill for Revenge. A Pathan considered Hospitality sacred, a part of his and his clan’s Nang or honor. So naturally he killed for that too. Actually, a Pathan would find something to kill anyone over. Pathans viewed killing as an fine art. It was even money making! The Pathans did not pay taxes to anyone! But considered fines for murder an honor to pay! And they demanded danegold or bloodgold from anyone to not kill them!

A Pathan tribal elder or khan king, like some Ancient Greek, still employed poetic bards to compose great epic poems extolling their Nang or Honor as it was waged across the years in bloody feuds of heroic suicidal glory like some modern day Iliad. In fact the Pathans helped me understand the Iliad in all of it’s terrible majesty. Like the Ancient Greeks, they waged war at the drop of a hat over ownership of a woman. Nang Honor required no less. But Love had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with it. Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter to bless the war. Pathans treated their women as totems of clan honor. They were enslaved , tolerated only as long as they dutifully mass produced continuous generations of little male murderers, then slaughtered, and yes, even offered as human sacrifices (called ‘Honor Killings) at a drop of a skullcap. But then the Pathan sang a love song it was a love song to Nang Honor or a fellow warrior or a boy lover. Like I said. The Pathan helped me understand the Iliad in all of it’s dire majesty.

The Pathans composed magnificent songs in their Pashto language and said no one who did not speak Pashto was worth knowing. They held court —be it a mud hut — like kings with elaborate rituals. They held Jirgas durbars as if Mughals even if they were poor as dirt. They held Hujras as if imperial powwows between monarchs on cloth of gold like old Harry the Eighth! But minus the cloth of gold or even the pearl carpet. They sang lamentations of ancient savagery and nobility no one remembered in this modern day. They danced obscure dances not even the Sufi understood thought the Sufi came closer to touching the Pathan spirit than any other human being. The Pathans were like the Ancient Greeks come back to life. But somehow living with reincarnated versions of Achilles and Hector and Ajax and Agamemnon was not as pleasant as merely reading about them from a safe distance! By the gods! I certainly would not want to be married to one! Or related to one either!

The Pathans waged fierce war, fought to the death, took no prisoners, tortured and killed anyone they captured, and lived and died rather like the Indian version of the American Indians — with us playing the role of the American Army. Their very wildness was so uncompromising you had to admire them. But their savageness revolted one too. No one could ride longer, fight longer, endue more, never complaining, than the Pathans. One had to admire them. But that did not mean one had to like them. They certainly did not like anyone!

You could tell a Pathan at one glance! He might be dressed in rags but he stood tall and arrogant! Intimidating everyone around him! Absolutely sure he was the absolute best! The Baluch with their long curly black hair as dandy as a girl’s ringlets and flowing full skirted white robes and gathered pajama trousers was nought a Pathan. A bejeweled Mughal was just some mongrel Mongol. A Punjabi, be he Sikh, Hindu, Rajput, or Muslim, was nought too. The Punjabis were the original native people of the Punjab which was the geographical crown of North India. The Pathans came in though the Khyber Pass and pushed them aside like chaff. Every other Human Being was nought but chaff to the Pathan. Including us British. Make no mistake! The Pathans thought they were demigods! Your only hope to survive was to be supernaturally heroic enough to almost qualify as almost worth knowing!

The most remarkable thing to me was that the Pathan, through converted to the Muslim Religion, did not consider it the core of their identity. They would kill for their Nang Honor or their Pashto Poetry or their Jirgas Clan Royalty or their Hujras Tribal Imperial Authority, or even Zan and Zar and Zameen more than their Muslim Religion with it’s mad Mullahs and irate Imams. The Green flag of Jihad only further blessed the Pathan Art of Murder, Rape, Rampage, Rioting, Marauding, Mangling, Looting, Butchering, Enslaving, Slaughtering, and did I mention Pillaging? The conversion to Islam postdated their National Identity and their Pashtunwali Code of Honor or even their Pashto Language. Mecca was Arabic. They were Parthian Persians. They might go to Mecca but frankly believed that like the mountain, Mecca should come to them!

So I came to Peshawar the City of Men and the bastion of the Pathan. And for the next few years my destiny orbited around the Pathan egomania!

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