Intriguingly titled ‘The Principal Arrives by Boat’, ‘Alcohol in the Teapots’, ‘Dancing at Astoria’, ‘The Butcher of Delhi at Richbell Road’ and ‘Playing in the Chapel’, almost all the chapters in the five sections of Dr Omar Mukhtar Khan’s book Once Upon a Time in Murree open in the last century.
Some go back even further. Besides the historical stories and rekindled memories pouring forth from the pages, it is Khan’s informal yet academically fact-checked handling of his subject matter, and the beautiful hardcover opening into pages upon pages of vivid photographs and stories retrieved from the debris of the original hill station, that make this coffee table presentation a showstopper all the way. Where Khan falters is the occasional faulting of tense — excusable, because retaining memories should be given the benefit of doubt where language is concerned.
Rekindling personal and political memories, reincarnating the Gothic spires and stained-glass windows of churches and chapels, rebirthing the young men and women on the rolls of those bastions of an elitist education — St Denys High School and the Convent of Jesus and Mary — reimagining the evening promenades of the British elite on the Mall, revisiting the five-star hotels that hosted cocktail parties, sensitively exposing the social divide between the rulers and the ruled and the inhumane attitude of the British officers to their own other ranks, Once Upon a Time in Murree is a pictorial and textual history long overdue.
Who, for instance, would know that Murree — originally Marrhi — was bought dirt cheap from local landowners in 1850, followed by a perpetual payment of Rs50 per month!
Murree of yore, both colonial and postcolonial, comes alive in the pages of this showstopper of a coffee table book, which reminds us of the need to preserve our heritage
Each chapter throws readers deeper into the city’s past, opening up colonial and postcolonial secrets of the Raj criminals it has sheltered, the unmarked graves of homesick British wives and children — innocent victims of Subcontinent-specific epidemics — the business empires of minority citizens at their zenith and their pitiable demise and the wrath of zealots against what should have been retained as heritage. The book is a conversation spanning centuries, a compendium of social and geopolitical life that has long returned to dust.
Besides making us privy to the secret of why Murree lost to Shimla as a Raj hill station in the last century, the book also brings the realisation that the honeymooning couples of today, the tinkling sounds of crockery floating out of the tiny chai khaanas — those poor cousins of the once prestigious Lintott and Sam’s restaurants along the Mall — during evening tea and the games of afternoon tennis are all a rambling heritage of a past our generations could learn from.
In a documented landscape where zealous nationalists take pride in tearing down past monuments, this book is a lesson in history, because it allows us to look at our follies.
You can call them memories of glorious pursuits, such as Murree being the site of some of the Subcontinent’s best boarding schools, or hoteliers coming from as far off as Italy to set up establishments such as the Cecil Hotel.
Or call them inglorious recollections, with Murree being the birthplace of the infamous Gen Reginald Dyer who spearheaded the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, or the cottage — now torn down — that housed the heartless Major Hudson who escorted the last Mughal emperor to exile in Rangoon. Or that Francis Edward Younghusband — who went on to play a crucial role in the Great Game — had once romped about under the pines and cedars of the Durdens, a quaint little villa off Richbell Road.
The Murree of yore, today usurped by a mafia of real estate brokers and littering crowds, has to be preserved. Khan has done just that; not by mere description, but in a style that makes the reader actually live Murree. As one’s eyes moves along the lines, the text fades into the background and from it emerge paintings of a time and tide in which each one of us, old and young, has a page. “That,” says Khan, was why he “spent five years coursing the Murree hills, so that every reader finds [themselves] in the book.”
The reviewer is a freelance journalist, translator and report writer who has taught at Lums.
She tweets @daudnyla
Once Upon a Time in Murree
By Dr Omar Mukhtar Khan
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 21st, 2021