How Different Was My Town!

The northern corner of Mansherhar. Photo by the author, 2020

Surrounded, as it is today, by hills and snow-covered mountains in the distance, Mansehra was a quiet little town, the tehsil headquarters (similar to a county seat in the US ) with a population of about 7,000. This was in the 1950s when I was going through high school. Electricity had just come, but loudspeakers hadn’t arrived yet. Not many people had a radio, and TV was many years away.

Other than the usual sounds of people going about their daily lives, or the occasional honk of a taxi or a bus, or the distant roar of a truck driving uphill at night, it was a noiseless town. Noiseless but not dull.

A few restaurants (commonly called hotels) in the bazaar played popular film songs on their gramophones to entertain customers. They played them loud enough, though, even for the people outside to hear them. One of the songs, repeatedly played, I still remember, was a duet by Rafi and Nur Jahan, two popular singers of the time:
یہاں بدلہ وفا کا بے وفائی کے سوا کیا ہے
محبت کر کے بھی دیکھا ، محبت میں بھی دھوکا ہے

The song is a lament by a man and a woman about their unrequited love and the cultural constraints and taboos that had kept them from being united.

Occasional entertainment was also provided by a traveling theater from Punjab that would visit the town, in the summers. It would stage a song-and-dance show for a week or ten days, before moving on to some other town. The theater would be the talk of the town as long as it lasted, and when it left, it left behind some romantic tales.

A most talked-about love tale was about a known citizen of Mansehra, an ardent theatergoer, who fell in love with an actress of the theater. And, contrary to the lament in the gramophone song, his love was reciprocated by the actress, and, breaking all the cultural constraints and taboos, they got married and lived happily thereafter as long as they lived.

If you didn’t own a radio or read newspapers, you went to Khalil, the watchmaker (​خلیل گھڑی ساز), on Balakot Road. He had a radio in his shop and stayed open until late in the evening. A small group of people would gather around his shop in the evening to listen to the national news. I don’t know if it helped Khalil’s business, but he didn’t mind a few people gathering around the shop to listen to the news. In fact, he would raise the volume a bit so that everyone could hear the news easily.

A shallow mountain stream, called Poot Katha, or the Goblins’ Creek, murmured through the town. According to the local folklore, the stream was inhabited at night by Jinn bhoots or goblins even though no one ever claimed to have seen or sensed any goblins in the creek.

People crossed the creek at various points either by stepping on large stones or taking off their shoes and wading through. Children swam in it at the bends where the water was a little deeper, and women washed clothes in it.

The murmur of the Goblins’ Creek, however, turned into a roar, once in a while during the monsoon season, but the flash flood would soon subside, and the creek would resume its tranquil flow.

The creek divided the town into two, with the larger part lying on the right-hand side. A small bridge connected the two sides. It was the only bridge in town and an important reference point. Everyone knew what or where the ‘pul’, or the bridge, was.

Mansehra, being the tehsil headquarters, had a bustling bazaar. It not only met the needs of the town itself but also of the outlying hamlets and villages. The bazaar had three prongs: One, a short one, along the road coming in from Abbottabad, the other, a little longer, along the road to Shinkiari, and the third, the longest, along the road leading to Balakot, and beyond. All three prongs converged on the bridge.

Being the crossroads, the bridge was a busy spot where people met, bought, and sold stuff, idly basked in the winter sun, or just stood there watching the ripples and eddies in the creek below.

During winters, vendors from the Kaghan Valley sold homemade heavy woolen shawls for men (شاڑھی) at the bridge and used the bridge railings to display their merchandise.

While coming from Abbottabad, immediately after crossing the bridge, on the righthand side, there was a news stall, the only one in town. It sold the popular papers of the day: Kohistan, Ta’meer, Shahbaz, Nawa-e-Waqt, Pakistan Times, and a few Urdu magazines. One or two regular readers were always seen standing there reading the papers, without buying them. The stall owner, Muhammad Zaman, didn’t seem to mind.

Muhammad Zaman, popularly known as Minnah, a wiry young man with a dusky complexion, was popular with his customers and the town elite. He always wore flat-soled shoes, called PT shoes, and was seen moving up and down the bazaar — almost running — distributing the papers to his customers. The PT shoes he wore were actually essential for another job he did later in the afternoon — at the local club.

Yes, there was also a club with a small clubhouse and two clay tennis courts, where the town elite (mostly the few government officials and lawyers) gathered in the evening, some to play tennis, others to play cards, and some just to watch and gossip. The card players stayed late and were known to play for bets.

The club was the idea of a pre-Partition British Assistant Commissioner, named Donald (no one remembers his full name) who along with his wife happened to be a tennis enthusiast. He got a tennis court and a little clubhouse built, sometime in 1934–35, and encouraged whoever was around him to join the club. Donald left Mansehra after serving his stint, but the club stayed, named Donald Club. After the Partition, they modified the name to Donald Bar Club, the word ‘bar’ referring to lawyers, not alcohol. (Alcohol is banned in Pakistan since 1977)

The club hired a few boys as ‘pickers’ to do the routine jobs at the tennis courts, and picking up balls for the players. Muhammad Zaman, our “newspaperman”, was one of the ‘pickers’. He got the nickname Minnah at the club — a diminutive for Zaman, and also a word used for little kids.

Minnah, while working as a ‘picker’, learned to play tennis and, over the years, became a good player, eventually moving on to become a ‘marker’ or a coach at the club. That explained his popularity with the town elite and also his wearing ‘PT shoes’ when delivering papers in the morning so that he didn’t have to change when he switched over to his second job in the afternoon.

Fast forward to 2020:

Mansehra is the district headquarters, a clamorous, disorderly city of over 150,000 people. It has expanded on all sides in a sprawl encroaching upon the surrounding farmland and the hills.

Since driving through Mansehra had become difficult because of the increasing population and chaotic traffic, a bypass road, known as Silk Road, was built in the ’70s to circumvent the town, and yet another bypass on the other side, in the 90s. But both roads have now turned into tumultuous bazaars, with unregulated, haphazard construction, and chaotic traffic.

The Goblins’ Creek still struggles to flow through the town, but its murmur is silenced by the clamor of the city. And it is no more the mountain stream where children swam and women washed clothes. It’s more like an open sewer with the city’s sewage emptying into it.

All along the creek, people have extended their property lines by erecting stilts in the creek and building over them. The Bridge is still there, but you don’t see it. There are shops on both sides built by removing the bridge railings and encroaching on the creek.

I wish, someday, the goblins of the creek, if they are still around, would revolt against the human transgressions against their space and work up a monsoon flood to wash away all the ugly encroachments and the filth.

Postscript: A news headline in the daily Dawn of 29 December 2013 reads:
“Fire destroys British-era Donald Club in Mansehra”.

The fire was reported to have been caused by a short electric circuit, as most fires in Pakistan are for a lack of proper investigation. But the rumor has it that it was an act of arson perpetrated by people who suspected the club members also used the place for gambling and drinking.

The city administration and the local bar president promised to rebuild the “historic” club, but nothing happened. The place is being used now as a parking lot, and a black iron gate with Donald Club written on it reminds you that it was once a place of recreation where the town elite met, played tennis, and gossiped — and where Minnah, our newsagent, was the tennis coach.

This is not just the story of Mansehra. It is the story of most cities in Pakistan: galloping population, unplanned urbanization, and disregard of the environment.

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