Usman carefully and methodically folded the length of cloth selected by a very fussy customer and set it down on the heavy duty scales perched at the entrance to his little store in Ring Road Bazaar, as the ramshackle yet colourfully decked out narrow lane of stores between The Mall road and the Murree bus stand is called, and my friend, visiting from Karachi, stood watching in sheer fascination.
My friend is by no means in the minority in this as, at a rough guess, at least 98 percent of the tourists to Murree do nothing more than amble up and down the over-crowded, over-constructed, over-rated mess of mostly open-fronted stores that spill their tawdry merchandise into the street in anticipation of making a mint from selling this unnecessary junk to gullible visitors.
There is, however, and as my friend has just discovered, a totally different side to Murree - a side that is vigorously and culturally real, a side steeped in history and, above all, in the all-encompassing friendliness of the ‘ordinary’ residents of a city bursting with incomers with nothing, but greed for profit on their tiny minds.
As we entered the narrow, cobbled lane leading, very steeply down in to ‘Lower Bazaar’ from GPO Chowk, she was immediately stunned into immobility, standing, totally mesmerised, at the sheer flow of real, hill station life vivaciously bubbling around her.
“I never dreamt that such a place existed here,” she said. “And just look at the buildings…….some of them must be really old, but it is a dreadful shame that they have not been maintained. If they were renovated, especially the old wooden ones, this place would outdo Switzerland and…….oh, my goodness…….look at that amazing cast iron lamp-post!”
On we descended, while I explained that the open gutters have been covered, but the sewage disposal has yet to be satisfactorily sorted out - most of it is simply directed into the nullahs running down the incredibly steep mountainside below the congested huddle of towering buildings. We wandered past the traditional Hakim operations with baskets, boxes, bundles, shelves and lurid bottles of cure-alls artfully displayed, past the ‘Chinese’ dentists, hardware stores and shaadi shops, and then ducked down a side alley to hungrily devour the finger-burning Kashmiri kulchas straight out of a glowing tandoor.
“I’ve never tasted anything like these,” my friend said with her mouth full. “They are very similar to scones and would be amazing with butter, jam and cream. But hey! Look at that awesome wrought iron spiral staircase on that partially burnt out old building. Now if that staircase was In Karachi someone would have paid a fortune to buy it and take it away years ago and look at that old lattice work on that jarokha and wow….…horses outside that shop over there too!”
Smiling shopkeepers and passers-by called out to greet us as we began the sharp, short climb out of ‘Lower Bazaar’ proper to the shabby meat market on the route leading back up to the world inhabited by, and created for, tourists and where we stopped to purchase meat.
“Asalam-a-lekum jehnab” called out the rotund mutton seller whose shop I rarely use. “Come. Sit here in the sunshine and I’ll bring tea.” My friend sat on the huge slab of concrete indicated, nicely protected from the stingingly cold wind by the broad back of a local elder sitting on the opposite side and smiled broadly when the mutton seller first appeared with steaming cups of Kashmiri chia and then a plastic bag full of grubby teaspoons from which she was invited to select the cleanest one.
As my meat was being cut and weighed, a selection of people, Omar the tripe seller, Fayyaz the fish man, chacha the masdour, all strolled up for a brief chat and exchange of news before each offering a top up of chia, along with food and, always and throughout, beaming smiles of hospitality and appreciation for people so obviously enjoying the real pleasures of a place so very few even care to attempt getting to know.
“Come,” I instructed on re-entering The Mall proper. “I want to show you something amazing.”
We climbed up three flights of marble steps and into the very private world of greenness and beauty presided over by a gentleman, for that is exactly what he is, who, due to his intense love of all growing things, has created a mind-blowing rooftop garden high above the throngs of tourists and overlooking the intricate maze of old ‘Lower Bazaar’ far below. “I sometimes think that I must be mad, mad, mad,” he said, whilst proudly surveying his extensive collection of plants, vines and pot grown fruit trees. You know…….I even…….whenever I see a beautiful flower…….walk up to it, take it gently in my hand and kiss it…….yes….…kiss it! This is how all life should be…….beautiful, respected and kissed!”
n The writer is author of The Gun Tree: One Woman’s War (Oxford University Press, 2001) and lives in Bhurban.