Shadows on the Rocks

I still wonder whether the shadow of the young woman and the melodic singing was of Maud Evelyn or merely a product of my imagination

As part of a Task Force, the five month long stay in the dusty, hot and insipid town of Dera Ghazi Khan, (Some 90 kms North – West of Multan) had started to show up its symptoms. Nostalgia and monotony was slowly mounting when during a hot and humid day of June, I was called up to the Headquarters and assigned a Survey task in the hilly town of Fort Munro and surroundings. It was a heaven-sent opportunity and I was desperate for a break. The log-jam was finally broken and I decided to visit the place on the coming weekend. On Friday early morning I packed my essentials and took off on my Land Rover on the journey to Fort Munro. It was mid June and the heat was appalling. My driver looked at me in disbelief for it was quite incomprehensible to imagine a cool heaven Just 70 kms from D.G Khan which was predominantly a flat and barren country. The advice of my colleagues who had been to the hill to take along warm clothing seemed at the time both superfluous and ridiculous. I largely ignored it.

It was a hot day with scattered clouds and a bit of wind. Plying on the DG Khan – Quetta Road, the first 35 kms of our journey, we did not really find anything that could suggest a semblance of a hilly country culminating at a point 6500 feet high Fort Munro, equal to the height of Murree. The wind was still hot while we raced past the town of Sakhi Sarwar (some 35 Kms from Dera Ghazi Khan) however; the addition of a few more miles ahead metamorphosed the entire demeanor of the landscape as if by magic. The picturesque view of the Suleiman Range in the far distance emerged out of the dusty haze as heavenly sky scrapers. The next 40 kms were exciting and adventurous. The air was no longer hot and the terrain was slowly transforming into a vast expanse of arduous rocky hills. As we past across a large hilly torrent about ten kms ahead of Sakhi Sarwar the road took a sharp bend towards right diving into a narrow ravine. The tiny bowl-like valley was inhabited by a few smoky wooden cabins which served tea to the tired drivers making a sojourn here to cool off the steaming engines of their mounts before embarking on their journey again. The ravine, with its peculiar environment of date-palms and rocky surroundings resembled with a desert oasis. The road ahead started spiraling around the huge rocky mass of the mountain and got narrower as the climb got steeper. The route was interspersed with cliffs and sharp precipices on one side and a deep abyss that could scare a dragon’s heart on the other. Traveling on the solid rocky mountains of the Suleiman Range with their glistening slopes almost vertically rising from unfathomable depths, besides the menace of innumerable blind curves with no space to maneuver required not only cautious but extremely skillful driving. Prying at the inanimate hills I recalled that the first ever British to scale these arduous hills done so in the early nineteenth century. The route as per my own purview and keeping the retrospective in mind must not be any wider than a narrow snake like camel track then used by the tribesmen. It was hard for me to imagine how those horse-riding British negotiated those treacherous and impassable hills to establish a post 6, 500 feet high.

We nudged forward on the diabolically spiraling snake like trail until we reached right on the summit – the Fort Munro. I did not know until I reached right up there that the original name of Fort Munro was ‘Khar’. Standing there was a feeling of being on top of the world. The vast measureless expanse seemed to be portraying a huge artifact with hills and valleys, as if carved by a sculptor with a knife. Uninhabited and unexplored in Fort Munro, I enjoyed a sense of solitary elation. What immediately caught my attention were the three huge mansions built by the British in 1880s. These were presently being used as guest houses for the Commissioner, the Deputy Commissioner and other District Government functionaries. One of the mansion carried the ancient plate of ’Munro House’ while on the other name of Robert Sandeman who was the first British officer to establish a post there was engraved.

I strolled there aimlessly for a couple of hours until the blustering wind turned chilled as it grew darker and I had to retire to one of the mansions (the one having the name Robert Sandeman) where my stay was already planned and which as a special case, was opened for me by the District Administration for the night stay at Fort Munro.

