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Spotlight: Fiction

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Turning Teri Turtle


Editor's note: In this witty, surrealistic story, a host of real-life characters from the past and present attend a jirga, or tribal gathering, led by the world-renowned Dr. Muhammad Shoaib Suddle, a one-man commission who was actually appointed by the Supreme Court to investigate minority rights in Pakistan. Olaf Caroe makes an appearance, as does Sir Ganga Ram. Molvi Shareef, Gulbadin Hikmatyar and others make their case for and against the preservation of an age-old samadhi, or Hindu shrine, in Teri, as the story weaves its way to an unexpected denouement.

— Mehvash Amin

Travelling to Peshawar had somehow become a bit distressing over the last decade or two, Dr. Suddle thought, as he drove on the motorway that was probably one of the most scenic roads in Pakistan. He had served as a cop for almost four decades, but was still distressed by traveling to scenic Khyber Pakhtunkhwa—a touch counterintuitive. Was it something real or just paranoia, Dr. Suddle wondered—he couldn’t quite decipher it. Or perhaps it was the complex issue of safeguarding minorities' rights as the one-man commission appointed by the Supreme Court that was taking its toll on his mind and mood.

Preoccupied with the issue of the Hindus’ samadhi in Teri and juggling various scenarios in his mind, Dr. Suddle decided to go straight to the Chief Secretary in Peshawar first and discuss matters before committing himself to any course of action.

Entering the KP Chief Secretary’s office wasn’t as awe-inspiring as it was in the Punjab. Pashtuns did not maintain as much decorum and circumstance as the bureaucracy of the Punjab. Their traditions had always diluted bureaucratic hierarchies. Decorating every office at the Peshawar Secretariat in a dark brown palette was perhaps another tradition with the Pashtuns. Was it because of an aversion to colour?

As much as Dr. Suddle was concerned for the minorities, the so-called 'non-Muslims', he found Pakhtunkhwa's Chief Secretary even more worried for the majority, the non-non-Muslims, or the Pashtuns. It seemed that more than Dr. Suddle fearing minorities being threatened with extinction in Pakistan, the Chief Secretary of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seemed to fear the same for the Pashtuns—albeit at their own hands.

“Had I been a Pashtun, I probably would have been a Yusufzai,” Olaf Caroe, the Chief Secretary, remarked as he started his discussion with Dr. Suddle. “But the place you are visiting, Teri, is the birthplace of the Khattaks, and they are unlike the Yusufzai. The Khattak tribe exhibits a strong clannish feeling and holds together well. The tribe is divided into two groups: the Akora in the north, and the Teri in the south. The groups respect tribal elder representation,” Caroe read from his notes that seemed to be the manuscript of his upcoming book, The Pathans.

“My advice to you would be to resolve the issue through a jirga by asking each side to nominate three representatives each and yourself acting as the Sar Panj, the casting voter,” That made a lot of sense to Dr. Suddle. From the days that Akore Khan had migrated from Shawal Mountain in present-day Waziristan and established himself at Teri, the town seemed to have gone backwards in time. Dusty and underdeveloped, it belied the grandeur associated with it as a princely state, or a Nawabdom, in colonial India. In those times, Teri had a thriving trade market that was dominated by the Hindu community. In almost every town, the bazar and trade would be predominantly with the Hindus and nobody would feel insecure about it. But presently, from Teri as from every other town in present-day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, almost all Hindus had vanished over time as partial validation of the Two Nation Theory.

Yet in isolated places, their imprints remained. In Teri, it was the samadhi of Paramhans Dayal Ji. Mufti Iftikharuddin had tried his hand at the samadhi earlier. Now, it was his protégé, Molvi Shareef. Trying to find an amicable resolution to the dispute had brought Dr. Suddle all the way to Teri.

As Dr. Suddle reached Teri in the afternoon, he went straight to the ground where almost the entire community had gathered in anticipation. The issue of samadhi had divided the community in two camps. First, the community of Teri proper, at peace with the samadhi as it had existed amongst them for a century. Second, comprising mostly men from the outskirts and led by Molvi Shareef, those who were against the samadhi—as if it posed an existential threat to their faith.

Dr. Suddle took his place in the jirga and looked around to get a feel of the situation. On either side, he could see the same people. Mostly Pashtun, some bearded, others clean-shaven and almost all of them in shalwar qameez. They spoke the same language and followed the same traditions.

“Then why on earth are these people so sharply divided on the issue of the samadhi,” Dr. Suddle wondered.

“I divide them and my name is Abd al Wahhab,” a strikingly different man from the Pashtuns spoke as if he had read Dr. Suddle’s mind through hypnosis. Or maybe he guessed it from Dr. Suddle’s expressions. That would be the only time Dr. Suddle would see him, though. He said what he said and vanished into the crowd. After the customary greetings, Dr. Suddle got to the point straight away, in line with Caroe's advice.

