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The Bisara of the Hills

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I was enjoying an after dinner cheroot at the Club one winter’s evening, when Strickland joined me. I was not expecting him, in truth, for it was some years since he had married, and, applying himself to his Departmental returns, as a sensible man does, and eschewing shikar, he had risen in the service and been transferred to Delhi. Yet here he was, before me, in Lahore, with, he said, a tale that would interest me most greatly, the recounting of which, he also maintained, would discharge his obligation to a mutual acquaintance. And with that minimal introduction, he began the following story.

It all began, from his perspective at least, on being formally notified that he had been seconded to the Indian Political. At which point I interrupted him, thinking our mutual friend was my old friend Pussy Abanazar from the Coll. The general direction was right, he told me, but he recommended I study more, instead of distracting myself with feline fluffiness, at which point I stopped interrupting and settled to enjoy what would undoubtedly be a good adventure, Stalky being what he was.

Strickland explained that one fine summer day, as he had just finished the last of the day’s paperwork and was tidying his desk preparatory to leaving, a most extraordinary young man slipped in to that tiny cubicle he called his office. Stuffy and overcrowded with filing cabinets full of papers left by his predecessor, its sole virtue was that it was his own, and allowed for private conversation when there was a sensitive case pending. The intruder – for such he was as it became clear to Strickland as soon as the young man put a finger to his lips to hush him – introduced himself, in the most English of accents, as Kimball O’Hara. Englishman he might sound; but he did not look the part. He was clad only in a filthy striped orange cloth which wound round his body several times; his skin was dyed with walnut juice, his fingernails black with dirt. He was someone who had not so much gone native, as been raised native; which made his disguise all the more effective than Strickland’s own had been in days of yore, as the man fully appreciated after only a few moments in Kim’s company. For, you see, this O’Hara knew all about great exploits of years past, such as the Tar Baby, and Aladdin; but spoken about, as they were, in a myriad of accents of the bazaar, as demonstration of his skill at subterfuge, Kim appeared as if an apparition to remind Strickland of choices past: of compromises made and pledges owing.

O’Hara’s appearance could also not have been more timely. The day before had been Strickland’s wedding anniversary, a day which always evoked bittersweet memories in the man. From one perspective, his wedding had been one of the happiest days of his life: the culmination of what clearly was one of the most extraordinary courtships ever seen in India, and the realisation of his dream of connubial bliss. However, he could never remember the joy of winning the hand of Miss Youghal-that-was (Mrs Strickland, now, and the beloved mother of his son and heir) without at least a few wistful thoughts about his previous adventures. Those early years in the Indian Police receded day by day; but Strickland’s dreams did not; and several hours of paper-shuffling, which had been exceptionally dull that day, had made him all too keenly aware of the contrast. In short: O’Hara’s suggestion he accept a brief transfer to the Indian Political and join the Game which was currently underway on the northwest frontier made all his incipient rebellion against placid domesticity bloom like a morning glory in the early day’s sunshine. He saw immediately where his duty lay. A boy was sent with an urgent missive to home; and Strickland – complete with sais’s blanket – took the back exit from the building.

Within two weeks Dulloo sais found himself running a string of ekka ponies in the mountains and valleys between Pathankot and Srinagar. It was, indeed, an odd business for periodically his string seemed to swell in number, while at other times he had strangely few. The latter – by complete coincidence, I am sure – occurred whenever his ponies grazed near one of the rebellious chieftains, who also seemed mysteriously and suddenly to have too few ponies but who, despite being a suspicious lot, never accused the unlucky sais who bemoaned his reducing numbers alongside them, also castigating the gods (which all men know is not the action of a wise man) to any who would listen. In response, the chieftains hastily sent extra gifts to the local temple to propitiate, and thus ward off the curse of having associated with such a profaner of all things holy, and had the jinxed sais escorted from their borders double sharp quick-time (which shows just what we British had succeeded in teaching them) lest his misfortune rub off on them. Meanwhile, the British regiments facing the rebellious chieftains went from strength to strength, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of replacements whenever one of their mounts or pack horses fell lame (which happened with distressing regularity given the rocky terrain of the Kashmiri hills).

The strangest part of it was that, regardless of how the number of ponies ebbed and flowed, always Dulloo’s string contained one particular dark bay mare. She was not the most distinguished of the horses, although she was well enough in her way; she was pregnant, which may have accounted for her staying with the string. Dulloo took good care of her, brushing her white left fetlock clean each morning and evening, and braiding her mane and forelock so the white star showed nicely on her forehead. To ensure the continued safety of her foal, he always dressed her in a blue bead head-necklace, which, as we all know, wards off the evil eye. She had the nicest disposition of all the string, and clearly had quickly become his favourite.