On entering the house, I saw a huge hand painting of Robert Sandeman over the fireplace in the main parlour and still held grand stipulation. After settling myself in one of the bedroom, I decided to explore the house. The entire house was decorated with the age old furniture; the beds, dining table and chairs, the sofas, the center tables, the rocking chair, the cupboards, wooden cornices, the billiard table and the antique lamps, all belonged to 1880s, the wooden false ceiling  and  floors were still immaculate. No leakage, no seepage, no cracks, no wear and tear? I wondered what forced those British to live there. I opened the window just to see the temperature outside, but the next moment I was almost knocked down by a whirl of maddening wind almost freezing, blowing with a deafening noise and which for a moment ransacked the whole atmosphere of the house. I immediately closed it, on which as if by magic, the peace and tranquility returned again. Once inside, I neither felt any cold nor heard even the slightest sound of the wind. I relit the oil lamp extinguished by the gush of wind and took to an easy chair near the fireplace. The old wooden furniture especially the double wooden cot and the dressing table in the bedroom suggested that there must’ve been female family members also living from time to time in this very house. I dragged the oil lamp, lying on the wooden cornice just above my head, closer to me and opened my book since the day’s long tiredness and sudden change of weather had taken away my sleep. No sooner I read a few pages, I felt as if someone had passed across the door into the lobby. I stood up and went into the lobby, but there was nothing unusual. Probably the wind making its way through some hidden cracks and crevices in the ventilators or ceiling. Just then somebody knocked at the door. Before I could think something else, Sultan Khan, my driver appeared bringing me the dinner which was prepared by the attendants living in the adjacent hut. The dinner comprised lamb Sajji (lamb leg and joints roasted traditionally on wooden skewers) and Balochi bread baked on stones. After consuming the sumptuous meal that perfectly matched with the kind of environment, I returned to the fire place and resumed my reading, but soon was interrupted once more, this time it was more pronounce and unambiguous. On the wall infront of me was a blurred shadow of a young woman wearing a long Victorian skirt. I batted my eyes to make sure I was not imagining things, but this time it was real. Suspecting one of the female family members of the attendants, who normally do the house keeping, still inside the house, I looked at the opposite side. There was nothing. I looked again at the shadow but it was no more there. A strangled hiss of fear shook my entire body. For a few moments I kept sitting upright focusing on the wall where the shadow had appeared. I looked at my watch it was almost midnight. Despite the extravagant sound proof construction of the mansion, the whistling sound of the wind, though comparatively feeble, had now started rupturing the silence inside the house as by then the wind’s intensity had increased manifolds. Since Fort Munro did not have any electricity there was neither a bell nor any other means to call the attendants over.

There I was, helpless in the middle of the night, entrapped in a house built in 1880s, all by myself. All I knew was that the attendants had told me that they lived in a hut nearby with their families. How much near and exactly in which direction, I had no clue. I mustered some valor and went upto the main door and slowly opened it by a few inches. Next I was hit by a cold howling gale in the face, besides it was pitched dark outside. Going in such a condition was tantamount to committing a Hara Kiri. Rejecting it out rightly as an illusion, probably owing to tiredness due to day-long climb in the sweltering heat, I once again took to my seat near the fire place and started reading my book. Sleep was no more now on the menu. The constant sound of the wind was now slowly turning into a stereotype. I was told by a local officer that these jettison winds start blowing after sunset till 3 or 4 A.M in the morning and was peculiar to Fort Munro which continued throughout summers and was caused by its geographical location probably due to the topography of the surrounding hills. I returned to my chair and once again started to read my book, periodically gazing at the front wall where the shadow had appeared. The undulating symphony of wind continued to feast my ears while a musky smell filled the air inside the room. I looked across the window; the dispersed patches of clouds playing hide and seek had once again allowed the moon to appear letting in only a sliver of light barely illuminating the wooden floor underneath the window. In this situation two hours glided away and I began to think that whatever I had seen was nothing than my own imagination. No sooner I felt comfortable, my ears began to sense a bleak female voice mingled with the sound of the wind as if singing a lullaby in English in the adjacent room. I jerked my head so in order to regain my senses making sure that I was not dozing.

Piqued with curiosity and overcoming my fright I stood up and paced towards the room from where the voices apparently seemed to be coming. Without giving a second thought this time, and with a sudden force pushed the door open only to see nothing there. The singing voice stopped instantly giving me a feeling as if it had never been there at all. The next morning while sauntering around, I discovered a small decrepit British cemetery with a few dilapidated graves camouflaged in the long dry grasses and dry pine needles. Amazingly the grave stones of the graves were still intact and the epitaphs still legible. Among the dozen graves my eyes stopped at the one engrained with the following inscription:-  

                                                        “In loving memory of,

                                                                Maud Evelyn

                                                    Wife of Captain M.L Ferrar,

                                               Indian Army Punjab Commission

                            The only daughter of W.B Oldham E.S.Q.R, I.C.S.C.I.E

                             Who died at Khar on 13th October, 1906, aged 26 Years.

                                        “Thine Eyes shall see the king in his beauty,

                                          Thy shall behold the land that is very far off”

With eyes riveted on the time-worn inscription, I confess, to have been bogged down some where in the same age. Who was that young woman? How did she die? A plethora of so many questions stormed my mind. As I stood there like a statue immersed in my thoughts the tide of time momentarily stopped and the wind suddenly came to a standstill as if lamenting with me in silence. The only sound was the faint bleat from the flock of sheep grazing nearby. I still wonder whether the shadow of the young woman and the melodic singing was of Maud Evelyn or merely a product of my imagination.              

The author is a retired Cavalry officer. He has spent 27 years in uniform and has a published collection of short stories 'By the Autumn Trees' to his name. He is an avid traveler and also has ample of well-researched travelogues published in the leading newspapers of the country.

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