“The dispute shall be resolved according to the Pashtuns’ Riwaj and traditions of jirga, and each side shall nominate three members each to the jirga after consultation amongst themselves. The jirga shall convene immediately after the Asar prayers,” Dr. Suddle announced.

After the prayers, both sides gathered again with much urgency, as if their lives were at stake at the Jirga. Dr. Suddle started the proceedings. “People gathered on my right, please put forward names of your three representatives, ” Dr. Suddle announced. An elder stood up and started announcing the names aloud. Ahmad Zahir, Ghani Khan and Sir Ganga Ram. The last name took Dr. Suddle by surprise as he looked for Sir Ganga Ram in the crowd. Sir Ganga Ram smiled at Dr. Suddle as if saying that I, too, have a samadhi at the bank of River Ravi, only a small part of my ashes had been scattered in the Ganges and the rest saved for my beloved Lahore.

Dr. Suddle then asked the group to his left for their nominees. An elder, who looked like Munawwar Hasan, stood up and announced three names for his side. Molvi Shareef, Gulbadin Hikmatyar and Hameed Gul.

Dr. Suddle asked all the nominees to come to the front of their respective groups so that proceedings of the jirga could be started. Hameed Gul was the first to raise his hand for permission to speak. Dr. Suddle nodded.

Dreamers (2013) by Suleman Aqeel Khilji. Archival inkjet printing on Hahnemühle and wall projection

“This is a jirga of the Pashtuns over a matter that has deep religious sentiments, an issue of faith between Muslims and Hindus, and here we’ve one side nominating Ahmad Zahir, an Afghan musician, singer, composer, style icon and celebrity who they call the Elvis of Afghanistan as its representative. Google his pictures to give you an idea. What has an Afghan got to do with a religious matter of the Pashtuns?” a visibly offended and charged Hamid Gul objected in a single breath. Dr. Suddle looked towards Ahmad Zahir. Ahmed Zahir stood up, stared Hameed Gul briefly and smiled. Then in his legendary baritone voice he started singing, full throttle, a stanza from one of his famous folk songs:

Yar me Hinduu za Mosalman Ymm.. Yar me Hinduu za Mosalman Ymm/Da Yar da para Dharamsal jaru kawama wa jogi

The Khattaks, being true to their DNA, started clapping and singing along Ahmad Zahir. This unexpected start to the proceedings of the jirga left Maulvi Shareef fuming. Dr. Suddle raised his hand to restore order, which was done instantly.

“Dr. Suddle, may I object to the fact that Ahmad Zahir is an Afghan and an Afghan from Afghanistan has no business participating in a jirga of the Pashtuns of Pakhtunkhwa.” Hameed Gul again raised the issue.

“So this Gulbadin sitting in your lap must be from district Badin, then,” Ghani Khan quipped.

“Gulbadin is our brother. Our buddy. Gulbadin is a Good Afghan. Ahmad Zahir is a Bad Afghan. An Afghan who picks his gun to fight the infidels is a Good Afghan. An Afghan who sings is a Bad Afghan. That is so obvious. Mr. Ghani Khan, we believe that we lost Dhakka but we got Kabul because of our faithful brothers like Gulbadin. Gulbadin is the pass that has helped us cross the Hindukush, the bridge that will help us cross Amu Darya into greater Central Asia. But you, like your stubborn father, will never get it. You better limit yourself to poetry,” Hameed Gul responded as Gulbadin grinned so wide that his small close-set eyes became even smaller and menacing.

“And these satanic verses that he sang must have been penned by Ghani Khan,” Maulvi Shareef remarked.

“I wish this were my poetry. These are sublime folk verses that have been crafted by the genius of our forefathers and passed on from one generation to another over centuries. These may sound satanic to you but in the religion named Pashtunwali we recite them with reverence as a sacred trust of the collective wisdom of our forefathers. Pashtunwali teaches us tolerance. Islam teaches us tolerance. We don’t see any contradiction between the two.” Ghani Khan responded.

“So now a secular like Ghani Khan would lecture us on Islam?” Molvi Shareef asked sarcastically. Ghani Khan responded mischievously, as if enjoying teasing Molvi Shareef,

Za jumaat la warsham kho che wa goram no wa takhtam

Takht ke da Quran ra ta uchat naast wi mulla pakay

“I go to the mosque but run away when I see the chamber meant for the Quran, a Mullah occupies.” Despite the tension of the occasion some people started laughing at the exchange between Molvi Shareef and Ghani Khan.

Dr. Suddle, sensing the atmosphere, took control of the proceedings. “Do you have any statement to make, Mr. Ghani Khan?”

“Yes, I do, Dr. Suddle,” Ghani Khan said politely. “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed­—that has nothing to do with the business of the State. You will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus, and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.” Ghani Khan stated.

