Soon after his five-year labour of love and determination — his book Once Upon a Time in Murree — was published, Dr Omar Mukhtar Khan received an unexpected email from one Raja Jawwad, claiming nostalgic ownership to the Dingley Dell Estate, one of the properties featured in the book. Jawwad, an investment banker in New York, pointed out that the estate had been “a family holding since ages.”
The next day, another nostalgia-steeped email arrived, from a certain Jonathan Addleton in Lahore. Born in one of the cottages on the Dingley Dell Estate, the gentleman invited Khan to tea at the Forman Christian College Rector’s lodge. Addleton wanted to go back in time when the tiny holiday resort at the base of the Himalayas still retained the Sahib and Mem Sahib lifestyle in the right royal Anglicised tradition of the then recently departed Raj.
Camera slung over his shoulder, muddied trekking shoes slithering down dales, pushing back overgrown foliage, scratching away at obscure nameplates on forsaken properties, striking up conversations with complete strangers and digging through dusty revenue records, Khan — a Harvard graduate in development economics and former member of Pakistan’s Civil Services — spent long years as a man on a mission: to reconnoitre the innards of Murree, once a quaint, beautiful hill station, now totally lost to crass urban exploitation.
“Family vacations and school trips to Murree during my [early] years are another country, but Murree is literally ‘in my blood’. In writing this, I have re-wandered into fascinating, uncharted stories, met people who are Murree stories in themselves, been contacted by Murree lovers of all ages,” he says.
The Facebook page Khan created for Once Upon a Time in Murree — after the book was released — has now become a platform for more stories, more history, more global conversations that unravel a century of secrets that “not one of Murree’s contemporary visitors would have an inkling about.”
He says, “The number of people who have got back to me after reading the book is amazing. The Facebook page has become a sort of a club, where complete strangers are sharing Murree stories and experiences, excited that the original Murree lost to the new ‘loads of money’ social ethos has been salvaged.”
But there were miles to go, and hiccups aplenty, before Khan could put his book together. Patiently poring over tattered land records that no patwari and tehsildar worth his salt would deign to share with a stranger, Khan went there and did it all.
“There was this land ownership register, with one page each allocated to a property, detailing how it was passed on to a new owner simply by a signature. No stamps, no witness, just a written statement. I discovered this 1861 rewritten land record in the Murree assistant commissioner’s office — the original had been burned and everything had been put together by memory. Nevertheless, it was signed by the then governor of Punjab.
“I read those fading land transactions and so many interesting stories emerged. It is a veritable who’s who of local and British families who could afford Murree. For the pictures, I contacted the British Raj museum who promptly posted images of that society. I dug up details of original owners of the many estates, weaving through generations of descendants, of whom many have moved across the globe.”
Being a former civil servant certainly gave Khan an edge; he was allowed passage into attitude-riddled offices and was able to wander nonchalantly into abandoned rest-houses.
“The visitors’ register of a now-abandoned forest rest-house carried Prime Minister Imran Khan’s signature with a complaint about water shortage on the premises,” says the author. “How I cajoled the caretaker to lead me to the area’s forest guard, in whose cabin this register was dumped, is another story.”
Khan struck up friendships over cups of tea shared at roadside tea stalls and learned to decipher local accents which, over time, have turned terms such as ‘Christian graveyards’ into ‘Kishan ka qabristan’.
“I was amazed,” he says, “by how locals of the present generations would come up with a tale or an address to the quaint, roofless remains of a deserted cottage … this is a kind of oral history the descendants of the original caretakers carry with them, as a sacred legacy passed down from grandfathers and great-grandfathers.”
Khan is keen to follow up with a second edition, to include stories he missed out, and also because more stories keep pouring in from around the world. “I am also collecting material for a Murree museum,” he says.
As an alumnus of St Denys High School, I can offer him plenty of stories of my own about an institution where ‘golly’ and ‘gosh’ were staple exclamations and where students rote-learned the Scriptures even if Muslim — talk of religious tolerance of the past! — ND
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 21st, 2021