THE title Murree During the Raj: A British Town in the Hills may deceive you. It may give the impression that the book is laden with information regarding Murree and its inhabitants during the pre-Partition era, but in fact, it has a great deal more to offer. The author, Professor Farakh A. Khan, has meticulously pondered over the writings and works of numerous British and local writers in order to accumulate concrete facts, figures and data for a thoroughly researched document.
Murree During the Raj encompasses a variety of diverse subjects. They range from the initial infiltration of the British into South Asia, resulting in the formation of their first settlement in the 17th century; their governing methods; the local population’s perception of British rule; their resistance or acceptance of it; Murree’s role and its significance in the progression of the independence movement; and finally its current troublesome condition and evident future.
The book has a reader-friendly structure. One can simply skim through the contents and decide which aspect of Murree they would like to read about — education, social life, historical buildings, Sepoy Mutiny, and so on. However, Khan has also given the book a sequence and the narrative is chronological, beginning from the history of the name Murree, moving towards Old Murree and some of the prominent British officers and Indians who resided there, the War of Independence, and finally, infrastructural aspects of the city, like medicine, water supply, waste disposal, vegetation, wildlife and the city’s modernisation.
The book is full of intriguing anecdotes that highlight some of the religious and social beliefs of the area, as well as superstitions that were once prevalent in Murree. Khan writes: “Legend has it that Jesus and Mary had visited Kashmir and on their return journey Mary died at Pindi Point and was buried there. At the base of the tower was an area claimed to be the grave of Mai Murree (Lady Mary). Garrison Engineer I.A. Richardson in his report in 1916 claimed that the heap of stones at the base of the picket tower at Pindi Point, though it may have been of spiritual significance, was not a grave at all. He recommended that the stones be removed and they were. Not long after Richardson was killed in an accident. The people of Murree attributed his death to the desecration of Mai Murree’s grave.”
Khan reflects on the drastic repercussions that British rule has had on the minds of the people and armed forces of Pakistan, even after more than six decades of independence. He argues that its remnants can be easily seen in our societal infrastructure: “The social and physical separation of the British from the Indian population was deliberate. A pattern of habitation developed in India and was followed in all Indian cities. There was the congested old Indian city and on its outskirts arose the Cantonment, Government Officers’ Residences, Government Offices, and areas of social activities (the Clubs). The two areas were vastly different. Though the borders between these ‘cities’ have been diluted to a degree but the general British pattern still persists in Pakistan today.”
The highlight of the book is the author’s approach towards the role of the British, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians during post- and pre-Partition era. The readers experience a balanced view of the build-up that later evolved into the ethnic and religious violence that hundreds of historians and writers have written on.
Khan has been very critical of the governing ways of the British and openly censures them for their conceitedness and expediency in writing such historical accounts that project only half the story. He makes an attempt to not do the same when he tries to bring forth both sides of the picture to his readers: “Most of the Hindu and Sikh properties in Murree were looted and burnt and fires could be seen from Rawalpindi at night. This act of sheer pillaging of non-Muslim properties was given a religious twist, which could not be justified on any grounds. Surprisingly, the churches and Christian properties were not touched in the carnage. The Murree Brewery building established in 1860 was a special target for the people’s fury and was totally burnt … In 1947, sympathetic local Muslim residents put the Hindu and Sikh residents on buses amid a lot of parting grief.”
The book ends on a somewhat dismal note with a discussion of the problems that the great city of Murree is currently faced with. The construction of buildings destroying the natural beauty of the city, commercialisation, congestion, poor water supply and natural erosion are some of the major issues that threaten the very existence of Murree today while the authorities turn a blind to eye to them.
Murree during the Raj: A British Town in the Hills
By Prof. Dr Farakh A. Khan
Le Topical, Lahore