The Road to Kalam

Durriyah Balkhi Asghar

Durriyah Balkhi Asghar

Durriyah Balkhi Asghar, CPA, Class of '91, is a Tax and Financial Consultant. She began her career with Pricewaterhouse, New York and is currently on a sabbatical. Shameelah Balkhi (her sister) has an MS in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology from Yale University and is currently a homemaker.

At 2 km above Kalaam's bazar, the river and forest lay below us and snow covered Mount Falak Ser diagonally opposite. Creamy, fresh walnuts fell out of the trees and cracked open on impact with the stone patio. Gladioli swayed in the breeze around the wooden pavilion and the soothing sound of streams as they cascaded through the property enveloped us. I couldn't believe we had actually made it to Walnut Heights!

We had been driving for six hours and Kalaam was only 32 km away when we discovered that there was now only a dirt track riddled with crater sized potholes ahead. The flood of 2010 had washed the road away. Cut short, despite being so close to our destination, this was bitterly disappointing. In desperation we called the Walnut Heights number. The owner told us that the road used to be in bad shape but now one could get to Kalaam in 2 hours. His statement "road buhut achi ho gaee hae" came from having seen it after the flood, when holidayers had to be airlifted out of Kalaam and villagers had to walk 25 hours to Miandam to bring 40 kg of food and aid back on their backs. He suggested that we park our car at a friend's hotel in Madyan while he had one sent to us.

The car arrived with stickers, "WARNING: 9mm" and "dekhnae maen doli, chalnae maen goli!" Our driver was polite but in a great hurry. He rocketed his way over the dirt track - we found out that his tyres are replaced every three months. A place where we had to pay road tax our driver actually extracted money out of the official! It was all in Kohistani so we couldn't fathom how he managed to do that. At the next traffic jam he kept fidgeting with the automatic locks, turning them on and off at the rate of a click a second. When he could bear it no longer he got out to direct traffic himself. Then he pulled out a whistle and began to use it. Of course, there was a respectable policeman already there. Then the policeman started shouting at him because he had probably taken the policeman's whistle!

As we drove through the picturesque countryside, the richness of the history of this area was ever-present in our minds. "A nation that loses its history also loses its geography," said Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but history is hard to ignore here. The Unconquerable Frontier that we were traveling through was where Syed Ahmed Barelvi, a disciple of Shah Waliullah's teachings, decided to launch his struggle for the liberation of India from. His plan was to first take on the Sikhs and then tackle the British.

Syed Ahmed Barelvi arrived in Peshawar in 1826. His headquarters was first at Hund then at Panjtar (present day KP). He visited and preached to the people in Swat and Buner too. About 400,000 people pledged the oath of allegiance to him. In 1829 an Islamic government was established under his leadership. The repeated treachery of the Khans of Peshawar prompted him to leave the area in order to redirect his efforts against the Sikhs of Hazara and Kashmir.

Although Syed Ahmed was soon martyred at Balakot in 1831, the movement he had launched flourished for more than a hundred years. Wilayat Ali and Inayat Ali of Patna, Bihar, steered the movement after Syed Ahmed's martyrdom. Their home was converted into its organizational headquarters; what Delhi had been during Syed Ahmed's life.

Sethana and Malka were, in turn, the headquarters of the movement in the Frontier. Syed Akbar Shah of Sethana was a leading figure and the treasurer of the movement. "Recruits and money flowed abundantly into Sithana from British India for decades after the death of Syed Ahmad." [Hunter, The Indian Musalmans]. The movement came into direct conflict with the British after the British took over the weakened Sikh Empire in 1849.

Although the British had managed to quell the Indian War for Independence, the Frontier refused to capitulate. In 1863, the British decided on an expedition to burn down Malka and rout out the "Hindustani fanatics". In the resulting campaign through the Ambeyla Pass (eastern KP), the British lost almost a thousand men. The cantonment at Mardan hosts the graves of their fallen near the chapel of the Corps of Guides.

Several key figures of this movement were eventually captured, brought to trial and sentenced to life imprisonment at the infamous Andaman Islands (Kaala Paani). Their properties were confiscated and their neighbourhoods demolished, but the movement lived on. Historians regard Syed Ahmed's movement as the fore-runner of the Pakistan Movement in India.

Our driver was of an equally independent Frontier mind! When the cars finally began to move he hopped onto the top of a random wagon ahead of us. Without any explanations, someone from the wagon now sat in our driver's seat... but at least we were moving again. Our old driver would occasionally wave to us from the top of his new ride, until he disappeared from sight. The new one was a "rishtadar" of the old one, not that we asked who he was. We don't think he'd known that he was going to be abandoned with us. After about another hour we came across some young men playing cricket on the road. Our driver got out and one of them hopped in. We were now on our third driver. Apparently he was the "real" brother of our first driver. If we could understand Kohistani we might have known what to expect from our drivers' animated phone conversations.

It was soon pitch dark and the river Swat roared by our side. Those who were driving their own cars looked mighty uncomfortable! We overheard some say, "jo log pehli baar aaye haen un ka humari tarah rang ura hua hae." Sometimes we'd see dots of light high up in the blackness; village houses on the mountains probably. Was Walnut Heights just a wild goose chase?

At last we pulled into its parking lot! With it, the 14 hours it took us to get there dropped out of our consciousness. How wonderful it would be if we could end up in Eternal Gardens the same way; worrying about the path we'd taken, realizing our blunders, but having our Creator bestow on us in accordance with His magnanimity and not according to what we deserve.