How different was my town

June 27, 2021

The Goblins’ Creek struggles to flow through the town, but its murmur is drowned by the clamour of the city

The northern corner of Mansehra, photographed by the author in 2020.
The northern corner of Mansehra, photographed by the author in 2020.

Surrounded, as it is today, by hills and snow-covered mountains in the distance, Mansehra was a quiet little town. It served as the tehsil headquarters, with a population of about 7,000. This was in the 1950s, when I was in high school. Electricity had just arrived, but loudspeakers hadn’t. Not many people had a radio, and TV was many years away. Other than the usual sounds of people going about their daily lives – 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 (called hotels in the local parlance) in the bazaar played popular film songs on their gramophones to entertain customers. They played them loud enough for the people outside to hear them. One of the songs that was repeatedly played was a duet by Rafi and Nur Jahan, two popular singers of the time. The song was the lament of a man and a woman about their unrequited love, and the cultural constraints and taboos that kept them from being united.

Occasional entertainment was also provided by a travelling theatre troupe from the Punjab that would visit the town in the summers. They would stage a song-and-dance show for a week or ten days, before moving on to another town. The show would be the talk of the town, as long as it lasted, and would also leave behind some romantic tales. A much talked-about love story it left behind was about a known resident of the town, who fell in love with an actress of the troupe. And, contrary to the lament in the gramophone song, his love was not only acknowledged by the woman he fell in love with. Breaking the cultural constraints and taboos, they got married and lived happily ever after.

If you didn’t own a radio or read newspapers, you went to Khalil, the watchmaker, on Balakot Road. He had a radio in his shop and stayed open late into the evening. A small group of people would gather around his shop 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 radio. In fact, he would raise the volume a bit so that everyone could hear the news easily.

A shallow mountain stream, called Poot Katha (meaning Goblins’ Creek), murmured through the town. According to local folklore, the stream was inhabited at night by the djinns and bhoots (goblins), even though no one ever claimed to have seen or sensed any. People crossed the creek, at various points, either by stepping on large stones or taking their shoes off and wading through it. Children swam in the bends where the water was a little deeper, and women washed clothes. The murmur of the Goblins’ Creek turned into a roar, once in a while, during the monsoon season. But the flash floods 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. A small bridge connected the two sides. It was the only bridge in town and an important reference point. Everyone knew where the pul (bridge) was. Mansehra, being the tehsil headquarters, had a bustling bazaar. It not only met the needs of the town itself, but also those of the outlying hamlets and villages. The bazaar had three prongs: a short one along the road coming in from Abbottabad, the other, a little longer, was along the road to Shinkiari and the longest was along the road leading to Balakot and beyond. The three prongs converged at the bridge.

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

Being the crossroads, the bridge was a busy spot; 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 the winters, vendors from the Kaghan Valley sold homemade heavy woolen shawls for men (shahrees), using the bridge railings to display their merchandise. On the route from Abbottabad, immediately after crossing the bridge on the right, there was a news stall. It was the only one in town. It sold the popular papers of the time: Kohistan, Ta’meer, Shahbaz, Nawa-i-Waqt, The Pakistan Times and a few Urdu magazines. One or two regular patrons were always seen standing there to read the papers, without buying them. The stall owner, Muhammad Zaman, didn’t seem to mind.

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

There was a small clubhouse and two clay tennis courts, where the town’s 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 others and gossip. The card players stayed late and were known to place bets. The club was the brainchild of a pre-Partition, British assistant commissioner named Donald (no one remembers his full name). Donald and his wife happened to be tennis enthusiasts. He had 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 remained, and was named Donald Club. After Partition, they modified the name to Donald Bar Club, referring to the lawyers who frequented it.

The club hired a few boys as ‘pickers’ to do the routine jobs at the tennis courts and pick up balls for the players. Muhammad Zaman, our newsagent, 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, he became a good player, eventually moving on to become a ‘marker’ (tennis coach) at the club. That explained his popularity with the town elite and also why he wore his PT shoes when delivering papers in the morning.

A news headline in Dawn of December 29, 2013 reads: Fire destroys British-era Donald Club in Mansehra. The fire was reported to have been caused by an electrical short-circuit, as many fires in Pakistan are, for lack of a proper investigation. But rumour had it that it was an act of arson, perpetrated by some people who suspected the club members of using the place for gambling and drinking. The city administration and local bar association president promised to rebuild the historic club, but nothing happened. The space is now being used as a parking lot. A black iron gate with Donald Club written on it reminds you that it was once a place of recreation, where the town’s elite met, played tennis and gossiped – and where Minnah was the tennis coach.

Today, Mansehra is the district headquarters – a clamorous, disorderly city of over 150,000 people. It has expanded on all sides in an urban sprawl encroaching upon the surrounding farmland and hills. Since driving through Mansehra had become difficult because of the growing population and chaotic traffic, a bypass road, known as Silk Road, was built in the ’70s to circumvent the town. Yet another bypass was built on the other side in the ’90s. Both bypasses have now turned into tumultuous bazaars, with unregulated, haphazard construction and chaotic traffic.

The Goblins’ Creek struggles to flow through the town, but its murmur is drowned by the clamour of the city. It is no longer 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 on their space and work up a monsoon flood to wash away all the ugly encroachments and filth.

This may not be the story of Mansehra alone but of many cities in Pakistan: a galloping population, unplanned urbanisation and disregard of the environment.

The writer is a human resource professional. He tweets @azizakhmad

How different was my town