The virus and the view

June 7, 2020

A nostalgic trip to the Pabbi forest in hopes of catching a glimpse of the snowy Pir Panjal Mountains in Kashmir

Railway bridge on River Gujrat named after Alexandra, the daughter-in-law of Queen Victoria.
“When did you last shake hands with your friends?”
Danny, Taniya and Manal pondered for a while.

My question was simple but my children were as confused as the rest of their generation. They have not been to a restaurant to eat junk food but are thriving on healthy meals cooked at home. All three are now taking turns cooking food under the watchful eyes of their mother. They are all attending classes from home and would spend some time in the garden. My girls and their mother are taking regular aerobic classes from Jane Fonda whom I see daily visiting our TV lounge.

Danny is jogging at night on the deserted roads around GOR-I. I, as usual, spend most of my time reading books, most of which were long in my waiting list and some I reread. I came across a few interesting facts which have some relevance to the current scenario.

Starting from Wuhan in China the Covid-19 pandemic has made the world its hostage. The virus moved along the corridor of trade and tourism to capitals of the world. Till a few months ago, who would have cared about how to touch a door handle, washing hands with soap, shun hugging one another and avoid crowded places? The war against this virus is not fought by conventional armies, but by medics armed with a stethoscope. ‘Social distancing’ is a term which came with the virus but may outlive its initiator.

This generation has suddenly experienced and learnt new terminologies: pandemic, lockdown, sanitizer, face-mask, social-distancing, deserted streets and work from home. Some of the effects of this virus are however not that bad; as long as you are safe from it. Many families came close due to the hunkering down together in homes. The crime rate and environmental pollution went down considerably. Covid-19 has changed our lifestyles and it is still not clear how long it would take for things to be ‘normal’ again.

Should it even be back to what it was before the outbreak of this disease? This is a question which I pose to myself.

Pabbi Forest Park.

One book that I picked up to reread was Cabool: a Personal Narrative written by Sir Alexander Burnes about his expedition undertaken in 1836-38 from the mouth of Indus to the famed city of Kabul. His memorable journey, a part of Great Game, was officially called a ‘commercial mission’. It brought Burnes knighthood at the age of 35 years but led to his gruesome death three years later. The First Afghan War ended in a disaster for the imperial army when only one person reached Jalalabad.

"The chirping of birds and the gush of wind rushing past the thick forest provided music for our ears. And what a sight it was, splendid beauty difficult to capture in words."

On July 30, 1837, Burnes reached Fateh Jang near Hasanabdal and halted for the night. From this place, he ‘sighted the snowy mountains’. I wonder what he must be looking at. Maybe, peaks far beyond Swat, over Kaghan or Kumrat!

Before the onset of the current pandemic, environmental pollution had blinded our farsightedness. After the virus became rampant, a friend thought that the ‘breaking news’ was not the lockdown itself but the snow-covered mountains of Jammu which suddenly became visible from Sialkot and Jalandhar (in India). In 1997, I remember seeing Kirthar range from Larkana, especially in the evenings. Sighting these mountains, was a common spectacle till the early seventies before the horizons became too murky and environmental pollution took its toll. Since our generation has not seen these vistas in their lives, most people dismissed these pleasant sightings as optical illusions.

My friend Salman Rashid told me that in the early seventies he was posted at Kharian as a subaltern in the army and on weekends would walk to Banni rest house in Pabbi forest. From its verandah, he would catch a grand view of the snowy Pir Panjal Mountains in Kashmir. Nostalgia caught up with him. So some weeks back, Salman, a travel writer and a Fellow of Royal Geographic Society, requested me to accompany him to this forest located in the Gujrat district. He wanted to make good use of this opportunity to preserve the magnificent sight of snowbound mountains in his camera. He feared (and rightly so) that the return of normalcy would bring back pollution and these splendid sights would disappear again.

So we drove to Gujrat for this nostalgic tour. As promised, Salman’s first stop was at ‘Alexandra’, a railway bridge on Gujrat river named after Queen-Empress from 1901 to 1910. Alexandra was the wife of King Edward VII and Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law, but some wise officer of Pakistan Railways had once put up a signboard telling us that “Alexandra the Great was a chief engineer in the Imperial North Western Railways responsible for building this bridge”. The wooden signboard with its deformed history was no longer there.

Grand view from the halipad.

At the Pabbi forest, we met Nafees Kalyar, the sub-divisional forest officer who provided us with a guide to take us to the site where the scenic Banni rest-house once stood. We drove through a narrow trail which ran parallel to the GT Road but was enveloped in thick green vegetation. We found no remnants of the rest-house; not even a single brick as if it never existed. Thick plantation and undergrowth had taken over the site. Salman reminisced about the old Baba, the caretaker back in the early seventies, and his spooky stories. In the last week of December 1971, General Yahya Khan was placed under house arrest for a few months in this rest-house. The Banni rest-house was pulled down on the orders of the then chief minister in 1990s with a plan to replace it with a new one at the same site. But as soon the construction started his government ended and the plan never materialised. The only relic left was the traces of a helipad at the end of the ridge before it plunges steeply into the green forest below. The chirping of birds and the gush of wind rushing past the thick forest provided music for our ears. And what a sight it was, splendid beauty difficult to capture in words.

Though the mountains on the eastern horizon were visible we could not have the glimpse of snow-covered peaks of Pir Panjal, the tapering tail of the Himalayan range in Held Kashmir. This time the culprit was not environmental pollution but clouds hanging low in the east. The photographic expedition failed in its mission, thwarted by nature itself. Rashid, standing on the edge of the ridge, made a firm audible resolve that he would return soon - before the lockdown is over and the pollutants once again take over the rejuvenated earth.

The writer is a conservationist and animal rights activist and can be reached at [email protected]

The virus and the view