We called him Chacha Amin and that was it since we were of an age, wherein ethnicity, background or origin were of no consequence and life was just fun and frolic far away from schoolbooks and discipline. He would wait for us every afternoon with his string of ponies, near the bus depot (known as the Agency) below the steep climb to the Mall. As we came into sight, he would wave and walk down to meet us leading the horses. He would help us get mounted and make short work of distances through constant banter, which consisted of stories. These were tales that transported us into a world, where adventure and thrill awaited us around every bend.
On our daily walk around Kashmir Point, he would point out tall fir trees, which appeared to be dying top down. These giants, according to him, had once upon a time boasted that they would grow so tall to reach heaven itself. Such boastfulness on their part had made God angry, and it had been ordained that as they grew, they would begin withering from the top. I now know that what we saw was the work of lightning, but we believed his story then and stared awestruck at the spectacle.
It was this amazing individual, who told us that on days when thunder was overhead, djinn children played in the forest with balls of fire that were visible to humans. Anyone coming in contact with these flaming toys was sure to suffer mortal burns, and we should, therefore, stay indoors during thundery weather. Years later, visiting Rawalpindi, I decided to pay a nostalgia-laden visit to my family’s summer home in Sunny Bank, where I had spent many happy seasons as a child. Trudging up the path from the metalled road and lost in converging memories, I failed to notice the approaching thunder that grew deafening as lightning began to flash in the sky above. Suddenly I saw a ball of fire materialise from the mist and move across the trees with incredible speed, where the house had once stood. Chacha Amin’s stories came suddenly to life, as I ran down the slope to where my driver was anxiously watching me. Back in my car, I began to realise that what I had witnessed was nothing, but ‘ball lightning’, a phenomenon that occurred all over the world. I also began to understand that Chacha Amin’s tales were true from the perspective of someone with little or no understanding of natural phenomena.
Decades later, on a visit to Abbottabad during the 1990s, I was staying in the Pearl Continental Hotel (now demolished), when out of sheer curiosity I entered the attached hotel disco called ‘Rasalu’s Cave’ and was told the fascinating story of Raja Rasalu and the Monster. Locals believed that somewhere in the vicinity of Simla Hill, there was a sealed up cave, where Rasalu had once, confronted and killed a half-man-half-beast, which hunted humans at night and hid in the cave during the daytime. According to the story, the cave entrance had remained open until the British sealed it and put up barbed wire in the spot, where the entrance was supposed to exist. A thorough search of historical records and old books on Abbottabad failed to authenticate the narrative. It was interesting to recall that a similar half-human-half-beast called ‘Mum’ often figured in stories told by locals in and around Quetta. There was once a statue of the beast somewhere in the city, depicting the creature with a strong resemblance to the Sphinx of Egypt. Old photographs from British colonial era indicate that the statue did in fact exist, but was destroyed in the devastating 1935 earthquake. It was said that the creature was a female and abducted men, who were abused and then devoured. There is, however, no story of how this monster was ultimately dispatched and by whom.
My research indicates that there is always a distant memory based on actual occurrences, which over a period of time and their oral handing down from generation to generation is embellished in becoming folklores and legends. For example, the fiery balls were nothing, but ball lightning; the monster slew and sealed inside the cave and the fearsome ‘Mum’ were in all probability man-eating leopards or were they?
The writer is a historian.