And so Dulloo traversed the hills back and forth, winkling out every available horse, donkey, and pony until, in due course, he came to a pahari village in Sutlej Valley where he negotiated with the headman for a hut to himself while he rested. A few rupees bought the services of two local boys to stand guard over the ponies when he retired for the evening. Food was cooked by the wizened and widowed mother of the headman, and served by the man’s young wife, the old woman acting as chaperone all the while. She spoke surprisingly good English – better than her son. Alone of all the people he had met in the weeks he had travelled, she saw through Dulloo and demanded his real name. And, after he had sworn her to secrecy and shared the contents of his hip flask with her, she entertained Dulloo with the story of her unrequited first love, upon whom she swore undying vengeance, the intensity of which matched her previous adoration. A day later, Dulloo moved on, having, in the interim, lost only one of the ponies to theft. He surmised the headman had taken her as a kind of surcharge for the village’s hospitality, notwithstanding the bag full of rupees he had handed over. And in this he misjudged his host, for it had been the honoured mother who had double-crossed him, having recognised the mare’s blue bead collar – or more properly the tiny square silver ruby-encrusted box attached to it – for what it truly was.

A week later, just outside a village midway between Abbottabad and Peshawur, Dalloo rendezvoused with Mahbub Ali, handing over his now generously large string of equines of all descriptions, along with certain certificates of pedigree, detailing which villages they had come from (and their resources) and retired back down to Rawalpindi. There, he ordered himself a much needed bath at the Officer’s Club, emerging once again as a pukka English gentleman, who sat down to a hearty meal of roast beef, before sending word to his patient wife.

Travel was difficult. The uprising had led to a great egress as prudent Englishmen sent their womenfolk south to less turbulent parts of the country. Troop movements northward to reinforce the regiments fighting on the frontier – not to mention supplies of food and ammunition – also affected train timetables, and clogged the Grand Trunk. Thus, once Strickland’s report had been made to his superior in Rawalpindi, one Pussy Abanazar, he was told to stay put and hold himself in readiness in case of need. For the duration, he was told, he could make himself useful in the office; he was set to sorting and filing despatches, and preparing reports, activities which are no more exciting for the Indian Political than they are for the Indian Police.

News of the campaign arrived slowly, in part because there were no recognisable pitched battles in the tradition of the Peninsular Wars or Waterloo. There were many skirmishes; but even though the chieftains had thrown in their lot together, having common grievances against the British (and having been thoroughly suborned by Russian spies in the months preceding), they were a disorganised bunch, and increasingly so as the summer wore on and their differences and distrust were heightened by the setbacks of the rebellion. They had been promised quick victory, you see, and much booty. Yet, when they won prizes they seemed either to disappear as lost baggage, or the gold proved to be nothing better than the straw spun by Rumpelstiltskin. Knowing the brief Stalky had assigned Kim (and having crossed paths with him once or twice during his own wanderings in the hills), Strickland had no doubt the enemy was most thoroughly and completely confused.

Meanwhile, the British Army, which is to say the Indian Army under British rule, had seemingly inexhaustible resources. The Government had been slow to recognise the risk of rebellion, and once started, it had taken a little time to organise reinforcements, which is why what should have been a simple brushfire had grown to epic proportions. But, with time, the momentum swung in our favour, despite the questionable quality of leadership sent north to relieve Major Corkran. Strickland accompanied Major Abanazar when he went to brief Colonel Mountjoy, a city-wallah who had answered the call for support in the absence of his general, and come north to temporary Headquarters during a short stopover in Rawalpindi before progressing north. To their combined experience of the local landscape (amounting to decades), this Mountjoy announced that he knew all about hillmen, having travelled the hills around Pathankot as a young man, and spent several weeks at Kotgarth Mission. He had written a book about it then; he would, no doubt, write another book after this trip.

As we all know, he did not last long, being captured by natives in an ambush set in one of the mountain passes before he met up with the regiments already in situ. Fortunately, the relief column he had led had competent junior officers who managed to create a diversion, circled round, and tracked Colonel Mountjoy back to the village where he was being held. Unfortunately, this was not before he had met a nasty end: nose barbarously pierced with a peculiar fish-like amulet and then roasted in a fire in some kind of bizarre reverse suttee, the mother of the local headman dying also that afternoon soon after she lit the funeral pyre.

And so Stalky was brevetted Colonel, and managed the rest of the campaign masterfully, as always. He was back in Rawalpindi by late November, having re-garrisoned the existing forts and built a new one, before bringing the majority of his troops south. There was, of course, a grand and official celebration held in his honour a few days after Stalky arrived in town. Two days later he hosted a select gathering of old College members at the Officer’s Club, where he and Abanazar did their best to convince Strickland to make his transfer permanent. But he had received an urgent telegraph from his wife that afternoon enquiring when he planned to return; so he resisted all persuasion and set out for home the next morning.

And, as I said at the start, Strickland and I met in Lahore, where he had a short stopover between trains, which is how I heard the story. We toasted the Great Man in absentia and I saw Strickland onto the train back to Delhi the following day. Where, I believe, he remains, still completing his Departmental returns, which, he tells me, are actually read by his superiors these days, impressed as they were by the commendation he received for last summer.