COLUMN: The Rawalpindi camp

26 Feb 2017


In my last column I wrote about the artistic depictions of Pakistan’s capital. Stark contrasts are to be found in Islamabad’s much older sister city Rawalpindi. Like Islamabad, ’Pindi is stiflingly hot in the summers and cold and wet in the winters. There the similarities end. Whereas Islamabad was hastily constructed from the 1960s onwards, ’Pindi’s history dates back to the first millennium BC. It is one of Pakistan’s longest continuously inhabited cities, situated less than 20 miles from the rich Buddhist and Hindu ruins of Taxila.

The Lonely Planet claims: “The two cities, 15 kilometres apart, are really a single mega-town with bazaars at one end and bureaucrats at the other.” The guidebook is right to pinpoint ’Pindi’s close association with bazaars. In Sorayya Khan’s novel Noor, Ali goes to a bazaar in Rawalpindi to buy parrots for Noor. It is also in this neighbouring commercial centre that Isloo-wallahs procure marble and sweetmeats.

’Pindi has also long been the Pakistani Army’s key garrison city. While Islamabad is reputed for secure monotony, Rawalpindi tends to be viewed as pugnacious and edgy. The two are night and day, and they endure a fraught, if close, relationship, as illustrated in Sophia Khan’s Dear Yasmeen. In that a member of Irenie’s Pakistani extended family says of an aunt that she is so desperate to perfect a wedding outfit “[s]he’s even been to ’Pindi.” In Hammad Khan’s film Slackistan, Aisha takes a pleading phone call from Zara who is stuck at a café and relates the situation to her male friends: “’Pindi boys are circling her […] Can we go rescue her?” Contemporary Isloo-wallahs construct Rawalpindi as a place of last resort and its denizens as threatening outsiders.

Colonial, pre-Islamabad generations saw the metropolis differently. As a young journalist, Rudyard Kipling was sent to Rawalpindi in 1885 to report on “a move in the great political chessboard” of the Great Game. This was a scheduled meeting between the British Viceroy Dufferin and Abdur Rahman, emir of Afghanistan. In an early dispatch from the city, ‘The Rawul Pindi Camp’, Kipling stated: “’Pindi is […] fearfully and wonderfully martial” and noted that the city “swarms with officers.” Here and in the articles that comprise ‘To Meet the [Emir]’ and ‘The Rawul Pindi Durbar,’ Kipling conveyed the area’s topography, albeit limited to the British civil lines. He described the ’Pindi Club, the Mall, and the military camp — which becomes a “swamp” in the pouring rain.

Kipling’s increasing outrage, as the emir’s delayed arrival frustrates his first important journalistic mission, overspills into his increasingly Orientalist writing. He compares this “oriental potentate” with a “wayward child.” The emir dismantles the Raj’s pomp and circumstance and in its place creates a comedy of manners amidst interminable postponement. Overall, Kipling portrays ’Pindi as a city at the centre of things in the Raj’s heyday, though it is also associated with the “dust and confusion” that Kipling sees as an inevitable part of life in the Orient.

This view of Rawalpindi’s centrality is reinforced by Saad Ashraf’s The Postmaster. In the mid-1920s, protagonist Ghulam Rasool is relocated to Rawalpindi, portrayed as a bureaucratic, back-biting, and routine-bound city. There he serves six years as postmaster in a largely white, racist organisation. He is so valued by his boss that he is given responsibility when a cholera epidemic breaks out in the city. The English boss is excoriated for allowing his Indian employee to serve an unprecedented two tenures in Rawalpindi.

’Pindi is portrayed as a relatively female space. It is there that Ghulam’s wife Sara gives birth to their second child. Soon after, Ghulam’s forthright and witty mother detrains from a second-class women’s carriage to look after her daughter-in-law in her confinement. Sara goes to a zenana hospital in the city to give birth to the baby girl. Yet she is glad to leave when her husband is appointed to Amritsar, for she hates Rawalpindi’s winters. However, to her friends and relatives in Delhi she plans to “praise the town sky-high,” hoping to impress the majority of them who have never set foot outside the Indian capital.

Soon after Independence, the Rawalpindi Conspiracy occurred. In 1951, major-general Akbar Khan banded with other left-wing military officers and some civilian communist party activists to attempt a coup against Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan. All 15 conspirators were jailed, apart from the sole woman accused. The male prisoners faced the death penalty for their ‘treason.’ A trial eventually ensued behind closed doors in Hyderabad. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was released in 1955 after he wrote, according to Ayesha Jalal, “some of the finest resistance poetry to have ever come out of Pakistan.” The state responded to the Conspiracy with vicious cleansing of left-wing activism.

In 1988, an Afghan mujahideen ammunitions cache exploded in Rawalpindi, killing what the most conservative estimate puts at 100 civilians. Tariq Mehmood chillingly fictionalises this disaster in Song of Gulzarina. Mehmood’s thriller unfolds partly in northern England, but its protagonist repeatedly goes back to his Pakistani home village near ’Pindi and to its neighbouring city Peshawar. During the war in Afghanistan he briefly disappears over the border, where he witnesses a bomb attack. When Mehmood was working as a journalist in Pakistan, he was one of very few who went into the Ojhri ammunitions dump even as the rockets were intermittently still taking off. In an email to me, he described it as “a scene from hell.”

Rafia Zakaria also examines the Ojhri Camp incident in The Upstairs Wife, which is at once a memoir, an account of women’s social history, and a history of Pakistan. Zakaria writes graphically of Ojhri: “[S]tories and even more bodies were extracted from beneath the shattered glass and twisted pieces of metal, bits of flesh still stuck to them. […] The Ojhri Camp massacre showed ordinary Pakistanis just how little they knew about the deals their military rulers reached with the United States.”

This visceral and mistrustful description indicates that Rawalpindi’s military status has not been beneficial for its ordinary dwellers.

There are fewer representations of ’Pindi than Islamabad in literature, and what does exist tends to have a historical slant. Contemporary Raj history is portrayed in Kipling’s ‘Rawul Pindi’ dispatches, and British rule is looked back on from a millennial vantage point in Ashraf’s The Postmaster. Both Mehmood and Zakaria recall the 1980s and one of Pakistan’s most notorious man-made disasters. If Rawalpindi has been overshadowed by the abutting capital Islamabad, it has been darkly shadowed by the scandals of the Conspiracy and Ojhri.

The writer teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 26th, 2017