My family has a long history of moving to the hills during the summer season. We don’t indulge in this luxury now since the reason for doing so is no more amongst us. This annual migration was due, not to any display of affluence, but necessity - as my late mother suffered from acute asthma from her early teens. The malady aggravated during summers due to humidity and dust, prompting the doctors to unanimously advise that she should be moved to a cool, dry and healthier environment away from the plains in the hot season. Consequently my grandfather arranged to lease a house in Srinagar during the early 1930s and a few years later in Dharamsala (a military cantonment and popular hill station in the Kangra Hills). It was somewhere in the 1940s that the family’s hot weather destination was changed to Murree. In 1947, my grandparent, who was in the Indian Civil Service, opted to come to Pakistan with Murree remaining as our seasonal destination until 1997, when my mother left us for her eternal abode. With her passing, the house was sold, leaving us with golden memories of what was once a ‘Queen amongst hill stations’.

Our summer home was located in Sunny Bank with a drive leading up directly from the main Murree – Rawalpindi Road. The premises was surrounded by a lush green lawn, one side of which ended abruptly at a boulder strewn ‘nullah’, while the other side and rear merged into a thick pine forest. The house itself was made of stone, held together by something that was not cement, but definitely stronger. The inner roof consisted of rafters that supported planks joined together in a seamless manner, while the outer roof was made of overlapping tin sheets.

There was a natural spring in one corner of the compound. A pipe with a tap head had been fixed here so that no water was wasted and a grown person could sit under the pipe outlet to ‘enjoy’ an outdoor shower. We hated this spot as it was often the scene of a desperately resisting boy being ‘dragged’ for an ice cold bath, which in my grandfather’s opinion was good for health. The cold dousing was a sign that our day had begun for a short time later, the boys in the family would be led down to a fascinating treat, a mere ten minutes’ walk up the road. The place was run by a ‘pehlwan’ from Lahore. This huge individual had married a local girl and made the hills his happy home. He sat cross legged behind a huge wok full of simmering milk, a stack of rustic looking large bowls and a container of sugar by his side. A number of crude tables with benches and a faded glass cabinet displaying freshly baked buns and packets of dairy butter completed the picture. On seeing us approaching, he would issue a series of orders to his ‘chotas’ and in no time we would be dipping delicious buns layered with butter, into steaming bowls of thick caramelized milk. I am of the unshaken belief that it was this hot and nutritious sustenance that saved us from the effects of the ‘trial by icy water’.

With recharged energy, we trooped up all the way to the Mall, where the rest of the family had already arrived by taking a short cut through the pine forest behind the house. Our rendezvous point was generally in front of the Ambassador Hotel. The Mall in the 1950s was a far cry from the filthy and smelly promenade it is today. There were no crowds, zero hooliganism and no concrete monstrosity behind the heritage GPO building. The Ambassador was a respectable hotel with a spacious ball room that doubled as a roller skating area (I should know since I learned to roller skate here); Lintotts was a quaint restaurant with cane furniture and excellent high tea. It had the distinction of keeping permanent tables for regular patrons that were kept vacant till the latter’s arrival; A wooden staircase went up to Sam’s, known far and wide for its New Year Ball, while Cecil was a hotel known for its excellent rooms and European cuisine.

From our rendezvous, we walked around Kashmir Point to occupy our customary seats in Lintotts. This was like a daily reunion with other families, who had made Murree their seasonal summer destination. Tea was followed by a walk to Pindi Point and back, which helped digest the rich creamy lemon tarts we had consumed with tea. We usually walked back to the house as dusk approached just in time for a delicious dinner prepared by our invaluable old cook and caretaker – Jumma Khan.

During a recent trip to Bhurban to attend a conference, I was coerced by my better half to revisit Murree. I spent the travelling time telling my wife that we would be disappointed. As predicted, we returned sad and depressed, mourning the Murree of bygone years.

 

The writer is a historian.