When the British captured the Punjab in 1849, in one of those acts of greed and military prowess by which my ancestors so distinguished themselves in the subcontinent, they realised two things:
- In the summer the plains of the Punjab are insufferably hot.
- In the summer the hills of the Punjab are lush, green and comfortable.
They therefore decided to move their capital from Rawalpindi to Murree during the summer months. The entire British administration of the Punjab shifted into the hills for a summer of dancing, shopping, and gardening. I have a map of Murree from the 1920s which marks all of the cottages built there by the British, all of them given suitably English names: Dingley Dell, Strawberry Villa, Derbyshire House. It was as if the green hills and regular rainfall reminded them so strongly of England that they sought to recreate a second England here, far from home.
We are currently doing the same. At the moment we are living in a building that was originally constructed as a sanatorium for wounded British soldiers. An Irish missionary by the name of Miss Sandes built it as a way of keeping bored soldiers away from the opium dens, brothels and drinking establishments of India. It is a beautiful place of lush grass, trees, birds and butterflies. It had, I imagine, the same effect on the wounded soldiers of the Raj as it is having on us: soothing our souls, calming our stress, taking us away from the summer heat and into a place of coolness and comfort. Our children spend their days running through the grass, exploring the trees, finding lizards and ladybirds, gaping at the spectacular and varied birdlife that zooms overhead.
The soldiers of the Raj are long gone, and even their graves that dot the Murree hills are being eroded, worn away by the slow but incessant passage of time. Yet the buildings they left here are still being used to bless and refresh their distant compatriots, warriors in a different struggle, ambassadors of peace in a time of strife and fear.