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Boar hunting was not the reason for the rustic gathering. There’s not a big market for pork chops in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. But celebrating a college reunion by firing guns near the “zero line”, the no man’s land on the Pakistani-Indian border, was too good an adventure to miss.
We left Lahore on a scorching hot afternoon in a three-car caravan loaded up with foreign guns and local alcohol. Outside Kasur, the hometown of the Sufi mystic Baba Bulleh Shah, we stopped at a mosque for Asar prayers. I was about to join the pious for prayers when Sajjad enticed me with a cold bottle of Murree lager. We climbed down a canal bank to a flat spot where school children played cricket between fields of mustard and greens.
“These seventeen canals were the army’s last defense against the Indians in the ‘65 war,” Sajjad said. “It was a close call. Even the venerable BBC Radio News announced on their news bulletin that the Indian Army had taken Lahore.”
“I remember learning about the heroics of the Pakistan Air Force,” I said.
“Yes, it was a romantic war for Pakistanis. The government made it sound like a decisive victory, but in reality it was a stalemate.”
Inside the town of Kasur we stopped to pick ice and savory snacks. It was dusk and the markets were bustling with vehicle and quadrupeds, vaudeville-style music, and jeering street vendors. The lager spoiled any chance of a pilgrimage to the shrine complex of Baba Bulleh Shah out of respect for the Sufi saint. I strolled along the perimeters in the old town pass the multitudes of shops set to sell holy trinkets, incense, and rose petals.
“Bulleh Shah was unique in that he claimed no spiritual ancestry,” Sajjad said as he bought mosquito coils. “His poetry made him a beloved for Hindu, Sikh and Muslim peasants alike.” He began to sing a Bulleh Shah verse:
Masjid Dha Day, Mandir Dha Day
Dha Day Jo Kujh Disda
Par Kissay Da Dil Na Dhawee
Rub Dilaa Wich Wasda.¹
When he stopped, Sajjad asked if I understood the Punjabi couplet.
“Of course, everyone who grew up in Pakistan knows it,” I said tersely. “Anyway it sounds like Urdu.”
“Well it should,” he replied. “Punjabi is the predecessor to Urdu.”
* * *
After Kasur we drove off the highway and followed dirt roads that led to our friend Malik’s Dera.² It was pitch dark when we parked the cars at the edge of the Sutlej River and waited for the wooden raft to ferry us across. It emerged from the muggy darkness with a paraffin lantern silhouetting the wiry oarsman. Sharp orders were shouted in the dark, a rope was tied to a post and a wooden plank was extended to the riverbank. All nine of us walked across the plank. Someone asked if the crossing was safe.
“This has been the only choice for thousands of years,” said Malik. “Even Alexander the Great crossed the Jhelum in a similar raft to meet the forces of Raja Porus.”³
“Alexander the fraud, you mean?” replied Sajjad, “The famous battle of Hydaspes ended in a stalemate between the Greeks and the Indians. But according to a Greek Historian, the wily Alexander came up with a tale that eagle had fallen dead from the sky, which they took as an ill omen. This is why Alexander never crossed into India and instead feigned retreat through the Sindh province.”
“It was probably a crow,” I said.
Sajjad always had encyclopedic knowledge but with his nuanced interpretations. He found me a willing partner for his patronizing history lesson and so he continued on as the raft was pushed off the makeshift port. The waters took us on a serpentine path as the oarsman guided it to what seemed to be an act of faith. However within half an hour we were docked on the other bank. Behind us was the Sutlej river and ahead was a brightly lit fence, the Zero Line dividing Punjab.
“Welcome to No Man’s Land,” said Malik.
Malik’s retainers waited for us in a tractor-trailer and with flashlights. They showed us the way off the raft but most of us stepped into mud except Malik, who as the landed gentry of these parts maintained wrinkle free clothing no matter the environment. We piled into the tractor and drove to the campsite. Within thirty minutes were washed up and sitting around a fire drinking beer in Styrofoam cups.
“After the 1965 war, the armies retreated to international border,” said Malik. “This land ended up as an extension of my family’s possession.”
“So what is the plan for tonight?” I asked before Sajjad could launch into another history lesson.
“We eat and drink,” Malik said. “I have sent a message to the Ranger’s border post about our hunting plans. It is a sensitive border so we need to make sure both sides know that there is shikar tonight.”
Malik’s cocker spaniel began to bark excitedly and jumped up and down until Malik petted him.
“What’s his name?” I asked
“Bush Bahadur, I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “But you know ‘Bahadur’ means ‘brave’.”
“That’s a compliment.”
“Still he is your President and Bahadur is a dog,” replied Malik, “but still a special one that once ran across the border without being devoured by the Indian BSF’s German shepherds. I had to ask Major Ali to raise the white flag in order to retrieve him. Their C.O., Major Verma, understood the value of a good dog and I had our little Bush Bahadur back in less than an hour.”
The drinking continued while we waited for clearance to get started on the hunt. We ran out of beers and switched to the local Lion’s whiskey. Food was served but nobody ate. The heat had killed off our appetite but not our bravado.
