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Thursday, 13 March 2014

Reminiscenses - The Navy Lark up the Khyber

Nik Morton

Our dilapidated bus trundled along at five in the morning. Sleep stubbornly clung to my eyes. We were leaving our ship HMS Zulu behind, alongside at Karachi. The ship was only in for the weekend. Eight of us were fortunate enough to be invited up-country by the Diplomatic Corps.

            A few fears were voiced over the wisdom of our heading for the airport. This concern had grown from the alarming incidents reported in the press. It was Friday, June 20, 1969 – not long after the cricket uprisings. And airport shootings were still going on. Jokes seemed to dispel our fears. I didn’t fancy getting shot when only ten days away from my twenty-first birthday.

            We passed new houses, mansions compared with others, many old shacks still in evidence, and the roads and pathways were quite primitive. Everywhere had the flavour of a newly colonised place, barring the odd twentieth century intrusion of advertisement hoardings. Oxen and rickety old carts rumbled past, men and youths pedalled bicycles with bare feet. Out of another world, office blocks gleamed glassy-eyed.

            The pervasive aroma, compounded of sickly-sweet spices and body effluent, hovered even that early in the day; but I soon became inured to it.

            Arrived at the airport, we were pleased to see no machine-gun posts and no mobsters. It seemed like a normal medium-sized air terminal.

            For the short time in the lounge, we supped over-sweet coffee. A cleaner swept the linoleum floor with a brush made of leaves, depositing more leaves than collecting dust. A monstrous woman entered, her sari half-concealing an airport uniform adorned with badges or medals: I had doubts as to her flying abilities. One of the pilots sauntered in with an unmistakable bottle of brandy in his hip pocket: I hoped he wasn’t flying high with us onboard. And lastly, an ashtray that was simply that – a massive brass circular tray full of ash with a couple of fag ends dotted about its black-speckled grey surface.

            Then the tannoy system broadcast, “Flight 300Y” with an exquisite oriental accent.

            “That’s us!”

            It was my first time in an airplane. The experience of boarding was new, to be captured, but also disappointing in a way. I’d always fancied flying in a smaller craft than this. It was a Trident 1-E, capable of seating eighty-six. The PIA air stewardess wore the airline’s modern semi-traditional uniform. She dutifully issued everyone with the inevitable boiled sweet and ensured all passengers were comfortable. One anomaly was the life jacket under my seat: the only water this plane was likely to cross was the Indus.

            Then, at 7.20am, the jets heated up and went through their reverberating paces, rose to a roar then a banshee wail. The great bulk strained at its leash, the rear of the aircraft seemed to tug on acceleration and we were suddenly speeding down the runway.

            One second, earth hammered beneath us and the next, it was dropping away at an incredible dizzying rate. Hedges shrank into snakes of grass; trees became miniscule bushes, houses collapsed into matchboxes. Everywhere I looked – yellow muddy brown waste with odd interspersions of un-English green.

            The slight queasiness in my stomach was more through anticipation than with climbing into the clouds. It was transient, anyway, and I was pleased that at least I wasn’t airsick.

            It was our first real glimpse of Pakistan. Most of us knew of its relatively recent history. An Islamic Republic and self-governing member of the Commonwealth since August 5, 1947, it was created from those parts of the Indian sub-continent that had a predominantly Moslem population. “Both East and West Pakistan each constitute a province under a governor,” intoned the airhostess throatily. (However, from July 1, 1970 this single province of West Pakistan was dismembered into the four provinces that it originally comprised: Sind, Baluchistan, Punjab and North West Frontier Province.)

            Apparently the name “Pakistan” was invented in 1933 by Rahmat Ali for the northwestern Moslem areas and was taken from Punjab, Afghan (North West Frontier Province), Kashmir and Baluchistan.

            Karachi squats and overflows on the north of the Indus delta, and stands shyly on a backwater opening south on the east-west stretch of coastline that marks a sharp change in the shoreline’s direction between Cape Monze and the delta. To the west it is screened from the sea by the rocky point at Manora, cemented to the mainland by a sandspit. The Manora headland provides the city with a natural barrier as protection from monsoon storms. Toward the land – desert. And to the north, a hilly thirsty landscape, the limestone spurs of the Kirthar Range breaking down southwards into sandy wastes. Now we were passing over these monotonous expanses of recent alluvium riddled by creeks. To the seaward, we were told, lay mangrove swamps; the land below seemed largely incapable of supporting life.