An Afghan who picks his gun to fight the infidels is a Good Afghan. An Afghan who sings is a Bad Afghan. That is so obvious

“Dr. Suddle, it was Jinnah who stated all that in his 11th August speech,” Hameed Gul seemed to object yet again.

“So, do you have an objection if the son of Bacha Khan should quote Mr Jinnah? Shouldn’t that make you happy instead, Mr. Hameed Gul?” Sir Ganga Ram intervened for the first time.

“No, Mr Ganga Ram, that is more or less what we want too. We want Hindus to cease to be Hindus. In the political, as well as in the religious sense. What we want is perfectly in line with Jinnah’s ideas. Rather, it builds on the foundation of his ideas. Hindus should cease to be Hindus in order to become citizens. If they insist on remaining Hindus then how’d they ever become citizens and pure Pakistanis?”

Ghani Khan seemed to be enjoying pulling Hameed Gul’s leg. He again came up with a few lines from his poetry:

Laarra nanai dunya de tramay tramay laarra

Ao nan mullayaan hum kavi mutyazay pa wilaarra

Gharq shu Hindustan, his da wato darak ye nishta de

Gwata da Jinnah che da Gandhi pa kuna laarra

“Some Pashto lines and words would always be lost in translation no matter who translated them,” Ghani Khan added. As the Jirga continued with its arguments. a whirring sound originated from beyond the hills and seemed to grow louder and louder. Within minutes a military helicopter appeared on the horizon and flew straight towards the ground. It took a round of Teri and then gradually lowered itself to ultimately land at the far end of the ground where the jirga was being held. Everyone in the ground, including Dr. Suddle, looked at the craft curiously.

Its rotors slowed down and a man clad in green dungarees came out of it and approached the jirga. He was holding a green leather folder in his left hand and almost ran once he spotted Dr. Suddle. He handed over the green folder to Dr. Suddle, whispered in his ear for a few seconds and then stood a few steps behind as if appointed as ADC to the One-man Commission.

Dr. Suddle opened the folder, took the single page out of it and started reading it while at the same time scratching his forehead with his right hand, unconsciously. The letter was certainly from a very high office and definitely carried a very important message. After a few minutes of reading and thinking, as if strategizing how to break the news of the important letter, Dr. Suddle started addressing the jirga.

“I’ve received a decree and have been ordered to pronounce it before the jirga,” Dr. Suddle said. “In pursuance of the Proclamation of the fifth day of July, 1977, and in exercise of all powers enabling him in that behalf, and in order to further the objectives of the policy of Islamisation, Chief Martial Law Administrator is pleased to make and promulgate the following Order: One: the samadhi at Teri shall be demolished forthwith. Two, Molvi Shareef, Gulbadin Hikmatyar and Hameed Gul shall be awarded the highest civil awards in recognition of their meritorious services in furthering the objectives of Islamisation of Pakistan. Three: The One-man Commission having achieved its objectives shall stand decommissioned forthwith. Four: The Chief Secretary, Pakhtunkhwa, shall ensure implementation of this order and submit his report within three days, positively. Issued under the signature and seal of General Muhammad Zia ul Haq, Chief Martial Law Administrator.”

As Dr. Suddle finished his pronouncement, the entire crowd went into a stunned silence for a while. But then a mixture of emotions—disbelief, elation and dejection—descended on the ground of Teri all at once. Slowly, one group made its way to the samadhi so as to demolish it without further delay. The other group made its way to the foothills of Shawal mountain. There, it lit a bonfire, sat around it in a big circle and started consultations as to how the samadhi would be rebuilt. As a murky dark night enveloped Teri and most of Pakhtunkhwa, the heavy silence was pierced by Ahmad Zahir’s singing. Although this time he sang in a sombre tone, his earlier lyrics were intoned with the same conviction:

Yar me Hinduu za Mosalman Ymm, Yar me Hinduu za Mosalman Ymm, Da Yar da para Dharamsal jaru kawama wa jogi.


khpalWAK (pseudonym) writes on subjects that have subnational and ethnic undercurrents, subjects that he portrays in a fictional narrative. He holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and over two decades experience in the civil service of Pakistan. He has served in most of the administrative units of Pakistan. Narrating stories from the (usually perceived) ‘dull’ world of the bureaucracy is another area of his interest. A Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa native, he is based in Islamabad, and one of his hobbies is to translate the poetry of Ghani Khan to bring it to a wider audience.

About the artist: Suleman Aqeel Khilji (b. 1985, Quetta) is a visual artist and educator, living and working in Lahore. He graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2011. He was part of VASL, Murree Museum Artist Residency and Mansion Artist Residency 2021 and has exhibited locally and internationally. His works are part of prestigious collections, such as the DIL Foundation, New York, and the Luciano Benetton Collection. Currently he is part of permanent faculty at the NCA, Lahore. He was also the cover artist for The Aleph Review, Vol. 5 (2021).

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