The queen is dead; long live the queen. Murree was the queen of hill stations. It is now dead. A new queen is enthroned. The cycle of life and death, notwithstanding, this summer resort will forever be our queen of hearts. Yes, the mystique and the magic of yesteryear vanished a long time ago, but the fog, firs and flowers dotted across hills and dales hold the power to stir your soul even if you live in faraway lands divided by continents and oceans.
Foliage wet and wild, charming rose and jasmine creepers, winding hills and soggy mists anyplace in America prompt you to reflexively exclaim: “This is just like Murree!” I hear this repeated by Pakistanis in America. The Murree metaphor entices me back when, on a rainy day, as gurgling streamlets run down the window panes, I get an email from Shahida Jaffrey living amid splendoured scenes only Murree can showcase.
“What are you doing in boring New Jersey?” she writes, “come to Murree”. Each year Shahida would come to the US to visit her son and daughter. She was entertained, flown around in private jets and went to the top Broadway shows in Manhattan. Yet, something was always missing. “I love Pakistan”, she said when we met last summer. “I’d rather spend my summer in my humble cottage at Kashmir Point surrounded by extended family than come here to the US.”
As founder and first vice chancellor of the Women’s University in Quetta, Dr Shahida Jaffrey’s attachment to Pakistan keeps her pinned to the country she considers the best in the world. Even terror-weary Quetta pulls her back to her ‘roots’ where she raised, nurtured and fostered Balochistan’s first women’s university in 2004. “Thousands of young women from all over the province have earned Masters of Arts and Sciences degrees,” she tells me. “Today, some are professionals, others educated and enlightened wives and mothers.”
I ask her about the recent slaying of 14 university teachers and students who were killed when a bomb exploded inside the bus parked within the campus just when the classes ended. “The militants targeted my beautiful flower-like young students … this is not what Balochistan is!”
During her tenure, Shahida was a hawk keeping a tight grip on security and discipline, ensuring peace and harmony within the campus walls, all the while focusing on the quality of higher education imparted to the students. Known as a ‘battleship’, no one could trifle with Dr Jaffrey in Quetta city. Even though a non-Baloch, the locals held her in high respect. They were grateful to her for providing education to their womenfolk. The governor extended full help and support for the women’s university as its chancellor.
Quetta University named after Sardar Bahadur Khan, a prominent politician and brother of Ayub Khan, has recently begun enrolling candidates for MPhil courses leading to PhDs. “Many of my old students have joined their alma mater as faculty, others have gone abroad for higher studies, while a few have been qualified by the provincial Public Service Commission and currently serve as faculty in different women’s colleges through the province.” Not only that, Shahida like a proud parent says that her former students are in the navy and at par with their men colleagues.
Resilient and irrepressible, graduate students march forward, undaunted and unafraid of militants, she says. A can-do spirit is perhaps Shahida Jaffrey’s lasting contribution to the institution she founded nine years ago. “This is the attitude that makes me proud to be a Pakistani.”
Once summer is gone and Murree pulls down its shutters to keep away the howling winds weaving through the firs, Shahida will be back to her ‘quaint’ living quarters in Quetta that she maintains. Meanwhile, as we exchange a truckload of nostalgia that gave us some of the happiest days of our childhood, Shahida lapses into a memory-fest. She tells me her ancestors purchased 30 kanals of land near the Governor House at Kashmir Point from a British colonel, returning to England in1924.
Each year in June her entire family moved to Murree carting along a troupe of servants, German Shepherd dogs and food essentials to last them three months.
Evenings consisted of leisurely family walks around the Governor House, or to the Tanks known as ‘Punj Pandu’. A stroll down the fashionable Mall had its first stop at Lintotts, where cream rolls and paper thin chicken sandwiches and patties, on a pastry stand, were a familiar sight. The music floating past Sam’s was too difficult to resist. Saturday nights were the rage with live band and ballroom dancing.
“Out of the old Murree homes, very few exist,” Shahida says. Pre-partition Murree, Indian film idol Prithvi Raj Kapoor lived in a bungalow 200 yards away from Shahida’s home. “He would bring his wife for treatment to my grandfather Dr Mohammad Hussain, who founded the Samli Sanatorium for TB patients near Murree.”
Sayed Muratab Ali’s family had an entire mountain to themselves in Cliffdon Farms at Ghora Gali. Today, it’s the home of the power couple Abida Hussain and Fakhr Imam. Mian Aminuddin, a former governor of Punjab had a beautiful cottage in Kashmir Point. “Aunty Aminuddin, so very elegant and graceful, with her coiffed hair, served food in her best dinner service made in England and tea in hand-carved silver Kashmiri tea sets laid on a long silver tray. The house got sold after their death.”
Today, the home reigning supreme is the prime minister’s personal residence near the Tanks. It has a massive gate with an emblem of a lion carved in brass.
Despite a “construction ban” in Murree for over 15 years, “several hundred ugly high-rises have scarred its beautiful mountain-scape.” Shahida is a conservationist who tells me that according to environmentalists, “Almost 700 varieties of birds have been discovered in the Himalayan Hills, beginning from Bara Kahu up to the highest mountain/hills of Murree and the Galiats, more than thosefound in entire Europe!”
These birds live in the thick growth of trees all around the hills near Kashmir Point next to the Governor House. “We can see tall trees — hundreds of years old oaks, cedar, fir, pines, huge poplars, wild chestnuts, and wild kikar. There are apple trees too with hillsides laden in carpets of wild daisies.
“God’s creations are so beautiful! My country is so beautiful!”