It was the summer of 1973 and the plains were sweltering under the burning rays of the sun. For the residents of the city, barring the affluent ones with air conditioning, the only source of keeping cool was perhaps a dip in the river, but even this historic stream appeared to have capitulated before the heat, shriveling into narrow channels that grew smaller in size with each passing day.
My earlier glimpses of this station (a term used in government files for a place of posting) was in 1958 from the windows of a car as it sped across the old road and Railway Bridge, on my family’s annual summer migration to Murree. A very interesting feature of the place was that many of its buildings including an old mosque, had steps leading right down into the water. Over time, as channels dried up, this quaint feature receded into oblivion. Water now comes up to the structures on rare occasions, when the river is in high flood.
Posted here in pursuit of my professional commitments, I was lucky to find an ancient bungalow next to the bridge on the main road. This bridge was a steel trestle structure constructed in the pre independence era, serving both vehicular and train traffic to and from Rawalpindi. The quick availability of the bungalow came as a surprise, since government accommodation was scarce even in those days. I had been married two years and happily asked my wife to join me, motivating her to move from Lahore by describing the expansive compound with its abundance of trees and the river just a few minutes’ walk from the house.
I had heard whispered comments amongst my staff that there was something ‘wrong’ with the place I had selected to make my home. On one occasion my question regarding these whispers was deftly sidestepped by a colleague, who happened to be a local. I soon forgot about the incident and began setting up a befitting residence for my better half, including a lot of hired furniture. When the ‘furniture wala’ asked me where the stuff was to be delivered, my reply evoked a strange reaction, bordering on reluctance. Nonetheless a truck loaded with essential items soon arrived and began unloading at the premises. I was impressed with the speed with which the accompanying help was carrying out the task, until I realized that all they wanted was to complete their job and get away from the house as quickly as possible.
With a few days left for my family’s arrival, I was sitting in my verandah sipping some iced ‘nimbu pani’ to ward off the heat, when I saw a flock of birds take off from an old tree, making frantic alarm calls. I thought nothing of it, till a rustling sound at the foot of the steps stopped me cold. There in all its magnificence was a steel grey cobra with its upper body raised almost two and a half feet above the ground and its hood fully spread. I could do nothing, but stare spellbound at the reptile, which was in my estimation almost six to seven feet long. Cold sweat broke out as I heard more rustling sounds approaching the house from at least two directions. Without seeing as to what was slithering in my direction in the surrounding undergrowth, I ran into the house calling to my cook to bring whatever he could lay hands on to plug every aperture, every slit under the doors and in the bathrooms.
We (the cook and I) spent the night in the sitting room imagining every type of monster reptile trying to break in and getting at us. Somewhere well past midnight we must have fallen asleep because we were awakened by sunlight streaming through the windows. I did not waste much time in calling my wife and telling her to cancel her travel plans, after which I went to the relevant office requesting them that I wanted to vacate the house and wait in line for a more suitable allotment.
Next day, as the hired furniture was being carted away, I asked my colleague (the local) to tell me what was ‘wrong’ with the house. I told him that this time I would not allow him to sidestep my question. The answer did not surprise me, “the house that you had chosen to live in remains unoccupied and is generally known as ‘Sappanwali Kothi”.
Note: I am told that this ‘kothi’ was totally destroyed in the great flood that swept the area years later.
n The writer is a historian.
Posted here in pursuit of my professional commitments, I was lucky to find an ancient bungalow next to the bridge on the main road. This bridge was a steel trestle structure constructed in the pre independence era, serving both vehicular and train traffic to and from Rawalpindi.