Once upon a time, even as late as the 1960s, a small-time hill station was considered to be a prized posting station for both civil servants and soldiers alike. Today’s tourists plying the Karakoram Highway look the other way as they enter Abottabad. In a haze of dust, mobile oil and ear-splitting noise, heavy traffic obstructs the horizon of mountain slopes now shorn of indigenous pine trees. Smaller vehicles jostle for space on a perfectly-built road. Plastic bags litter every available inch of the land. Shopping plazas stand perilously domineering against mercilessly-chopped mountainsides. And, to complete the picture of downtown cacophony, ugly flat-topped houses sprout up daily.
The filth and environmental cacophony of the original linear settlement of Abbottabad leaves nothing for the imagination in terms of degradation, social apathy and the state’s ennui. The torture of braving the road stretch es from the entry point to finally managing breathing space once the town is left behind — a sad reminder of environmental dispiritedness.
In another time, on another day, the early summer rain would play a torrential symphony all night long on the slopping tin roofs. The haunting sound of a regimental band would waft downhill as the aroma of fried eggs cooked over wood fires assailed the nostrils. The sound of the occasional motor vehicle, laboriously shifting into low gear as it came up the tarred incline, would jolt one back to the world one had left behind in the scorching plains. The day would end on a peaceful, silent note as the hilly horizon became one with the darkening sky and the valley settled down to a soft slumber.
A lament on how urban development has wreaked havoc on the once pristine hill town of Abbottabad
This year as routine load-shedding plunged the hillside town into darkness — yes, Abbottabad dutifully adds its own pound of flesh to alleviate the national cacophony of waning utilities — my granddaughter Dania Fatima finds me out on the ragged stone steps leading off the verandah of our old family house. A good thing too, because her innocent intrusion is a fourth-generation call, finding its way across decades. I fall into a reverie and begin to sing a sad requiem for this city of Abbott-planted cedars and hillsides carpeted with pine needles and cones. In so mercenary a manner has crass commercialism wreaked its vengeance on the valley that it brings tears to my eyes.
Tonight the one beautiful thing about my relationship with Dania under the starry skies on this moonlit night has been the replaying, in mellow tones, of a symphony that had been ready to become the swan song of a lost world. Gently, I take her hand, bidding her to sit beside me on the stone steps that have borne the footprints of four generations of the family. And before that of the good Major General Roberts of the Gurkhas, whose love of pine trees must surely have been the cause celebre for building this quaint little house in the hills, with its curiously-crafted ceilings and gables galore. Indeed to the very undulations of these ceilings — at places so high, at others so low that when eight years old, I could stretch out an arm to touch the sloping end and show off to my little brother how big I was — do I owe my most fanciful dreams.
Seven-year-old Dania becomes the prototype of eternal wisdom and can share with me the sense of beauty that we have both been lucky to inherit: me from a set of parents who, half-a-century ago, had fallen in love with the derelict house and then decided to buy it, and she from the great-grandparents she has never known but whose romance with the hills made them throw business acumen out the window and invest in this god-forsaken property in a small city. Abbottabad then had been the de facto magical ‘open sesame’ to the unexplored valley of Kaghan. It still is; but the magic is gone, forever.
Just then my grandson Hussain joins us on the stone steps. Dressed in his pyjamas he tiptoes out the front door, consumed by the curiosity so typical of a four-year-old out to trace his cousin. Dania does not fancy the intrusion. Nevertheless, making peace all three of us cup our hands over our ears to try to catch the sound of the night air. “Back in time,” I tell the two awestruck little souls beside me, “one could actually ride on the crest of the velvety breeze and be transported to fairy tale lands.” Two pairs of eyes pop open to question how.
I weave the stories from a childhood in the hills where wind-borne flying carpets transported an eight-year-old to lands unimagined by parents and elder siblings. I share with them the adventure of a spring day when my brother and I had made it up to the ramshackle attic in search of treasure that was supposed to have been left there by the Hindu owner of the property, just before he left for good.
I tell them of picnics down the rolling garden in the days when the nearest neighbour was at least 40 kanals away. When the crowning glory of each breakfast day had been the jam brewed from apricots, plums and apples harvested daily off the trees in the front lawn. When evening entertainment had meant gluing one’s ears to the old Philips radio of my mother’s trousseau … the saucy little medium-wave appendage had demanded the best of imagination to fill in the blanks of an otherwise broken relay from Rawalpindi. And, of course, I tell them that once upon a time we had managed without plastic shopping bags. Also that growing up in the hills, I had never known that houses could have flat roofs.
Today, koels sing liltingly in this hill town … a sad sign of the times when ecological changes bring the bird to an Abbottabad where pine trees burn out in the summer heat. Pity, too, rising numbers of multistoried plazas and mushrooming flat-roofed residential houses with Corinthian pillars stand awkwardly in this community of the last few sloping tin roofs, stone walls and attic windows.
Abbottabad need not have had a conservationist as its administrative head over the years. All that was required was one official ruling that in the city of Abbott all latter-day buildings were to be topped with sloping tin roofs and gables and attic windows; that the cedars and the pines being part of the heritage had to be planted and replanted by law; and that the tiny water courses gushing down hilly ravines were out of bounds for washing trucks and buses.
Then today, even as the traffic rushes across the Karakoram Highway, which of necessity had to cut through this once tranquil settlement, Abbottabad would still have been a hill town. Then my grandchildren Dania and Hussain and so many others of their generation would have been able to sink their feet in piles of pine needles on weekend hikes up the cheerron wali paharri — a mountain in the vicinity of this house that used to be filled with dense growth of pine trees.
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 15th, 2018