It was almost midnight when we got the clearance and piled into the trailer-tractor. It was loud and I was curious as to how anyone could hunt on this cantankerous machine bellowing diesel fumes. The driver called out to make sure we were ready and we took off with a jolt.
“Well I sure am glad none of us are driving,” I said.
“Yes, drinking and driving is not good,” Sajjad said as he cocked his rifle.
“How do we find the boars?”
Sajjad pointed to the back where Malik swiveled a searchlight onto narrow path between sugar cane fields, then called for a stop. The engine was shut off, guns were cocked, and we went quiet as Malik spun the beam across the leafy field.
“Boars are considered pests around here,” Sajjad whispered close to me, “because they ravage sugarcane fields. If you shoot a boar, the government will reward you a nominal fee for its tail, which proves the kill.”
I nodded and moved away from him. His breath stank of cigarettes and whiskey. I was tired and this late in the night I only wished for a soft bed and a strong mint.
“Quiet!” Malik said sharply. “I hear something.”
I tuned into a rustling among the fields followed by huffs and grunts. Malik moved the beam and I saw dark low-slung boars running through the path in a single file.
“Fire from the edge, and don’t shoot your friend,” Malik said as he manned the searchlight.
Multiple shots were fired and grunts turned into squeals. There were accolades, swearing and hurrahs. After a couple of minutes Malik yelled out to stop the firing. It took a while but once everyone had verbally confirmed he stepped off with the driver to confirm the kills.
“Boars are very dangerous, please stay on the tractor,” Malik said. “If you see one, don’t shoot.”
He carried a revolver in his hand while the driver carried a spear. They found three dead boars in all.
“What happens to the carcass?” I asked.
“It is haram for Muslims,” replied Malik, “but occasionally the Rangers let the Indians cross the border to retrieve the boars. Sometimes they eat the carcasses, sometimes they sell them in their local markets.”
We got back into the tractor-trailer. A whiskey bottle was passed around. I wanted to go back but there had not been enough shooting, so we continued closer to the Zero Line. We weren’t finding any boars, and Malik, frustrated, started abusing his servants for not knowing where they roamed. I shifted on the trailer bed clasping, the guardrail with one hand and a gun with the other. So far I had avoided firing my weapon, even though I had been given a Remington shotgun. Malik took notice of my apprehension and, at the next stop, singled me out.
“You get the next shot,” he said with a broad smile. “Than we can go back.”
I nodded. I was ready to shoot anything to go to bed. I didn’t have to wait long. A rustling sound could be heard in the fields. Everyone perked up.
“There, shoot,” said Malik pointing with the searchlight.
“Between the fields,” replied Malik. “Shoot the damn beast!”
I squeezed the trigger three times. The gun complied with dead certainty and my aim got better. I shot once more and then jumped down.
“Wait for me,” Malik said. Sajjad followed as well.
I ploughed through the puddles onto a dried mud patch with Sajjad navigating our way with the searchlight. I found a furry body riddled with pellets. It looked like a lynx.
“He shot a jhang jo billo!” said Malik excitedly.
The large cat laid on its side, heaving.
“Are you going to make it suffer?” asked Sajjad, “or are you going to put it out of its misery?”
I stared back at Sajjad. He took Malik’s revolver and we walked to the cat. I knelt beside it and lifted its warm paw, examining its elegantly concealed claws.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” I said.
“Do you want to get it stuffed?” Sajjad said.
“No,” I said with disgust.
Sajjad shrugged and offered me the revolver. I shook my head. He shot cat behind the neck. Bang. Then he stood up.
“Let’s go back, hero.”
* * *
The ride back to the campsite was jubilant. I was the accidental hero, a lynx killer.
“That’s practically like killing a lion,” Malik said as we dismounted. “One more round of Lion whiskey to celebrate its hunter!”
A pint bottle was passed around. I was poured a hefty round but I opted to add warm water to it.
“I have another bottle handy,” said Sajjad as we took to lying in our individual charpais.⁴
“No, please, I am fine,” I said as I lit a mosquito coil. “It’s almost dawn.”
“Lion’s whiskey is named after the Asiatic lions,” said Sajjad, examining the bottle. “Once they were common in India, but now they exist only as emblems.”
I finished my drink as the light from the east exposed a rickety fence cutting across Punjab—the formidable Zero Line. Across the mist covered fields I could hear bells ringing. I could not place the source until a melodic Azaan complimented the morning prayers of the pious Hindus with those of the Muslims. A reminder that Bulleh Shah’s couplets were still relevant on this no man’s land.
¹ Tear down the Mosque, tear down the temple/Tear down everything in sight/But don’t (tear down) break anyone’s heart/Because God lives there
² An estate owned by a wealthy Pakistani family.
³ The Punjabi king who faced Alexander at the battle of Hydaspes (Jhelum) in 326 B.C.
⁴ A type of cot commonly used throughout the Indian subcontinent.
Copyright © 2017 by S. S. Mausoof.
Read our interview with S. S. Mausoof here.