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A dream tea-party in Murree

A walk through Murree in Monsoon, when it turns into a prettified version of the Scottish highlands

A dream tea-party in Murree

The undeniable chills and fog that follow monsoon showers in Murree drift through the windows. The light becomes soft and the skies a dull silver-grey; Murree becomes as the English imagined: a prettified Scottish highlands. What both Scotland and Murree have in common is an English conquest and subsequent reshaping of the landscape to express colonial imagining of leisure, beauty and Englishness.

They also have in common the fact their original inhabitants were rebellious tribesmen. The Scottish Highlanders in their resistance to English conquest are celebrated in films, songs and painting to this day, but Murree’s resistance is little known.

I only recently came to know of the Dhund rebellion and enquired with locals if they knew of the events of 1857. The brief Murree Rebellion was led by the Dhund hill tribesmen and happened when English troops were deployed from the hill station to fight in Delhi during the War of Independence. Unprotected, the Murree hill tribes coordinated attacks on the British residents helped by the local house-servants employed in English homes. Had it not been for one Hakim Khan, a servant in the house of Lady Lawrence who alerted the British, there was real anticipation that Murree would fall from colonial rule. A few months later, after the English foiled the attack, the garrisons that now link Murree to Nathia Gali were established including, Bara, Changla, Dunga and Kouza Galis. The Abbasi, Karlals and other clans we now meet in Murree are sometimes related or sub-tribes of these same rebellious Dhund hill tribesmen.

After quashing the Murree Rebellion, the English set about in earnest to transform the landscape of Murree. To this day, my mother’s garden reflects this imagined idyll that the heat scorched English dreamed up during their sojourn in India. A charmingly curved white metal picket fence surrounds an undulating lawn, prettily bordered by seven apple trees under whose well-pruned canopies are shrubberies that I have planted.

Some of these garden plants were collected from the hills around Kashmir Point including the irises, daylilies, the wild rose creepers and hollyhocks. Some were pinched from the disused gardens of neighbours and others carefully bought to complete the picture-perfect scene, especially the blue and pink hydrangeas, the hostas, the red-hot pokers and the geraniums. Edible herbs are carefully transplanted gifts from my friend Zahrah’s Bhurban garden and include rosemary, borage, lemon balm, mint and chives. A particularly brilliant crimson-rose creeper provides a dash of striking colour, as does the rich pink of the button rose creeper festooned over the pergola.

The buddleia bushes are just in early flower but still, the butterflies flock to its nectar, as the black drongo birds hover above on the telephone wires waiting for a catch of a tasty insect. Every day we watch this shikaar (hunt).

As I read from my parent’s collection of paperback books spanning over 60 years, I feel a huge continuity with the voices in the books. EM Forster’s The hill of Dev is an account of his time at the principality of Dewas (now Madhya Pradesh) in the early 1900s. He and his friend Malcolm Darling became deeply influenced by India which changed forever their view of racial superiority and altered their own identity through a close and sympathetic study of India.

These are days to curl up and read and walk outside when the showers subside. The first mists have just rolled up the hillside to the ridge where our house is located. Scottish highlands or Himalayan foothills, these are the makings of a human reverie of coolness, leisure, and an escape from the unrelenting heat of the Punjab plains.

If asked “who would you invite to your Murree garden for tea this evening?”, I know just what my guest list might be. Mr EM Forster who remained single and gay. His friends, Mr and Mrs Malcolm Darling all for their close study of India and resulting self-transformations. My very own father-in-law Mirza Hassan Habib, and his friend Dr Akhtar Hameed Khan as intellectual young Muslim men who mounted searing critiques of colonial paradigms, the former of the civil service, the latter of rural development. Mrs Sarojini Naidu, for her unique role in Partition and nature poems, Mr and Mrs Salim Ali for the deep knowledge of Indian birds and fauna. Included also would be my maternal great-grandmother Amma Begum for her sharp and hilarious tongue, and my self-deprecating, far-sighted paternal grandfather, Syed Akbar Ali of Roorki Engineering College. My little garden has just enough standing space for this congregation of fascinating guests, and I think I have just enough crockery and cutlery from the past to make everything familiar for my dream tea party in Murree this monsoon.

Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib

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Mehjabeen is an ecologist and writer who lives in Lahore.She holds a PhD in Social Ecology.

16 comments

  • What a perfectly delightful array of guests would be assembled at this well balanced tea party! There would be only two female guests and the formidable wit of Amma Begum would regale the gathering, transcending any language barriers. Mrs Darling in her big hat and Amma Begum in her churidars would provide a metaphor for the lovely co existence of two far flung cultures in this perfect English garden in the Himalayas.

    • Please join me for my dream tea party!!

  • Murree used to be where my Nana Dr. Khalifa Abdul Harkin, used to spent months in summers in the 1950′s, after partition and when Kashmir wasnt an option for him to go and there he used to write a book in the short summer vacation stint. Such were the times and such were the prolific writers of yore.. Also you write about your imagined guest Sarojni Naidu She used to tell people that Dr Khalifa was her adopted son. Such was the connection and bond between the two…. .Murree and nostalgia go hand in hand.

    • Thank you Nada. Sarojini Naidu was Dr. Khalifa’s acquaintence! Now that must have been a Murree living and thriving with intellectual vigour. Just as a nod to your distinguished Nana, I too sometime write in Murree. Despite its degradation through unregulated tourism, this landscape is still beautiful with a wonderful climate to garden and write in. Please consider your Nana invited to this dream team party…

  • What a wonderful read! I did not know about the Murree rebellion at all. Fascinating

  • Can just imagine the fascinating conversations at your tea party and the mixed encounters of oriental-colonial! I would sit in the back and take notes. One question: where are the women? Did Murree have women writers, poets, artists, or activists?

    • Thank you for taking notes during the tea conversation Iman. Murrree still has some hidden writers and artists – must have been many more pre-Partition. There is the excellent artist’s residency organised by Saba Khan, with many women artists. Two female writers I know are your mother and Lalarukh Shaukat, who has preserved Murree through her wonderful book.

      • In the present time, wouldn’t it be interesting to do a house to house survey to find the local Murree women residents who are readers, writers and poets? I’m sure they are there…

  • Aaah to awaken to beautiful prose, to delight in facts unearthed, images of irises, daylilies, hollyhocks, and then be surprised by a dream tea party…!

  • Thank you for your kind mention, we always enjoy your company in Murree, with tea and and your annual talks with our artists and writters revisiting murree’s layered history.

  • And it is quite topical as the Scots mountain tribesman are fighting again for their indépendance!! The English didn’t manage to get rid of enough of those so they still make quite a lot of ‘noise’.

    • Thanks for making that current connection with Scotland Claudine. Well I hope the Scots don’t give up their fight for independence – even though my Scottish forester friend tells me that their landscape is fundamentally altered by the conquest that happened centuries ago. I would suggest that the Dhund tribe really were beaten back and never again rebuilt themselves. Their ancestral lands in Murree continue to be sold off for cash that will quickly whittle away.

  • Mehjabeen, this is a most delightful piece this morning. Enjoyed reading it. Must hear more about your great grandmother Amna Begum.
    Also my maternal grandfather Syed Basharat Ali also went to Roorki Engineering College. He was also a poet and his Diwan was published in Delhi in 1947.

  • A delightful read. I would love to be a butterfly in your garden listening to the tea party conversation which for sure would be fascinating . There would also be enough flowers for me to be having my own nectar tea.

  • Lovely walk through your garden. Would be really fascinating meeting and talking with Mr. Salim Ali and hear all about his ornithological journeys. 

  • Thank you Sadia. Mr. Salim Ali was a real treasure whose contribution to our understanding of birds of the subcontinent are invaluable. I recommend owning any of his books if you can obtain copies.

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