            Wraithlike, only the air-conditioning humming in our ears, the Trident penetrated the cloud-layer and settled at 25,000 feet.

            A mild lurch or two, signifying turbulence, was our first indication that we were passing over high land. The Sulaiman Hills – known as Takht-I-Suliman, or Solomon’s Throne. The legend of the mountains began when Solomon visited Hindostan to marry Balkis. As they were returning through the air, on a throne supported by genii, the bride implored the bridegroom to let her look back for a few moments on her beloved land. Solomon directed the genii to scoop out a hollow for the throne on the summit of the mountain. The hollow is a cavity some thirty feet square, cut out of the solid rock at the southern extremity of the mountain, and is now a place of pilgrimage for both Hindus and Mohammedans. The shrine is about two miles south of the highest peak. The whole mountain culminates in two points, both over 11,000 feet high.

            We crossed over the Thal desert, for the most part absolutely without vegetation. Also the salt flats of the Indus. Hereabouts, an irrigation project progressed, to colonise the desert.

            The whole area is frequented by hurricane, diseases are numerous and commonplace, the population is far too large, and inevitably famines kill millions.

            The plane’s landing at Chaklala airport was as unimpressive as its take-off – a compliment to the pilot, I guess. We hardly felt a thing, only the sudden thud, slight screech and then constant rumble as we coasted along the runway, vivid hedges leaping by. My first flight was over.

            On leaving the plane, most of us were instantly repelled: the air was unbelievably hot, stifling. It was almost like walking into a solid wall of musty scorching dry heat. And the sun was high, even though only 8.45am. To add to the morning’s brilliance, the white runway glared, reflecting light and heat. I was glad I’d brought my trilby hat.

            We were met at the barrier by one of our hosts, Bernie, accompanied by an official native DS driver. Bernie was deeply tanned, thinning on top. His eyes sparkled and his big teeth shone white: very friendly, sardonically humorous. We loaded up and were driven off in a mini-bus.

            The heat was unbearable, the car seats sticky; with no reasonable shade in the vehicle. Dust from the roads didn’t help, either. We headed for the town centre of Rawalpindi and ultimately Islamabad.

            Passing through Rawalpindi – or Pindi as the colonials called it – a more picaresque aspect of Pakistan life-in-the-street confronted us. The poverty, the urchins, the dilapidation were there. But the colours seemed more gay, the air partly fresher, and the people more mobile. Turning one corner, I was surprised and amused to observe a general store and chemist advertising its drugs and elixirs, capable of healing ten score of diseases and afflictions, from the common cold up to and, amazingly just falling short of, death.

            The bonnet veered up and we motored up a concrete ramp, towards a steadily climbing row of houses. Islamabad New Site – an unromantic name for the place. And at first glance the buildings appeared quite unsightly. Vaguely reminiscent of children’s building blocks, all painted white and browned and mellowed in the oven. Spindly trees tried in vain to either break up or improve the wide concrete pavements. The houses were mostly obscured from the road by large walls where a few plants hung forlornly. The mountain range facing the New Site and rising back of and beyond the near lowlands turned out to be the Hindu Kush.

            Somewhat awkwardly, we trouped in to the house Bernie indicated. We had no idea what to expect and I for one entered with some trepidation.

            Inside, it was simple luxury. Fitted carpets, new spotless blonde wood furniture, variable air-conditioning, every facility and, most pleasantly, a lived-in atmosphere.

            Introductions were soon made. Apart from the presence of Bernie, those already there to meet us were women. Their intentions were quickly made clear. We were to be “farmed” out to those present. Everything was informal and even jocular. The sour-tasting tea and chinwag cleared the air and the ice had cracked if not completely broken for most of us.

            Without any preamble whatsoever, I was “claimed” by Mrs Mary Guest.

            “Surely, though, you’re the host?” I said.

            “Very droll.” She smiled. Her blue eyes shone, cheeks mottled red and healthy.
This is the first excerpt from a piece published in Under the Queen's Colours (Voices from the Forces 1952-2012) by Penny Legg (2012) - kindle version here.

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