In the following excerpt my Grandfather captures a time when he was about twenty-six years old and serving on the North West Indian Frontier.
THE REDEMPTION OF LALI
For more than a hundred years, watch and ward had been maintained by the British along the North-West Indian Frontier. I played my part in that vigil in 1910, to protect a God-forsaken little Wazir village called Taposi.
In that year I expected to find Taposi overrun by Mahsud. The Mahsud, a fierce tribe, was in constant feud with the Wazir tribe. That was the reason I was there with a party of Border Police. The Mahsud had recently attacked and devastated the Wazir village of Tori Khel. Old man Taposi, for whom the village was named, was in jail and I was deputizing for him.
That sterile waste at Taposi in August, was the nearest approach to hell a man could ever make. The Fort in which we lived was actually Taposi’s house—a mud ruin. The place was deserted, and across the border, in tribal territory were many watchtowers, only two of which were currently occupied.
A precarious streamlet of water, on which we depended, ran close by Taposi’s house. I say precarious, because this stream crossed several dry river beds on an aqueduct, and was subject to interruptions after rain when the rivers suddenly flooded and came down in spate. Precarious too because the little stream could also be diverted by an ill-intentioned person, and in those parts everyone was ill-intentioned.
This stream branched out from the Khaisora River, just across the frontier, and at this point there was a watchtower called Paya. It was occupied by a Wazir named Lali, who proved to be friendly. He frequently came to Taposi for a chat, bringing fruit and honey. It was from Lali that I derived information regarding the country. He said the Mahsud were in an irritable mood. Either they would continue devastating the Tori Khel area, or they might break up into gangs and raid India to carry off some rich money-lender for ransom, or they might even attack me if I got in their way. Lali’s own people, the Wazir of Tori Khel, were mostly away up in the cool highlands of Showal in the Waziri mountains. They migrated there every summer. The fruit and honey he brought us came from Showal. He himself remained in his tower at Paya because it commanded the Khaisora Ravine. If it was necessary to close the route into Showal he and his Uncle could do it, and for this they were paid a small fee by the tribesmen for staying. He pointed to his Uncle’s tower. It was a few hundred yards further up the Khaisora Pass beyond his own.
The first time Lali, with a rifle in his hand, came out to meet me, he was accompanied by his Uncle and two sons, cousins of Lali. The Uncle was a venerable old man with a long white beard, and he was, I heard, a holy man, a sort of minor mullah.
Lali was an extremely interesting personality. In repose his features were beautiful. He was not handsome, but he had a pensive and refined nobility that suggested instantly the traditional face of Christ. He could have been a model for any of the great Italian painters. The mouth was sensitive, the eyes contemplative, especially when they looked along the sights of a rifle. In repose he seemed, while he watched the Khaisora Pass, to ponder the sorrows of the universe. When he spoke he had a soft and pleasing voice. Dark ringlets fell to his shoulders, and he had a short reddish beard. If I may say so without sacrilege, all he needed was a crown of thorns. Many a talk I had with him, and he spoke sadly of the feuds and inter-tribal disputes which distracted his people. I asked particularly about the Tori Khel Wazir who were summering in Showal, because should they return sooner and reoccupied their territory, it would be possible for me to withdraw immediately. However, Lali, regarding me with eyes full of compassion, said, “They will not come back till September.”
Touched by his sympathy, I showed him the little hole I had dug in the bed of the stream where I could lie down twice daily and allow the cool mountain water to flow over my tormented body. It was about the only pleasure I had. All day we lay on string beds in the nominal shade of small trees, and shrubs, and all night we gasped in the courtyard of Taposi’s stuffy tower. What a waste of life! In the dawn we did chores, fed the mules, killed the cobras—Taposi’s walls were full of them. We went through the motions of “Alarm Posts” and morning and evening I lay down in my stream.
Then one day the stream failed. No spates had interrupted it. It was evident therefore that an ill-intentioned person had deprived me of my only solace. I was wondering what to do about it when the initiative was taken out of my hands by a gang of Bannuchi villagers from the plains behind us, and who had an even greater interest in the water after I had done with it. They came hurrying along fully armed, and vowing frightful vengeance—for in that thirsty land no act is more provocative than that of tampering with water channels. “Well,” I thought, “thank goodness the water must pass me to get to them.” Shortly afterwards there was a fusillade of rifle fire from the entrance of the defile where Lali was fighting for his life. Having repaired the breach, the villagers returned carrying a dead comrade, and using the most horrible language about my poor friend Lali.
“But,” I protested, “Lali would never try a dirty trick like that. Lali knows I bathe in the stream. He knows it is all I have to live for.” The Bannuchi snorted and said Lali was not all he seemed, and that he was not a nice man at all.
So that was the end of my pleasant association with Lali. No more honey and fruit from Showal! Besides that, Lali could no longer visit me, for now he had committed a deadly sin on that frontier, killed a Bannuchi from British territory. Officially he had become an outlaw, and while I was considering this situation another fusillade of rifle fire broke out at the entrance of the defile. Apparently when Lali shot the Bannuchi that morning, Uncle had nabbed the dead man’s rifle. Lali said the rifle was his. The Uncle denied this, and declared moreover that he needed a good weapon to support his position as a holy man. At this Lali’s pensive eye rested upon his aged Uncle, and he shot him. This latest fusillade had been the protest of Uncle’s two sons.
Lali was now between the devil and the deep. Upstream from Paya were the two cousins thirsting for revenge. Downstream was I with a private feud of my own, and moreover with a villager’s blood crying aloud to heaven for justice.
It must be admitted that the British Government in India showed real genius in wriggling out of difficulties. From my reports to them, they deduced that unless something was done quickly, Lali would become desperate and add himself to the several other hundred outlaws who were already raiding, kidnapping and pillaging along the frontier. At all costs Lali must not be driven to that extreme. Therefore I received orders to interview Lali and offer him safe conduct to the town of Bannu where his affairs might be discussed calmly.
Once more I set off across the stony plain towards the Khaisora Pass, shooting at chinkara [a species of gazelle] on the way to warn Lali of my approach, and to show that I came sportively and openly. At the border we halted, and one of my militiamen who had a far-reaching voice shouted across to Paya – “O Lali. O Lali. O Lali O. The Sahib says he wants some more honey.” There was a long pause during which we were carefully scrutinized. Presently I waved a white cloth, and the militiaman bellowed again. “The Sahib says bring some fruit of Showal too.” Lali came, walking like a cat on hot bricks. I stood up, and my men laid down their rifles. Lali laid down his and approached.
“No,” I said, in reply to his charming smile. “I don’t want your fruit and honey. I never told my man to say that. You have killed a man, and you can settle that with the Bannuchi. But you cut off my cold bath, and that, I cannot forgive. There is enmity between me and thee. But what I have to say is this: I offer you safe conduct to Bannu for a discussion with the Sirkar [Government]. You cannot live in your home. You cannot live out of it. You had better go and see what they say. I will regretfully give you an escort, for there are Bannuchi waiting for you on the way. You had better come with me now.”
Lali came. Relations between us were strained on the way back to Taposi, but I asked him again when the Tori Khel were likely to come back. Lali said they would not be back till the end of September.
I sent him to Bannu for his interview. A week later he returned mounted on a horse, and wearing khaki breeches and putties. “Well?” I said.
“The Government has enlisted me into the Border Police, and he saluted. Here is a letter Sahib. I am to take over Taposi Post from you.”
As fast as I could, I left forever that God-forsaken village called Taposi.