The Ghosts of Naran Valley
In the summer of 1969, I spent three months as a civil service probationer in Hazara district of the Frontier Province (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) of Pakistan. The memories of that summer in that incredibly scenic district cradled by mountains, pine forests, and lake are still so vivid that I can conjure in my mind that place any time I feel sad. The district headquarters-Abbottabad, home of Pakistan Military Academy-was by itself a magical town on a hilltop. Although my base was Abbottabad, I had to travel all over Hazara including breathtaking places such as Nathiagully and the valley of dreams, Kaghan. This story takes place in Naran the most enchanting part of the beautiful Kaghan valley.
As part of my district training, I had to visit Tehsils in the district. For those who may not know, a Tehsil in Pakistan is the lowest administrative/revenue unit in a district below a sub-division and a district. While a district was administered by a Deputy Commissioner/District Magistrate and a sub-division by an Assistant Commissioner/Sub-divisional Magistrate, a Tehsil was administered by a Tahsildar. A Patwari was the lowest in this totem pole that was responsible for collection of land revenue and land demarcation at village level.
The entire KaghanValley was under Balakot Tehsil which I had to visit as part of my training program. The 100- mile stretch over which the valley is spread begins from the town of Balakot, the historical place made famous by the battle of Syed Ahmed Barelvi against the British in mid 1800s. The last point of the valley is Naran at an altitude of 3500 m.
When I arrived at Balakot after travelling for hours by jeep, I was told that the Tahsildar had taken off for Naran where he would receive me. Since Naran was also part of this Tehsil, and there was a Patwari circle there I thought it would give me an opportunity to see Naran as well as fulfil another official obligation.
The scenic road begins from Balakot with the fast-moving Kunhar River flowing by the side. The road meanders through mountains and valleys of pine and apple orchards. After Balakot, the road crosses the river and gains altitude fast and after a while it reaches so high that river Kunhar appears to be a very thin line deep down in the valley on the left side. Although a mere hundred miles, the trip from Balakot to Naran took more than eight hours in those days. It was partly because of low speed due from caution that the drivers of vehicles (mostly jeeps) took in navigating the treacherous road, but also in large part because of one-way traffic between Kaghan and Naran in those days. Traffic from each direction alternated every two hours guided by telephone message from either side for the last twenty-mile portion of the highway. The highway itself was serpentine, but the scenery is most dramatic as it passes through evergreens, and apple orchards with a view of the fast-moving Kunhar River below.
My residence for the three-day mission to the valley was an exquisite forest bungalow in Naraan-one of the very few government rest houses in the area. In the late sixties, the valley was like a virgin land unspoiled by tourists and any commercial exploitation. It was well into afternoon when I reached Naran. The Tahsildar was there to receive me. He led me to the well-appointed bungalow. The rooms were furnished with wooden sofas, beds, and chairs. There was a commodious drawing room adjacent to the dining room.
After tea and snacks we went to the Patwari office nearby for a formal inspection where the Tehsildar explained to me how much land area the circle had and what the annual revenue was. He said the revenue collection for the previous year was good. I just nodded as I had very little experience of either the area or what was the normal level of revenue collection.
At the end of the office visit, the Tehsilder had a surprise for me. He suggested that I visit the legendary Lake Saiful Muluk, one of the world's high-altitude natural lakes, about 20 miles away from Naraan. From Naran it is almost a vertical climb of 3000 feet to reach Saif-ul-Muluk. A jeep track goes to the lake. On way to the lake, we had to pass through a glacier where in fact our jeep got stuck. It required several of Tehsilder's men to push the jeep and get over the icy patch. However, the ordeal was worthy. The pristine lake offered an excellent view of the 5290 m high Malika Parbat (Queen of the Mountains). The lake and its surroundings have a touch of unreal about them and are breathtakingly lovely. There is a charming legend about a prince called Saiful Muluk who fell in love with a fairy of the lake.
On way back as we were passing by the beautiful Kunhaar River the Tehsildar said people often came for Trout fishing in the river this season. Hearing this I got excited and asked him if there was a way this could be arranged as I had never fished for Trout. The Tehsildar smiled and said this would be no problem. He would send one of the most prominent Trout fishers to the bungalow with fishing gear. As we were approaching the bungalow the Tahsildar pointed to the tall pine trees on the other side and said, Sir, you know what that patch of woods called? They are called Bhoot Jangal (Ghost Forest). I laughed and said, you must be joking. But the Tehsildar shook his head and somberly said, "This is what the locals believe. The wood cutters stay away from that patch', he added. I shook this from my mind and went inside the bungalow. The Tehsildar left for his own abode.
