Place names change with time. For example the Roman township of Londonium on the Thames evolved into London. But other times, names mutate. And if the army carries out the mutation, it can be amusing.
Way out in Balochistan’s backyard where the border forms that great M with Iran, there is the sprawling village of Gwalisthap. In the vast sandy desert, smack on the barren shores of Hamun-i-Mashkel, the great saltpetre waste that takes your breath away, Gwalisthap with its couple of dozen homes is spread across more than 15 square kilometres. That is the way the Baloch prefer to live: with vast spaces between homes.
The first time ever I was there was in May 1987. I had ridden a battered pick-up truck from Nok Kundi, across the glittering, utterly sterile whiteness of the Hamun. At one point, we passed the prescription army ‘signpost’ that said, ‘G Stop.’ I wondered what G Stop was and, at that time, having been out of the army a mere nine years, I soon realised that this was the military rendering of Gwalisthap. Here’s how it happened.
The army habitually abbreviates words, titles, etc (even abbreviates abbreviations and DAA&QMG becomes DQ). They found the Baloch name Gwalisthap too long for their liking. Some smart aleck officer commanding the local militia wing did the needful by condensing the word. But we all know that it is us paindu Punjabis who cannot pronounce ‘stop’ and call it ‘sataap’. Therefore G Sthap was all wrong; far too paindu for the man who had it in his power to change things.
Smarty pants therefore decided to give the word the proper sound and mindless of the fact that it was not a Punjabi mispronunciation but a proper Baloch word that very likely held a historical tale, called it ‘G Stop’ on the signposts. And so it entered official militia paperwork as such. At Qila Ladgasht I ragged my friend Major Haider Abbas Rizvi, then commanding the wing, about this gross misdemeanour with a place name. Though he was not the culprit, Rizvi graciously acknowledged the fault and promised to change it back. Not to Gwalisthap, though, but to, G Sthap’!
I have no idea if the change ever took place.
Then there is a place called ‘Mudguard’ also in Balochistan. In the 1980s and until the end of the century, a sign stood bravely by telling all comers that this was ‘Levies Post, Mudguard.’ It is now gone, but in common Pashtun parlance the curious name persists. The place lies on the unpaved road from Harnai and Shahrig to Quetta. There once used to be a building very like a longhouse and an elongated concrete lip of what could only have been a railway platform. Nearby was a tunnel.
The longhouse was the Mud Gorge Railway Station on the old line that came north from Sibi via Khost and which was uprooted in 1942. It was given this name by British railway engineers because of the huge mud slides that followed every fall of rain. In fact, it was so bad; in jest they began to call it Mad Gorge.
In 1993 a jovial Kakar minding the levies’ station told me about the name. He said ‘captain sahib’ had ordered the sign. The captain was then, or shortly before, the assistant commissioner who controlled the levies force. Evidently ignorant of the historicity of Mud or even Mad Gorge, the captain only knew one word that sounded like the real one: Mudguard. And so Mudguard it has since been.
Today (my last visit was in February 2011) the road is being upgraded and the station demolished to make way for it. The sign is gone, only the curving platform and the name remain. Soon the platform will also be no more, but the name, entrenched as it is, will endure for evermore.
Many years hence, when peace again returns to this land and when the history of this railway line is all but forgotten, travellers along this road may pause here at the eatery managed by an enterprising Kakar. Some of them will surely remark on the peculiar sort of name for a place in Balochistan. Few will know the reality behind it.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2011.
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