For that evening the Khansama had cooked an enticing dinner of roast hen, mutton curry and daal. I ate to my heart's content and went to bed rather early as I had a full day ahead waiting for me.
Next morning, I woke up at Khansama's call. He had prepared a big breakfast of egg omelet, potato chops, paratha, and steaming kettle of tea. I asked him if the Tahsildar's fishing expert had arrived. He said no one had come till then. I had my tea and started to wait for the fishing expert.
After waiting for another two hours when the promised fishing expert did not arrive, I told the Khansama that I would go for a stroll along the river and to send the man toward the river if he arrived.
It was a beautiful sunny day outside and I started to enjoy my walk along the Kunhar hearing the murmuring sound the river made. As I was on my dreamlike walk, I suddenly saw two young men throwing fishing lines into the river. They did not look like locals as they were wearing jeans and tee shirts, with sun hats on. As I approached them, they greeted me with Salaam. They said they were South African tourists of Indian ancestry and had come out on a visit to the subcontinent on their own. They had come to Naraan for trout fishing, they told me. When I asked them where they were staying, they said they were staying in a tent near the pine forests. I did not ask which part of the pine forest.
The two young men, Musaand Mustafa, asked me if I would like to join them fly fishing, I told them I not only I had never known what fly fishing was, I had never seen a Trout. They both laughed and said they would teach me how. Believe it or not for next two hours they not only taught me the skill, but I succeeded in catching two robust trout which they deposited in a basket lying nearby along with what two they had caught earlier. All along the brothers spoke with me about life in South Africa and the miserable lives there for the non-whites. (South Africa was still under apartheid that time.)
Meanwhile I was getting antsy about the non-appearance of Tahsildar's guy wondering if he was waiting for me. I was looking toward the bungalow for any individual coming this way. But there was no one. But a greater surprise waited for me as I turned around. The two brothers were not there! They just disappeared in a flash. Was I dreaming? What was more intriguing was that the basket load of Trout was left behind by the two brothers. Why would they leave without saying a word and where could they have gone so quickly?
I did not know what to do. I could not wait here alone by the river side waiting for them to return. And I could not leave the basket of Trout behind. I took the basket in my hand and went to the Forest Bungalow. I gave the Trout to the Khansama and asked him to grill the Trout for dinner. I hoped that the brothers would come since I told them where I was staying. But the brothers never came.
The Tahsildar came late in the afternoon with huge apologies. He said his fishing expert had to leave Naran early in the morning to take his sick wife to Balakot. He learnt about it only later. I told him not to worry because I had my fishing expedition. When I narrated to him my morning's experience, the Tahsildar's mouth fell open. "Sir, this cannot be", he exclaimed. When I queried him further, he gave me a horrible story of how two tourists from South Africa were found dead in their tents near the pine forest a couple of years ago. There were no murder weapons nearby. The two were found strangled to death as there were black marks around their neck. Police never found the killers. But suspicion arose that they were killed by angry jinn. "Why angry jinn? I asked.
The Tahsildar said apparently the two foreigners had pitched their tents near the "bhoot jangal". And unknowingly they had defiled the jinn territory when they had their bodily functions in that area. So, the jinn inflicted their punishment on them. "Sir, what you saw today are the spirits of those foreigners", the Tahsildar said in fright.
But what about those Trout that I brought", I asked the Tahsildar. I asked the Khansama to show the trout to the Tahsildar that I had brought in the morning. This time the Khansama gave me the biggest surprise. "Sir, two men came earlier and said the trout belonged to them and took the basket away", he said scratching his head. "What men, what were they wearing?" I asked. "They were wearing jean pant and tee shirt", the Khansama replied.
Both the Tahsildar and I were stunned. The two South African tourists may be dead, but their spirits are roaming around.
I did not spend the evening in the Forest Bungalow. I stayed the night in the Patwari's house and left for Abbottabad next morning.
The writer is a former civil servant
(The story is part fiction and part real. The fiction part is not divulged by the writer)